Stewart Bell: Keeping tabs on terrorists

A new book on Canada’s role as a haven for international terrorism provides alarming details on how border and immigration authorities here have repeatedly slipped up and allowed known Middle Eastern and other terrorists to enter the country and even attain citizenship.

In his new book Cold Terror, author Stewart Bell documents how the country’s top leaders have long denied or ignored the presence of hundreds of terrorist operatives in Canada, despite repeated warnings from CSIS, the nation’s security and intelligence service.

Among various unrealized criminal schemes, Canadian-based terrorists have plotted to assassinate a visiting Israeli dignitary, bring down an El Al aircraft over Canadian airspace and bomb a Jewish neighborhood in Montreal. They have also helped organize suicide bombings in Israel, according to Bell.

“Over the years, the only organization that has really kept track of this issue and organized any effective lobbying to political leaders has been the Jewish community,” he said, in explaining why he chose to hold his book launch at a Toronto synagogue.

In his book, as in countless journalistic articles, the 38-year-old National Post reporter has probed diligently into the shadowy world and deeds of local representatives of various international terror organizations including Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda and other groups that specifically target Americans and Jews.

An expert in prying security-related secrets from Ottawa through freedom of information legislation, he has amassed what may be the largest private collection of classified intelligence documents in the country.

Even a writer at the rival Globe and Mail has called him “Canada’s leading reporter on national security and terrorism.”

“I hope his book is going to cause an earthquake among people and make them think,” said Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa. “He really brings the information home.”

One of the nefarious figures highlighted in Cold Terror is Fauzi Ayub, a Lebanese-born father of three from Toronto who was arrested in Israel two years ago for plotting terrorist attacks with Hezbollah. Although implicated in an assassination plot against the prime minister, Ayub was one of 28 prisoners released last January in exchange for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli servicemen.

“A lot of people don’t know that he’s a Canadian citizen,” Bell told JTA. “I’ve been trying to make contact with him — he’s still in Lebanon. I do know that he told Canadian consular officials that he was hoping to come back to Canada.”

As with Ayub, Canadian border officials failed to stop Mahmoud Mohammed Issa Mohammad from entering Canada in 1987. An accomplice to a lethal assault against an El Al aircraft in Athens in 1968, the former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has used one legal maneuvre after another to stave off deportation almost since his arrival.

“The Mohammad case is a great example of how our immigration system has fallen down on this issue,” Bell said. “It’s a farce.”

Cold Terror also spotlights Jamal Akkal a former university student from Windsor, Ont. arrested in Gaza last summer for Hamas-related activities. He was allegedly recruited to return to Canada and attack a visiting Israeli dignitary or Jews in Canada or the United States.

“He hasn’t been convicted yet, but it certainly is a signal that Hamas is expanding its campaign outside of the Middle East to attack what some consider the soft underbelly of Israel, which is the Jewish community worldwide,” Bell said.

The book also recounts the case of former Montreal resident Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian-born Al-Qaeda operative arrested by American border guards in 1999 while attempting to bring a carload of explosives into the United States. His intended target was the Los Angeles International Airport.
To Bell, the Ressam case illuminates the significant difference between the way Canadian and American officials have reacted to the presence of domestic terrorist operatives.

“CSIS was aware of him since 1995 and was surveilling him but they never put him out of business. On the other hand, the second he entered the United States, he was stopped, arrested and turned into a very good government informant.”

According to Bell, Canadian security officials have good intelligence-gathering mechanisms but until recently lacked effective legal tools to battle domestic terrorists. But recent counter-terrorism legislation will strengthen the government’s hand, provided the government develops the political will to act, he said.

Fund-raisers for terrorist groups have been able to raise millions of dollars here because most Canadians don’t realize where their money is going, Bell said.

“The primary targets are outside of Canada. We don’t see the final explosions, so we don’t come face to face with the violence.”

Having grown up in Vancouver, Bell said he was deeply affected by the Air India terrorist bombing of 1985, in which Canadian-based perpetrators blew up an aircraft carrying hundreds of people.

Although he had written about terrorism for years, he said he never fully grasped the subject until he walked through a building devastated by a Hamas suicide bomber two years ago in Israel. Viewing the bombed-out pool hall in Rishon Lezion where 16 people were killed and scores injured was a “profound experience” for him.

“Until I actually walked through that building, I don’t think I really got it,” he said.

“A guy with a green garbage bag was collecting pieces of people . . . . I remember thinking: how could someone walk into this crowded room filled with innocent people, look them in the face and just obliterate them?”

Click on ad for details

During one of several stints as a Middle Eastern foreign correspondent, the outspoken foe of Hezbollah also visited that organization’s headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. But he said he was not overly fearful the day he put himself into Hezbollah’s hands.

“You have to remember that terrorism is a psychological act as much as anything. Those that foster it are interested not only in the killing but in the message. So it’s surprising how open these organizations often are to meeting with journalists and explaining where they’re coming from. To an extent, I exploit their need to talk.”

But in Toronto, the award-winning reporter has received enough threats that his employer has put security precautions in place to protect him and his family.

“He sparks controversy among those who believe that anyone arrested on a terrorist charge has been wrongly accused,” said National Post managing editor Mark Stevenson. “There are a lot of people who don’t like what he does because he reports the news.”

But Bell’s articles also generate many phone calls and email letters from readers who appreciate what he’s doing and regard the issue of primary national concern, Stevenson added.

“He’s a good old-fashioned news reporter and investigative journalist. He gets it first and he gets it right.”

Cold Terror: How Canada Nurtures and Exports Terrorism Around the World was published in March 2004 by John Wiley & Sons Canada. ♦

© 2004