A government review of the Ahmed Ressam investigation has concluded that weaknesses at the Passport Office allowed the Algerian terrorist to go undetected in Canada as he plotted a major bombing attack.
According to the "Top Secret" report, Ressam was able to evade scrutiny by intelligence agents while he built his bomb because passport officials mistakenly issued him a Canadian passport under a false name.
A heavily censored version of the 58-page study by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, dated June 6, 2003, was released to the National Post under the Access to Information Act.
The ease with which Ressam obtained a passport using a forged Quebec baptismal certificate first emerged at his Los Angeles trial. The study confirms speculation the passport was crucial to his success as a terrorist operative.
"Ressam successfully exploited weaknesses in the Canadian passport application process, enabling him fraudulently to obtain a genuine Canadian passport under a pseudonym, which enabled him to travel abroad and return to Canada undetected," it said.
"Ressam's Canadian passport also assisted him to establish himself as 'Benni Noris' after his return to Canada in 1999. Ressam's ability to operate exclusively under his 'Benni Noris' alias, matched with his own security awareness, contributed significantly to his ability to evade detection in Canada in 1999."
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the holes in the system had been plugged. Baptismal certificates are no longer accepted as proof of citizenship and passport offices now request more information and check its accuracy, said Reynald Doiron.
There were 456 investigations opened into apparent irregularities in passports in the 2001-2002 fiscal year, out of a total of 1.7 million passports issued, he said.
But an RCMP intelligence report said the issue of "identity theft" remains a concern. "While the motive for identity theft is rooted in fraud, the Ahmed Ressam case of December, 1999, demonstrated that it can also be used by extremists and terrorists with potentially disastrous consequences."
Canadian spies began watching Ressam in the mid-1990s, when he emerged as a minor member of a North African Islamic extremist group in Montreal, but they lost track of him after he left Canada in 1998.
Ressam forged a Quebec baptismal certificate and sent it to the government passport office with an application form. A few weeks later, the passport office gave him a genuine Canadian passport that identified him as Benni Noris.
He then travelled to Afghanistan to train at al-Qaeda camps and used the passport to re- enter Canada unnoticed in 1999. Ressam attracted no scrutiny from Canadian authorities as he purchased the components for a massive chemical bomb, which he assembled in a Vancouver motel room.
Authorities were unaware he had returned to Canada until he tried to cross from B.C. into Washington State on Dec. 14, 1999. A U.S. border guard searched his car, turning up what appeared to be green garbage bags full of drugs.
But the chemicals were actually high explosives, which Ressam intended to detonate at Los Angeles International Airport as part of a plot hatched at Osama bin Laden's Khaldun terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.
Several Canadian-based terrorists were trained at Khaldun Camp and this week, 20-year-old Abdurahman Khadr, who was recently released from Guantanamo Bay, admitted he had spent three months at the camp in 1998.
The review committee said it had found no evidence that "lack of vigilance" contributed to Ressam's exploits, and said co-operation between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and the FBI was "indicative of well-functioning liaison relationships."
A Los Angeles jury convicted Ressam of terrorism on April 6, 2001.
He is now co-operating with U.S. investigators in exchange for a lenient sentence.
The case highlights the need to monitor "Sunni-Islamic extremist circles," the study said.