The Ticking Bomb
His bomb at Los Angeles International Airport could be part of a global concerto of millennial explosions. Other al-Qaida terrorists, he learned, were planning to blow up an American hotel and gun down Israeli and American tourists visiting holy sites in Jordan.
But where to turn? Of his five-man Algerian cell from the camps, he was the only trainee to make it back to Canada. The leader of the cell, an Algerian code-named Fodail, had been detained in Great Britain.
Ressam was going to have to put together a new team by himself.
He lined up three accomplices, all Algerian émigrés, all novices who had never gone through jihad training but wanted to: Abdelmajid Dahoumane, who had been Ressam's friend for much of his time in Montreal; Mokhtar Haouari, a credit-card thief; and Abdelghani Meskini, a con man who spoke English and loved American beer and Hollywood movies.
Haouari would provide money. Dahoumane would help make the bomb. And Meskini would help deliver it.
Ressam had never met Meskini, who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. He talked to him by phone and arranged to meet him in Seattle in December.
Meanwhile, Ressam brought the al-Qaida power structure up to speed on what he was planning. First, he called Abu Jaffar, an al-Qaida leader who had access to Osama bin Laden. Ressam asked Jaffar to get bin Laden's blessing for the upcoming airport bombing. Ressam planned to credit the bombing to bin Laden.
You will get money and documents, Doha promised the younger man. Do not worry.
Ressam was excited.
"After I'm through with America," he told a friend, "I'm going back to Algeria!"
As Ressam moved forward, French terrorist-tracker Jean-Louis Bruguière was pressing Canadian officials to find and stop him. But Ressam, as Benni Noris, continued to move inside Canada unimpeded.
On Nov. 17, 1999, Ressam and Dahoumane flew from Montreal to Vancouver, B.C. They rented a car, then scouted for a hideout to build bombs.
Two days later, they walked into the office of the 2400 Motel, a collection of modest, whitewashed bungalows on the southern outskirts of Vancouver. Ressam asked for a two-room cottage at the rear of the complex, far from the road. He registered as Benni Noris and paid $994 cash for two weeks.
The motel's housekeeper found it odd that the men rarely wanted their cottage cleaned. When she knocked, they insisted she just leave the clean linens and stay out of the back bedroom. They also left the windows open, unusual when temperatures dipped into the 30s at night. Sometimes, she smelled a noxious odor wafting from the room, sort of a sickening, overpowering cologne.
Next, they created the military-grade explosive found in C-4 plastique, this time using hexamine and red nitric acid. The process gave off highly toxic fumes. The men used zinc lozenges and Chloraseptic spray to dull pain in their throats, raw from the fumes.
As his deadline approached, Ressam found himself sick with what seemed to be the flu but was malaria. Some days, he could barely pull himself from bed.
He was supposed to slip into enemy territory, and scout out his route and target. His al-Qaida trainers had drilled these tactical precautions into him and his now-scattered cell.
As the work neared completion, Dahoumane returned to Montreal. The men thought that Ressam would draw less attention by crossing into America alone.
What they didn't know was that Customs officers are more likely, not less, to pull over a lone driver.
The Terrorist Within | Reprints
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