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A special report by Hal Bernton, Mike Carter, David Heath and James Neff June 23 - July 7, 2002
Chapter 6:
It Takes a Thief

logo A deportation order made little impression on Ahmed Ressam, who supported himself by stealing from Canada's citizens and visitors.

MONTREAL, January 1995 — Although he had rarely attended services back in Bou Ismail, Ahmed Ressam found the Masjid as-Salam mosque here a good place to meet people.

He befriended both struggling immigrants like himself and successful, confident Muslims who had woven their way into the fabric of French-Canadian culture. Men such as Fateh Kamel, an Algerian who had married a Canadian and was a naturalized citizen.

Ressam was living in squalid conditions, sharing a small apartment with other Algerians who came and went. Their squat, brown-brick building, Place de la Malicorne, had threadbare carpets, broken locks and a swimming pool of green scum.

As he had in his homeland, Ressam still liked going to discos and nightclubs. And when he did, he liked to look good, favoring Armani and other expensive European suits. But his $550-a-month welfare payments would run out after 15 months.

Ahmed Ressam lived in squalid conditions, sharing a small, rundown apartment with several other Algerians at 6301 Place de la Malicorne in Montreal.
So like many of his new friends, he turned to crime. On Jan. 30, 1995, Ressam entered Eaton's, Montreal's oldest and largest downtown department store. He carried a shopping bag from La Baie, an upscale men's store, and was accompanied by a friend who wore a red winter coat that stood out like a beacon.

As they browsed among the $1,000 suits, a clerk placed a call to store detective Philippe Tete. Tete slipped into the men's department and saw two faces he had noticed before. As he watched surreptitiously, Ressam's accomplice pulled a gray Armani from an upper rack and moved it to a lower rung behind Ressam.

Tete recognized the move as "the bingo," a shoplifting routine. The accomplice rolled up the jacket and slipped it under his coat, pinning it to his trunk with his left arm. In a flash, he did the same with the pants.

Ressam and his friend calmly headed down the escalator toward a subway just outside Eaton's lower-level doors. As they stepped off the escalator, they looked around to see who might be watching them. At the top of the electric stairs, Tete was staring down.

Ressam's friend calmly ditched the suit in a cabinet, and the two sauntered outside. Ressam reached into his La Baie shopping bag and plucked price tags from a suit. He tore up the tags and scattered them along the sidewalk.

They were being tailed. Minutes later, police stopped them. In Ressam's bag, police found an Italian suit stolen from La Baie.

His empty-handed friend was released. Ressam was arrested and charged, done in by a department-store detective.

At his trial, Ressam tried to persuade the judge that the bag he was carrying belonged to his friend. The judge didn't buy it. He found Ressam guilty, fined him $100 and put him on probation for two years. He was ordered to leave Canada by July 23, 1995 — six weeks away. He filed an appeal to buy time.

Meanwhile, Ressam, with little more to lose, continued stealing. He stalked tourists, in particular — peeking over the shoulders of Japanese women at bank machines, snatching purses, lifting unattended suitcases at hotels. He stole cash, traveler's checks, credit cards and passports.

When he wasn't "working," he drank coffee with his friends and kicked a soccer ball around a park near his apartment.

Fateh Kamel
Fateh Kamel, standing, was a successful Canadian citizen, husband, father and terrorist, who saw potential in Ahmed Ressam.
When his deportation date came, Ressam simply didn't show up. And immigration officials didn't bother to track him down.

At the time, Canada had about 100,000 deportation orders, growing at a rate of 10,000 a year. Out of tens of thousands of illegal Algerians, only a few dozen each year were evicted.

Ressam was safe, at least for the time being. He not only remained in his host country, he continued to hone his skill in ripping off its citizens and visitors.

His reputation as a thief brought special attention from his new and prosperous friend, Fateh Kamel.

Kamel, 35, was a lean, handsome man. His wife worked for a suburban school system. Kamel owned a small store, but Ressam soon learned his new friend made a living as a documents procurer for Islamic terrorists.

Kamel was a true mujahedeen. He had fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

"I am never afraid of death," Kamel would brag. "And when I want it, no one will stop me. For the jihad is the jihad, and the killing is easy for me."

Ressam was intrigued. At the very least, Kamel paid him for whatever passports, credit cards and identity documents he could steal.

Dossier icon
documentRead sections of the al-Qaida terrorist training manual.
False documents are the life's blood of terrorism. Without them, operatives are unable to travel across international borders. Indeed, in an early chapter in al-Qaida's training manual — just after the chapters "beliefs" and "qualifications to join" — were pages devoted to the creation and use of fake identification.

Ressam successfully ripped off Montreal tourists at least 40 times, getting paid from $60 to $200 for stolen IDs.

In October 1996, Ressam and a roommate were arrested for pickpocketing $300 from a guest at a downtown Holiday Inn.

When he faced the sentencing judge, Ressam had a slew of strikes against him: Twice convicted as a thief. Illegal immigrant. Three months past a drop-dead deportation date.

The judge fined him $500, put him on probation for two years and set him free.

Ressam's family back in Bou Ismail, Algeria, knew none of this. He always was reassuring as the phone was passed from his father to his mother to his four brothers and two sisters.

"One day," he told them, "I will return."
<< Chapter 5 Chapter 7 >>

Philippe Tete
Department-store detective spotted shoplifting routine
Fateh Kamel
'I am never afraid of death'

Montreal, 1995

· Place de la Malicorne: Plas day lah Ma-LEE-corn
· Fateh Kamel: Fa-TEH Kah-MEL

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· See all words
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

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