Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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A threat greater than Y2K?

By Thomas Gorguissian

In the months leading up to the new millennium, anxieties have been centred mainly on the dreaded Y2K problem and possible computer failures here and abroad. Recently, however, the United States government declared that New Year's celebrations worldwide could be potential targets for international terrorist attacks.

On 11 December, the State Department cautioned Americans abroad to be on the alert and avoid large crowds and gatherings. However, following last week's arrest at the Canadian-US border of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian citizen who was caught carrying explosive materials in the trunk of his car, the government now maintains that American territory may also be targeted. As a result, the US Customs Service has put every port of entry on high alert.

US National Security Advisor Sandy Berger told reporters on Monday that while Ressam's background and plans were being thoroughly investigated, the administration does not believe that there are specific threats against domestic targets. However, federal officials expressed some concern that Ressam may be working for an international "terrorist" organisation. US officials mentioned that Ressam has ties to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and some intelligence sources believe that he may have links to Saudi businessman and militant leader Osama Bin Laden.

State Department spokesman James Foley told reporters that it was too early to confirm that Ressam was actually a member of a terrorist group, but FBI and CIA agents are currently engaged in a massive manhunt for possible accomplices, who may already be in the US or trying to enter.

Describing the contents of Ressam's rented Chrysler, authorities said that they found two 22-ounce jars of nitroglycerine, 10 plastic bags containing 110 pounds of urea (a substance used in making both fertilizers and explosives), two plastic bags containing 14 pounds of sulfate and four black boxes containing sophisticated timing devices made of circuit boards and Casio digital watches. It was reported that the use of Casio watches as bombing timers was pioneered by the alleged mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center explosion, Ramzi Ahmed Youssef. Officials also told NBC News that the chemicals found in the trunk were similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building explosion.

Ressam, a 32-year-old Algerian resident of Montreal, was travelling on a fake Canadian passport and two fake Canadian driver's licences. Ressam's arrest coincided with the Jordanian authorities' arrest of 13 suspects with ties to terrorist groups allegedly planning to attack American targets. Moreover, last Sunday, Pakistani officials arrested more than 200 people who were apparently planning to attack US citizens. These arrests in different parts of the world, two weeks before New Year's Eve, have led to increased speculation about supposed links between Bin Laden, and so-called Middle-Eastern terrorist groups.

As for Ressam, little information has emerged about his background to date. So far, he has declined to cooperate with US authorities. Meanwhile, Canadian federal agencies are providing US officials with data about the suspect, who lived in Canada until last week. It was reported that Ressam was initially accompanied by one Karim Said Atmani, who is believed to have fled back to Canada. According to the Canadian authorities, Atmani has already participated in several bombing attacks, including the 1996 Paris subway bombing.

Security analyst Vincent Cannistraro told ABC News that at least 50 terrorist groups are present in Canada, presumably because there are fewer legal restrictions than there are in the US. In view of increased security measures, the US Customs Service announced that it was adding 300 additional inspectors to various entry points, where some 460 million people enter the US each year.

At a ceremony in Washington last Monday honouring the four customs agents who apprehended Ressam, Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that the customs department is applying "additional resources to do additional contacts with the public coming through".

With the countdown to the New Year rolling, the apprehension about Y2K rumbling and few answers about Ressam's links and motives, 73 per cent of 1,100 Americans polled by ABC News said that they were not worried about any terrorist attack on New Year's eve. Washington, the capital of the nation, and New York in particular are preparing for big and exciting celebrations, which will be attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans and their guests.

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