An Arar spokesman said the Syrian-born Canadian has never been to Afghanistan and that the accusation is an anonymous smear by intelligence officials
Maher Arar has denied he is a member of al-Qaida
CREDIT: Tom Hanson, Canadian Press
OTTAWA -- Canadian and U.S. intelligence officials are "100-per-cent sure" that a Syrian-born Canadian who was imprisoned for a year in Damascus trained at the same al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan as a former Montrealer convicted of planning a terrorist attack.
American officials have long maintained that Maher Arar underwent training in Afghanistan, but this is the first time they have identified the site as the Khaldun camp. Canadian officials had made no claim about Arar's alleged activities in Afghanistan.
Arar has denied he is a member of the terrorist group al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden, and maintains he has never been to Afghanistan. He says he confessed to travelling to the country only after being tortured by Syrian intelligence officers. American officials deported him to Syria after arresting him during a stopover at New York's JFK airport.
Kerry Pither, a spokeswoman for the Arar family, accused the Canadian and U.S. intelligence communities of trying to smear Arar to avoid holding a public inquiry into Canada's role in his deportation and imprisonment in Syria.
"He has never been to Afghanistan. He has never been anywhere near Afghanistan and it's ludicrous that once again officials from the Canadian government and intelligence services are refusing to name themselves and giving information on him," she said.
"If they have something on Maher Arar, they should bring it out on the public. This is why we need a public inquiry."
The U.S. decision to deport Arar, who was carrying a Canadian passport at the time of his arrest in New York, raised concerns in Canada about U.S. treatment of Canadian citizens.
High-level sources in Canada and the U.S. who have had access to an extensive secret intelligence file on Arar say the 33-year-old Ottawa software engineer travelled to Pakistan in the early 1990s and then entered Afghanistan to train at the Khaldun Camp.
Bin Laden often visited the camp in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan where western recruits were allegedly schooled in the use of explosives and suicide attacks.
"This guy is not a virgin," said a senior Canadian intelligence source, speaking on background. "There is more than meets the eye here."
Officials say Prime Minister Paul Martin has been extensively briefed on Arar's activities abroad and in Canada, suggesting this is why the government backed off holding a full-scale public inquiry into his arrest and deportation to Syria by American authorities.
Martin has access to a "minute-by-minute, day-by-day" file on Arar including evidence that the RCMP -- while it shared information on Arar with the U.S. -- did not encourage the Americans to deport him to Syria in October 2002.
Officials say the RCMP had six officers at Montreal's Dorval Airport on Sept. 27, 2002, waiting for Arar's return from Tunisia through JFK Airport.
But U.S. authorities arrested him in New York and then shipped him to Syria, which had shared intelligence on al-Qaida operations with U.S. agencies, including suspected terrorist targets in Ottawa.
"If you have people at Montreal airport waiting for a guy to get off the plane, you certainly weren't in cahoots with the guys shipping him elsewhere and giving tacit approval. Otherwise, why would you have six guys at the airport?" a source said.
Canadian officials say the Americans made a mistake in deporting Arar, who was on an international terrorist watch list, rather than allow the RCMP to monitor his activities upon his return from Tunisia.
"The Americans made a hell of an error when they deported him to Syria. The better way to operate was to maintain the watch list," the source said.
Officials say U.S. agencies have an extensive dossier on him that raise serious questions.
"If the Americans were ever to declassify the stuff there would be some hair standing on end," the senior source said.
Khaldun camp is where Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian refugee claimant who lived in Montreal, trained. He was convicted of planning a terrorist attack after crossing into the U.S. from Canada with a car packed with explosives.
Other graduates of the camp bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and were part of the suicide team that drove truck bombs to two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, killing 224 people.
Abdurahman Khadr, a Canadian who was recently released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, also trained at the camp, although he said it was common for youths to do so under Afghanistan's Taliban regime and denied any connection to terrorists.
Khadr is the son of Egyptian-born Canadian Ahmed Said Khadr, who is wanted by the U.S. for his close ties to bin Laden. Another son, Omar, is still imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan.