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The Boston Globe
Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
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Terror ties to Canada highlight a US concern

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff, 6/13/2002

MONTREAL - Police agencies and intelligence services in North America and Europe are investigating whether Al Qaeda militants based in Canada plotted the April 11 bombing of an ancient synagogue in Tunisia, which killed 19 people in the worst terrorist strike attributed to followers of Osama bin Laden since Sept. 11.

The suspicion that Islamic radical Niser bin Muhammad Nasr Nawar planned the April 11 attack while based in Montreal adds fuel to the perception that Canada, despite new antiterrorist measures approved by Parliament under intense pressure from the United States, remains an important haven for bin Laden's operatives.

US suspect in bomb plot is tied to Florida mosque that drew extremists. A16.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police confirmed yesterday that ''at the request of a foreign government'' - believed to be France or Germany - it has mounted a fullscale probe into any Canadian connection to the attack. Most of the victims were German and French tourists visiting the synagogue, North Africa's oldest Jewish house of worship and an attraction on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. Nawar, a Tunisian, died in the blast.

The investigation takes place amid growing concern in Canada that the United States may take drastic action to secure the 4,000-mile border against terrorist threats. A study released this week by the C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto think tank, warned that the United States might seal the border and even deploy large numbers of troops along the northern border if US officials fear that national security is compromised by the deterioriating Canadian military - widely considered NATO's weakest link - as well as the country's generous immigration and refugee rules.

''Although terrorism poses a real threat, it is not the most serious crisis'' for Canada, said J.L. Granatstein, a prominent military historian and author of the report. ''The danger lies in wearing blinkers about the United States when it is in a vengeful, anxious mood. ... The United States is deadly serious about homeland defense. The Americans will act, alone if necessary.''

The United States has already deployed customs agents specially trained to detect explosives and nuclear and biological weapons to plug security gaps at Canada's three busiest seaports: Halifax, Montreal, and Vancouver. Ostensibly, the first-of-its-kind undertaking represents ''cross-border cooperation,'' but it also undercuts Canadian sovereignty in a way that would have been unthinkable prior to Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, US troops have been assigned to northern border posts, and American military helicopters now patrol what was once hailed as the longest undefended boundary in the world.

Canadian terrorism specialists say the United States has reason for concern. Although Canada's intelligence service has warned that at least 50 international terrorist groups - from Al Qaeda to Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers - operate in Montreal and other cities, Ottawa appears to have no overall counterterrorism strategy, possibly reflecting the view that terrorists pose little risk to Canada.

''Montreal has a large multiethnic population into which it is easy for North Africans and other Muslims to disappear, but the real attraction is its location right on the Great Satan's doorstep,'' said David Harris, former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and now head of a security consulting firm, Insignis Strategic Research.

''Until Canada deals with an out-of-control immigration and refugee situation, the situation will deteriorate,'' Harris said. ''We are heavily penetrated ... forcing [the United States] to take ever more defensive measures at the northern border.''

The bombing of Tunisia's Ghriba synagogue represented the deadliest attack attributed to Al Qaeda since Sept. 11. A statement Al Qaeda issued to Arabic newspapers called the blast ''reprisal for the refusal of Arab governments to launch holy war against the Jews'' and identified Nawar by his real name and a nom de guerre, Seif al-Din al-Tunsie.

European investigators have said that Nawar, identified by dental records, parked the tanker truck loaded with cooking gas, similar to one used by Al Qaeda against the US Embassy in Tanzania in 1998, and ignited explosives as an accomplice escaped.

European intelligence agencies are convinced that the attack was plotted outside Tunisia, and the heaviest suspicion falls on Al Qaeda operatives in Germany and Canada. According to a senior French counterterrorism official, speaking from Paris on condition of anonymity, Nawar made his way to Montreal in late 1999, possibly with help from the Tunisian Fighting Group, a violent faction believed to be loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda, and with followers in France, Germany, and Canada.

Canadian immigration officials say they have no record of Nawar living in Montreal. But Canadian officials admit they have lost track of scores of Tunisians who entered the country in 1999 and 2000 under fraudulent student visas. It is unclear whether Nawar was among them.

Last year, roughly 44,000 people claiming to be refugees arrived in Canada, often arriving with false passports or no paperwork at all. Most are automatically allowed to live freely in Canada and are given welfare benefits and a health card while their requests for asylum wend through the bureaucracy, a process that can take years. But refugee advocates say that for every undesirable alien who slips through, hundreds of deserving refugees benefit from Canada's liberal policies.

''Montreal has emerged as one of the four or five main Western hubs of Al Qaeda activity,'' said a senior French official. ''So many terror threads lead to or from Canada. The [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] seem concerned, but the indifference shown at higher political levels is alarming.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/13/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

[ Send this story to a friend | Easy-print version | Search archives ]