Terrorist reveals why he picked LAX to bomb
By Phil Hirschkorn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Ahmed Ressam, testifying Thursday in the trial of a man alleged to have helped him in a plot to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), gave no indication that anyone besides him knew exactly what he was planning to do.
And on cross-examination, Ressam admitted several people in Canada provided aid and advice more crucial than what is charged against Mokhtar Haouari, the defendant in this trial.
Ressam, 34, is the government's star witness against Haouari, 32, a fellow Algerian accused of giving Ressam cash and fake identification he used in his attempt to sneak into the United States on December 14, 1999.
Ressam planned to set off the bomb around New Year's Day 2000, but he was arrested after fleeing a routine vehicle check at the end of his ferry crossing from Canada to Washington state.
Officials found 130 pounds of explosive chemicals and four homemade timing devices in the trunk of Ressam's rented car.
He agreed to cooperate with the government to reduce his prison sentence after his conviction in April.
Ressam had never spoken publicly about the plot until Tuesday. During Ressam's trial, the government never revealed LAX was the intended target, if indeed it knew.
Ressam said Tuesday he did not tell Haouari the purpose of his trip "for security reasons," instead telling him only that he had "very important and dangerous business" in the United States.
On Thursday, Ressam said Haouari gave him $3,000 Canadian and a fake driver's license before he flew from Montreal to Vancouver, where he and another conspirator assembled the bomb materials in a hotel room.
Ressam told the court he combined Haouari's cash with his own to buy airplane tickets, rent a car and a hotel room, and purchase chemicals.
Haouari offered to send to Seattle a friend who could help Ressam because he spoke good English and could drive. That friend, Abdel Ghani Meskini, testified last week, but Ressam kept him in the dark, too.
"Once I meet him there I will explain to him what the job is," Ressam said he told Haouari. Meskini made the trip, but no rendezvous took place because of Ressam's arrest.
Ressam, speaking through an Arabic interpreter, said after taking the ferry from Victoria, Canada, to Port Angeles, Washington, "they stopped me. They asked me, 'Where are you going to,' from what I understood. ... They said, 'Open the car,' and started searching. I ran."
Ressam said if he not been caught he would have packed the explosives into a suitcase and taken a train to Los Angeles. "It is a very long way and I was afraid of the impact and shock in the car," he said.
After the job, Ressam said, he would have returned to Montreal, where Haouari had made him a fake Algerian passport for his return home.
Ressam has said he met Haouari through mutual friends in Montreal after he immigrated there in 1994 and "lived on welfare and theft" -- at times with the defendant. They planned to open a grocery store to further a counterfeit credit card scheme.
Dan Ollen, Haouari's attorney, probed why Ressam turned to Haouari and his friend Meskini, a total stranger, for help in carrying out the bombing. "For me he is not unknown. He is a person Mokhtar trusts," Ressam said.
In his questioning, Ollen exposed that Ressam had consulted with closer friends, some trained in the ways of "jihad," in planning his plot.
Ressam said one unnamed friend gave him specific advice on the LAX attack -- wear a disguise, use only one explosive device, set the timer for 30 minutes after dropping the suitcase bomb -- and gave him $100 to buy timing device components.
That friend, who had participated in a 1992 bombing of the Algiers, Algeria, airport, according to Ressam, told him, "If you don't find someone to help you, it is better to do it yourself."
Ressam said another friend lent him $3,500 and knew he was going to "do a job in America," but did not know the details.
A third friend discussed with Ressam the idea of planting a bomb in a gas tanker to blow up "an Israeli interest" in Canada.
Ressam said Haouari expressed interest in the Islamic militant camps inside Afghanistan, where Ressam received weapons and explosives training in 1998. On cross-examination, Ressam confirmed trainees practiced using poison by administering cyanide to dogs.
Ressam said he left the camps with $12,000, a bomb-making notebook, and instructions to rob banks and "get the money to carry out an operation in America."
"We wanted to carry it out before the end of 1999," he said. He understood other cells would hit U.S. and Israeli targets as well as Europe and the Persian Gulf.
He said he chose LAX "because an airport is sensitive politically and economically" and the United States was "the biggest enemy" of Islam.
Ollen asked Ressam, who claimed he wanted to minimize civilian casualties, why he did not try to blow up an empty government building after work hours.
"That would require a lot of explosives, and an airport is more sensitive," he said. Ressam said he might have called in a bomb scare to airport security: "If I was able to, I would do that."
The camp Ressam said he was at in Afghanistan -- the Khaldan camp -- is the same one attended by Mohamed al-'Owhali, convicted in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Ressam said he discussed the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania with Haouari.
"It would have been preferable to carry it out in the country itself, inside America," Ressam recalled saying to Haouari. "He was in agreement."
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