Canada Imports Troubles With Refugees
By Howard Schneider
In the taxonomy of global terrorism, Canada might seem like a bit player, a middle power with no symbolic value as a target, no colonial past to inspire vengeance and few controversial entanglements in the world.
But on the streets of Toronto, an estimated several thousand members of the Tamil Tiger rebel group have taken temporary refuge from their rebellion against Sri Lanka, using Canada as a base to re-fund and regroup. In some neighborhoods, rival gangs, not directly linked to the Tigers but vicious nonetheless, have dueled in gun battles for control of the local turf.
In British Columbia, militant Sikhs press their cause for a separate state in India through local clashes with more moderate members of the religion and, in one notorious case, the 1985 bombing of an Air India jet bound from Canada to Asia.
Canadian security officials believe the radical Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah has an "infrastructure" in Canada to harbor terrorists from abroad and possibly plan future attacks. And since the 1960s, Jewish and other groups have monitored, and complained about, the relatively comfortable lives Nazi war criminals, convicted Palestinian terrorists and others have had in some of Canada's most innocuous, middle-class neighborhoods.
The country in modern times has opened its arms to the world, offering shelter to tens of thousands of refugees seeking protection under United Nations conventions, encouraging the immigration of skilled workers and investors, and transforming the nation's cities into a polyglot mosaic. But in doing so, Canada also has imported the political struggles of those refugee and immigrant groups, and, some security analysts feel, offered too passive a response.
"We need to wise up in more general terms about the growing nature of the threat," said Dave Harris, president of Insignis Strategic Research and the former director of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada's spy agency.
"It all adds up to expanding networks, and it is the network nature of what is going on that is alarming," Harris said, citing expatriate groups such as the Tamil Tigers trying to support a rebellion from abroad and organizations like Hezbollah that see Canada as a gateway to the rest of North America. "You have organized channels and movement and infrastructure, and we are seeing evidence of the expansion of these things with the use of Canada as a base."
Gathering intelligence on groups such as the Tigers or Hezbollah, or on individuals who might pose a security threat in Canada, falls primarily to CSIS. The agency says little publicly about its work, only that it coordinates closely with Immigration Canada. Harris points out, however, that the agency's budget has effectively been cut along with that of every other government department as Canada battles its deficit, and that CSIS's total staffing has fallen to 2,200 from an estimated 2,700 at a time when its mission has become more sophisticated.
There is certainly no shortage of work: Twice in the last few months, individuals from the Middle East surfaced in Canada who subsequently were linked to actual or planned bomb attacks aimed at Americans.
Hani Abdel Rahim Sayegh was deported to the United States from Ottawa to face charges associated with the bombing of an apartment building in Saudi Arabia a year ago that killed 19 American military personnel. He was seeking refugee status here but was arrested after U.S. and Saudi officials told Canadians about his possible involvement in the bombing and his membership in Hezbollah. He offered no counter-argument at his deportation hearing. In their case against him, Canadian officials contended that Hezbollah had an active organization in Canada, a belief they developed based in part on testimony from another accused member of the radical group. Mohammed Hussein Husseini was given refugee status in Canada in 1991 but later was deported to Lebanon after CSIS decided he was a security risk.
Last week, Gazi Ibrihim Abu Mezer, 23, was arrested in Brooklyn after police there were tipped off that he and a roommate were planning a bomb attack on the New York subway.
Abu Mezer had been living in Canada since 1993, when he won refugee status by arguing that, as a Palestinian, he had been persecuted in Israel, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). He was arrested in Washington state after his third attempt to enter the United States illegally across the lightly guarded border. Released on bond, he was in the midst of deportation proceedings when police descended on his Brooklyn apartment.
U.S. officials are not yet alleging the same kind of connection with a terrorist group in Abu Mezer's case that they are with Sayegh. And New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has criticized the INS, contending that the agency shares responsibility for releasing Abu Mezer on bond and then not keeping track of him until he was deported as scheduled on Aug. 23. There were five bombs, apparently rigged for a suicide attack, in his apartment when police arrested him.
But in some ways, Abu Mezer's case illustrates even better the vulnerabilities of each country's immigration system.
Back home, Abu Mezer had done little more than throw rocks along with other youths during the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada hardly the mark of a suicide bomber and little reason for Canadian immigration officials to consider him a security threat. Likewise, the INS gave him the due process rights expected in a democratic country; he was freed on bond when there was no apparent evidence of the violent, anti-U.S. sentiment subsequently found in pamphlets strewed around Abu Mezer's apartment.
Canadian immigration spokesman Benoit Chiquette said that whenever concern over terrorist activity in North America is raised, it must be counterbalanced with concern over the civil liberties and rights that make Canada attractive to the vast majority of immigrants who are law-abiding. Politics alone does not make a person dangerous, he said, a basic principle upheld in the Canadian courts.
"We live in a democratic society where we have chosen to have freedom of movement," said Chiquette. "With the huge movement of people, it would be impossible to assure that we would never allow [in] someone inadmissible."
Canadian law enforcement officials know all too well the repercussions of a mistake. In 1985, Air India Flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland, en route from Toronto to India. The explosion killed all 329 people aboard, most of them Canadians. The chief suspects were members of a Sikh separatist group based in British Columbia. One of the central suspects was killed in a gun battle with Indian police several years ago, but Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigators are still trying to develop evidence so others can be charged.
In another recent case, the Mounted Police had to charge one of its own after it was discovered that a man hired to translate documents, Kumaravelu Vignarajah, was a commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a paramilitary group Canada considers a "terrorist organization." He was also, apparently, a spy for the Sri Lankan intelligence service. Vignarajah, one of an estimated several thousand possible Tiger guerrillas in the Toronto area, had been given refugee status in 1989; when the Mounted Police searched his home, they found stolen police electronic equipment and transcripts of cases he had worked on.
Vignarajah ultimately pleaded guilty to the thefts; a Mounted Police spokesperson said that no investigations had been compromised.
In such cases, CSIS and other Canadian officials note, the country is swift to move and has shown its willingness, as it did with Sayegh, to invoke national security and deport people considered to pose a terrorist threat.
More ambiguous, say such activists as Canadian Jewish Congress director Bernie Farber, has been the response to people who have done wrong abroad but seem to pose little threat to Canada itself. In a country that prides itself on diversity, the risk of offending any particular nationality, when there is no imminent danger to Canadians, can weigh heavily. For example, the country has only begun investigating a handful of cases, despite the likely presence in Canada of at least several dozen, and perhaps several hundred, former Nazis, including some who fled from the United States as a result of investigations there.
Others also have been able to stay in Canada far too long, Farber contends. Mahmoud Mohammad Issa Mohammad was convicted in Greece in the late 1960s for the bombing of an El Al plane, an act carried out under the banner of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Released from a Greek prison in a hostage exchange, he eventually was allowed to immigrate to Canada.
A political uproar ensued, and Canadian officials decided to move to deport him. That was 10 years ago. His case is still in the courts, and, Farber said, his presence in the country supports an image of Canada as a place where "war criminals and terrorists look . . . to rest their bones."
"Unless they can bring past criminals who abuse our immigration system to justice," he said, "today's criminals will look to Canada. . . . What we have said in the past is bearing unfortunate fruit."
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