BOSTON AND WASHINGTON — Canada has been a fierce ally, top trading partner, and America's closest friend for more than a century. But it may be something else, too - a haven for terrorists.
Canadian and US terrorism experts alike say the giant, genial nation - known for its crimson-clad Mounties and great comedians - has also become an entry point and staging ground for Osama bin Laden's terrorist "sleeper cells," as well as for other terrorist groups.
As many as five of the 19 men who attacked America with hijacked aircraft had sneaked over the 3,987-mile border from Canada, according to reports last week. Canadian officials deny the link, and an FBI spokesman refused to comment.
But intelligence experts say they would not be surprised if that turns out to be the case. Canada's lax immigration and refugee laws make it easy for extremists to set up shop north of the border, say Canadians and Americans who have studied the issue.
"We have an 'alphabet soup' of terrorist organizations in Canada," says Wesley Wark, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto. "There are Sikh terror groups in Vancouver, Tamil Tigers in Toronto, and a variety like bin Laden's Al Qaeda, Hizbullah, and Hamas in both Toronto and Montreal."
As long ago as 1998, Canada's top intelligence official bluntly warned Parliament that his service was investigating 50 terrorist organizations and about 350 individuals - numbers that no doubt have grown since then, analysts say.
So even as 100,000 Canadians sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a memorial last week, somewhere in a secret Ottawa command bunker, Canadian and US intelligence officials were said to be poring over options for dealing with terrorist threats on Canadian soil - a threat Canadians are slowly recognizing.
The long, relatively open border with the US means that those threats are US threats, as well. "The Canadian border is open, and a lot of people who are potentially very serious security risks to the United States are coming across," says Yossef Bodansky, director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.
Canada's weak antiterrorism laws mean intelligence officials and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are often stymied. Also, several of Canada's ethnic groups conduct fundraising for extremist activities abroad. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, for instance, are among Canada's top fundraising groups.
A bill now before Parliament attempts to address this problem by taking away tax-deductibility of such contributions. To US observers, this falls far short.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism chief, says law-enforcement sources told him last week that five of the hijackers had slipped across the border. "Three going to Bangor, two to Jackman, Maine, then getting on flights to Boston," he says, although his information is now several days old.
If, indeed, the hijackers came from Canada, they might have melted into Montreal's 100,000-strong Arab community. At least two of the hijackers are thought to have been French-speaking Algerians.
The trial of Ahmed Ressam earlier this year is just one indication of the threat posed by a porous northern border. A Montreal-based Algerian, Mr. Ressam was caught in December 1999 crossing the border in Port Angeles, Wash., with 130 pounds of explosives stashed in the trunk of his car. His goal: to set off a bomb in the Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium travel period. He was admitted into Canada under a false passport in 1994, and slipped in and out of the country in 1998 to attend a bin Laden training camp. Ressam was convicted April 6, but his case delivered a clear warning, analysts say.
It was "very clear evidence of the intent of international Islamist networks to hit the United States on its own soil," said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's leading antiterrorist expert, in a public statement to Le Figaro last week.
In fact, Canada's unwitting role as terrorist magnet is growing, said Ward Elcock, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the nation's top spy agency, in a 1998 speech to Parliament. "With perhaps the singular exception of the United States, there are more international terrorist groups active [in Canada] than any other country," he said.
This week, David Harris, former chief of strategic planning for CSIS, echoed that view. "The number and penetration of these groups has only increased into Canada in the years since [Mr.] Elcock's report," he says.
A CSIS report last year says terrorism in Canada is quickly evolving from fundraising "to actually planning and preparing terrorist acts from Canadian territory."
But Serge Menard, Quebec's public-security minister, denied last week that Montreal's large Arab community is pulsing with terrorist activity.
Still, some Canadian officials seem to be grasping the notion that change is probably in order. But they face stiff political opposition from ethno-cultural groups that benefit from current laws.
US Ambassador to Canada Paul Celluci has hinted that a "harmonizing" of immigration laws between the two countries would be a good thing - a step that would require Canada to toughen its requirements. Other American officials say it is imperative that Canada tighten its refugee and immigration laws, and they suggest that the US may use its economic clout or other measures to push Canada in that direction. For instance, trucks filled with Canadian goods that sailed through US border checkpoints last Monday are already, a week later, lined up for miles at many of the 114 ports of entry along the huge, undefended border.
Indeed, it will be tougher for Canadians to enter the US if Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas has his way. He is calling for strengthening border security, monitoring student visas, and making it easier to gather evidence on suspected terrorists.
After the Ressam case last year, Representative Smith chaired a hearing on terrorist threats that focused on Canada's immigration and refugee laws. But the rest of Congress largely ignored the committee findings. Not anymore. "Since the attack, two or three colleagues have stopped me to say, 'Lamar, I've opposed you in the past, but we've got to do something now,' " he says. "We've got to change our laws."
Canada takes in nearly 300,000 immigrants annually. Hidden within that influx are a few terrorists. But unlike other major industrial nations, Canada does not detain refugee claimants, even those with questionable backgrounds. One result: As many as 10,000 refugee claimants disappear each year into Canada's ethnic communities.
One of those was Ressam.