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A special report by Hal Bernton, Mike Carter, David Heath and James Neff · June 23 - July 7, 2002

FEDERAL DETENTION CENTER, SeaTac — Ahmed Ressam spends his days in a concrete cell half the size of a parking space.

He wears a loose, orange prison jumper. His cell has a bed, sink, toilet, shower and small desk. He cannot watch television or listen to a radio.

Five times a day, he faces Mecca, kneels and prays to Allah.

Ressam testifies
Ahmed Ressam, right, testifies at the trial of Mokhtar Hauoari, bottom-left, as U.S. District Judge John Keenan looks on.
Once a day, he is let out of his cell for exactly one hour and is taken to an empty exercise room. There, he mostly walks in circles.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Ressam's solitude has been broken by a stream of visitors, often FBI agents such as Fred Humphries, but also investigators from Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

With federal public defender Jo Ann Oliver at his side, he is told names and shown photographs of suspected terrorists and asked if he knows them.

On several occasions, Ressam has been flown to New York City for similar questioning. There, he is held in a detention center just blocks from Ground Zero.

Ressam did not recognize any of the 19 suicide hijackers from Sept. 11. But he was able to identify student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui of Minneapolis, now in U.S. custody, as a trainee from Osama bin Laden's Khalden camp.

Ressam informed on Abu Doha, a London-based Algerian who was the brains and money behind Ressam's Los Angeles airport plot. He identified Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran the Khalden camp, and Abu Sulieman, who taught bomb-making at the Darunta camp.

Most importantly, Ressam named the previously little-known Abu Zubaydah as a top aide to bin Laden. That helped smash the notion that Zubaydah, also now in U.S. custody, was little more than a travel agent for terrorist wannabes making their way to the al-Qaida camps.

Ressam is expected to testify at the trials of these and other suspected terrorists.

So it is that Ahmed Ressam — the boy who loved to fish in the Mediterranean, the teenager who loved to dance at discothèques, the young man who tried and failed to get into college, who connected with fanatical Muslims in Montreal, who learned to kill in bin Laden's camps, who plotted to massacre American citizens — has become one of the U.S. government's most valuable weapons in the war against terror.

Ressam, 35, hopes his post-Sept. 11 cooperation will trim his proposed 27-year sentence.

His family in Algeria wonders if they will ever see him again. When Ressam telephones them in Bou Ismail, he tells them: "Everything is fine."

Belkacem Ressam, his father, says none of these troubles would have befallen Ahmed if only he had had "proper papers, a job and a wife."

The leaders of the war on terror know there are other Ahmed Ressams out there — frustrated, angry, powerless young men, vulnerable to those who know how to tap the terrorist within.

"Right now as we speak," says Michael Sheehan, the former chief of counterterrorism for the State Department, "I'll bet there are 99 cells, groups of guys, sitting around coffee shops in America, plotting this kind of stuff.

"Most of the time, it goes nowhere. Sometimes, though, these groups will reach out and find someone who is looking for someone like them as well. Then it gets bad."
<< Chapter 17 About this series >>

Chapter 1: Past as Prologue
Chapter 2: The Fountainhead
Chapter 3: Leaving Home
Chapter 4: Sneaking In
Chapter 5: The Terrorist Tracker
Chapter 6: It Takes a Thief
Chapter 7: Joining Jihad
Chapter 8: Going to Camp
Chapter 9: 'A Bunch of Guys'
Chapter 10: The Mission
Chapter 11: The Ticking Bomb
Chapter 12: The Crossing
Chapter 13: On the Case
Chapter 14: The Warning
Chapter 15: Puzzle Pieces
Chapter 16: The Reckoning
Chapter 17: Nine-Eleven

See About this series for source list, credits and reprints.

Understanding the Conflict
Two Peoples, One Land

The Terrorist Within | Reprints home

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