Saudi Case Casting a Light on How Militants Infiltrate and Exploit Canada
May 4, 1997
By ANTHONY DEPALMA
The recent arrest of a Saudi man linked to a deadly attack against Americans in the Middle East last year has provided a glimpse, officials say, of how a largely hidden network of militant groups uses Canada to raise money, recruit members, provide refuge and plan attacks.
While most details are kept secret, court papers, official reports and transcripts of interviews with another man accused of terrorism and deported three years ago reveal the surprising degree to which officials believe the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah, or Party of God, has established a presence in Canada.
Canadian officials believe that Canada's comparatively open borders and generous refugee policies make it easy for suspected terrorists to enter, whether they are trying to hide out or to find an easy way into the United States.
The Saudi man, Hani Abdel Rahim al-Sayegh, is to appear before a federal judge in Ottawa on Monday to answer charges that he is a threat to national security and therefore should be deported. He is accused of belonging to Hezbollah and of taking part last June in the bombing of a military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 Americans.
Court papers indicate that intelligence officers believe that Hezbollah members in Canada helped Mr. Sayegh to find safe haven in Canada last August. Much of what Canada knows about the bombing comes from Saudi and American sources.
But Canada had gained important information about the workings of Hezbollah in Canada from a man accused of working for Hezbollah's security apparatus who was deported in 1994.
"Hezbollah has members in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, all of Canada," said the man, Mohammed Hussein al-Husseini, in a 1993 interview with agents of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Mr. Husseini offered details of how Hezbollah conducts surveillance of important buildings in Canada, like the regional headquarters of the intelligence service.
"If Hezbollah decided to get this building, it would get it," Mr. Husseini told Canadian agents during his interrogation at the service's Montreal headquarters, according to transcripts provided by a Canadian court. "I mean, it really would."
In papers presented to the court, the intelligence service stated that it believed Hezbollah was prepared to order Mr. Husseini to "commit an act of terrorism or violence in Canada or elsewhere," and that if it had done so, he would have complied.
The arrest in March of Mr. Sayegh and the accusation that he is connected to Hezbollah's operations in Canada have reopened a sensitive debate here that pits national security against the concerns of a multicultural society. During the Persian Gulf war, for instance, the Canadian Intelligence service was widely criticized for conducting interviews in Arab neighborhoods, where residents felt unjustly singled out because of their backgrounds.
"The situation in Canada is somewhat confused by the multicultural aspect of Canada," said David Harris, former chief of strategic planning at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and now a political risk analyst. While the United States, France and other countries with big ethnic populations also have trouble pursuing suspected terrorists without stereotyping minority groups, Canadians are particularly sensitive about offending immigrants.
But Mr. Harris said it would be shortsighted to let that sensitivity get in the way of national security. "The very fact that you've got a group of people here with the track record for violence that Hezbollah has should be of grave concern to Canadians," he said.
Senior United States officials said that at least one Hezbollah cell was in Canada in 1993, six months before the first interviews with Mr. Husseini in Montreal. The American officials said at the time that the Canadian arm of Hezbollah provided planning and logistical support for terrorist attacks, perhaps in North America.
Although the Canadian intelligence service will not discuss its investigations, the agency gave its view of the scope of terrorist activities in Canada in its annual accounting to Parliament this month.
"Many of the world's terrorist groups have a presence in Canada," the intelligence service said in the report, filed April 23.
The intelligence service said it believed that the militant groups use Canada for fund raising, safe haven, and recruiting Canadian citizens in ethnic communities. They also provide "logistical support for terrorism outside Canada," and are developing the potential for "terrorist actions in Canada," according to the report.
The interviews with Mr. Husseini help illustrate how Hezbollah is believed to operate in Canada, officials say. He spoke to agents three times, and although he is not openly accused of a specific terrorist act, it is clear from the transcript the agents suspect him of having taken part in the hijacking of a Kuwaiti jet in 1988.
Mr. Husseini told the agents that Hezbollah comprises "a military, organizational and popular apparatus," and goes on to say that
"orders for these three units come from Iran, but final approval is obtained from Hassan Nasrallah and Sayid Fadlallah," the political and religious leaders of Hezbollah. He said the units were involved in "security activities, that is, hostage taking," and he added, "hostage taking and explosives."
He gave agents the names of people in Montreal and in Ottawa who he said were Hezbollah members. He said Hezbollah had a security service that can "gather information even on its own members, who are scattered all over the world." Hezbollah is capable of conducting detailed surveillance in Canada, he said, and films have been sent back to Lebanon "because Hezbollah wants to collect information on Canada, on life in Canada, its roads and so on, in case there's a problem with Canada."
In later interviews, Mr. Husseini retracted some of his assertions about Hezbollah. But the Canadian court found that the level of detail he had on international terrorist operations made it clear he was closely involved and had retracted his story only when he realized that the security agents he talked to would not make a deal to help him stay in Canada.
Subsequently, some question has been raised about Mr. Husseini's reliability.
But when questioned about Mr. Husseini, a spokesman for the Canadian intelligence service, Gaetan Blais, said that much more information than the three interviews conducted in Montreal had been gathered to support the suspicion that he was a terrorist. Such information is often kept secret, he said, to aid continuing investigations.
Mr. Husseini was deported in 1994, when three security agents put him on board a flight to Beirut, Lebanon.
While Canada has not been a target of Middle Eastern militants, it has not been entirely spared the horror of terrorist attacks. In 1985, 329 passengers died when an Air India flight from Toronto exploded off the coast of Ireland. A Turkish military attache was assassinated in Ottawa in 1982, and in 1995 the Montreal office of the Canadian Jewish Congress received telephoned threats from groups identifying themselves as Islamic radicals.
In the case of Mr. Sayegh, Canadian officials believe he is a member of the Saudi Hezbollah who took part in delivering a huge truck bomb that blew the face off an apartment building in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, last June, killing 19 American servicemen and wounding hundreds of people.
Mr. Sayegh arrived in Canada, by way of Rome and Boston, last August and lived in Ottawa. He was kept under surveillance for several months before being arrested in March.
A court hearing scheduled to begin Monday will determine whether Canada can deport Mr. Sayegh on the grounds that he took part in the Dhahran bombing and is a threat to national security.
He says he had nothing to do with the bombing because he was in Iran on the day of the blast. He says he studied in Iran for four years, and that he belongs to a group of dissidents in Saudi Arabia that included two men accused of taking part in the bombing.
Mr. Sayegh's lawyer said that accusations that Mr. Sayegh was heard on wiretaps speaking with the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa mean only that he could have been helping a friend get a visa.
If Mr. Sayegh is deported, it is not clear whether Canada will send him back to the United States, which wants to question him and perhaps put him on trial for the bombing.
But United States officials have recently expressed concern that they may not have enough evidence to convict Mr. Sayegh in a criminal trial, where standards of evidence are higher than for the immigration charges facing him in Canada.
His lawyer, Douglas M. Baum of Ottawa, suggested that the evidence linking his client to the bombing appears to have come from Saudi officials who may have gotten it through torture or other means that would limit its use in an American court.
Source: The New York Times