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Terrorists eyed Ottawa targets: report

Terrorists eyed Ottawa targets: report

Author: Jim Bronskill
Publication: Canadian Press
Date: February 8, 2004
URL: http://www.canada.com/ottawa/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=1cca004a-745c-45f0-bf98-8be512d670e6

South American-based terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden allegedly plotted an attack on Jewish targets in Ottawa in an effort to undermine Middle East peace talks.

The plan to assault unspecified landmarks in the Canadian capital, as well as cities in Argentina and Paraguay, was thwarted by authorities in December 1999, says a new U.S. Library of Congress report.

The study also details how Hezbollah operatives active in South America have funnelled large sums of money through Canada in recent years to finance operations in the Middle East.

The findings are among the latest to suggest Canada has become not only a staging ground for international extremists but also a potential target for attacks.

The report, Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America, was completed last July by the congressional library's federal research division under an agreement with the Director of Central Intelligence Crime and Narcotics Center.

The centre, staffed by members of the U.S. intelligence community, reviews and analyses information about illegal drug trafficking for American leaders and law enforcement agencies.

The report, drawing on an extensive range of open sources, concludes various Islamic terrorist groups have used the tri-border area - where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet - for fundraising, recruiting and plotting terrorist attacks in the region and elsewhere in the Americas.

It says the tri-border area's terrorist and organized crime activities are assisted by corruption of local officials. The region features one of the most important Arab communities in South America, numbering as many as 30,000.

Suspected Hezbollah terrorists used the area as a base for carrying out two major assaults in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, one against the Israeli Embassy in March 1992, the other against a Jewish community centre in July 1994, the study notes.

"Since the 1994 attack, Islamic terrorists in the TBA have largely confined their activities to criminal fundraising and other activities in support of their terrorist organizations, including plotting terrorist actions to be carried out in other countries," says the study.

Bin Laden's al-Qaida network has reportedly had "an interest and a presence" in the region since the mid-1990s, although some are skeptical of that claim. Both bin Laden and al-Qaida lieutenant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are said to have visited Brazil in 1995.

By mid-1999, Argentina's Secretariat for State Intelligence was investigating Islamic extremist groups in the tri-border area allegedly operating under bin Laden's orders, the study says.

Agents began taping telephone calls to the Middle East by extremists in Ciudad del Este, the second largest city in Paraguay, and Foz do Iguacu, Brazil. They also secretly filmed meetings of the Shi'ite and minority Sunni groups of the area's Muslim community.

Co-ordinated police raids in the region's three principal cities on Dec. 22, 1999, reportedly thwarted a plot by terrorists under the control of bin Laden and Hezbollah leader Imad Mouniagh to ``stage simultaneous attacks on Jewish targets'' in Buenos Aires, Ciudad del Este and Ottawa ``in an attempt to undermine the Middle East peace process,'' the report says.

It provides no details about the suspected plots, which were noted in the Paraguayan media at the time but garnered little attention elsewhere, coming almost two years before the eye-opening attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Individuals rounded up in the raids but later released included "operatives of Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as a suspected Iranian intelligence agent."

Senior members allegedly involved were Hezbollah's Assad Ahmad Barakat and Mohamed Ali Aboul-Ezz Al-Mahdi Ibrahim Soliman of the Egyptian extremist group Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya - the latter group reputedly linked to bin Laden's al-Qaida.

Both men apparently fled and were later arrested in connection with other events.

Police foiled the alleged plot to attack Ottawa and other cities just eight days after the arrest of Ahmed Ressam of Montreal, caught trying to sneak explosives from British Columbia into the United States. Ressam, the would-be "millennium bomber," was convicted of plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.

In September 2001, a Paraguayan SWAT team raided a Ciudad del Este shop run by Barakat, seizing material including training courses for suicide bombers and financial statements totalling $250,000 in monthly transfers to the Middle East.

A Paraguayan prosecutor accused Barakat and Saleh of sending money to terrorist bank accounts in various countries.

"Specifically, they sent half a million dollars to Canada, Chile and the United States (New York), and bank drafts of $524,000 US to Lebanon," the report says.

"Paraguayan police found a letter from the Hezbollah commander congratulating Barakat for financing activities in the Middle East."

In February 2000, Paraguayan authorities arrested Ali Khalil Mehri, considered one of the principal Hezbollah fundraisers in the region. Among the items seized in a raid on his apartment were records of money transfers to Canada, Chile, Lebanon and the United States of more than $700,000 US.

Mehri was charged with funnelling the proceeds of counterfeit software to Hezbollah, but escaped from prison and fled to Syria.

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