Ahmed Ressam was arrested last December at the U.S.-Canadian border with enough explosives hidden in the trunk of his rental car to blow up a small building--or a large monument. The capture of the 32-year-old Algerian raised fears of a vast terrorist conspiracy against targets inside the United States just as millennium celebrations were getting under way. Other arrests followed in Montreal, Vermont and Brooklyn, N.Y. Investigators pursued leads in Jordan and Pakistan. Some reports linked Ressam to Osama bin Laden, America's most-wanted terrorist, and to notorious guerrillas of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria. In all this, Ressam often has been portrayed by investigators as a small fish. But he is the one figure against whom there's solid evidence: the alleged bomb ingredients in his trunk.
Ressam's trial in Los Angeles this summer should reveal just how sinister a figure he really is. He's facing a battery of charges, including conspiring to bring explosives into the United States, conspiracy to destroy or damage property, carrying an explosive device in the commission of a felony and possession of an unregistered firearm. Ressam's lawyers have entered a plea of not guilty to the charges, which could bring as much as 40 years in prison. So who is Ahmed Ressam: hardened guerrilla or bumbling dupe? Last week, relatives in his hometown of Bou Ismail talked to NEWSWEEK about a lost and wayward son they had not seen in seven years, until he popped up on CNN as a suspected international terrorist.
What emerges is a portrait of a disillusioned young man from a poor town. Ressam was brought up on the war stories of his father and grandfather, who both fought for Algerian independence from France. As a teenager, Ressam was a would-be tough guy who was turned down when he tried to get jobs with the Algerian police and military security forces. Although he's now tagged as an Islamic radical, friends in Algeria say he stopped praying when he was in high school.
"We're a revolutionary family," says Kamel Ressam, Ahmed's closest brother and long-time confidant. But the revolution their parents took pride in was the one for independence that ended in 1963. When a new Islamic revolt began in the early 1990s, Ahmed's father wanted no part of it. Indeed, Belkacem, now 57, says he used a rifle the government gave him to hunt down rebels in the hills nearby. He cannot believe Ahmed might have taken up the rebels' cause.
Bou Ismail lies among wheat fields west of Algiers on the Mediterranean coast. Until recently, Ressam's father and mother ran a small cafe, but now both are "retired", which effectively means unemployed. Ahmed, born on May 19, 1967, was the eldest of their seven children. He loved math, and was the first in the family to get a modern education. By his teens Ahmed had become "a dandy," sporting Levi's and Stan Smith sneakers, says Kamel. Always intense, Ahmed developed an ulcer in 1984 at 16, and was sent to Paris for treatment. He devoured French books--banned at home--about military dictators crushing Algeria's hopes for freedom and democracy in the years after independence. "He started to change when he came back," says Kamel, "He didn't want to accept this country." Friends say he stopped praying. He argued bitterly with his elders about Algerian politics, which he believed was rife with corruption and injustice.
In 1987 Ahmed failed the exam that would have allowed him to go on to university. Shortly after, he made his bid to join the police or security forces. When that failed, the only thing left was his father's cafe. Falling back on the dole and TV, he became fascinated by shows about "unsolved" conspiracies like the Kennedy assassination, Kamel says. "He started to have a lot of trouble fitting in."
On Sept. 5, 1992, Ahmed Ressam abruptly left Algeria, bound for Marseilles. His family has not seen him since. Ressam wandered, making his way to Canada. There he lived with Said Atmani, an Algerian whose name has been linked to the Paris subway bombings of 1995 and 1996, which police suspect were carried out by GIA cells in Europe.Investigators believe that in 1998 or 1999, Ahmed traveled to Afghanistan to take part in terrorist "training camps" sponsored by bin Laden. Family members say they have no knowledge of such trips.
On Feb. 20, 1994, Ahmed arrived in Montreal with a fake French passport. He tried to get refugee status by claiming he was fleeing the Algerian military, which he insisted had branded him a terrorist (his asylum claim was later denied.) His family says he never had any such trouble with the military. During the next four years in Canada, Ressam was arrested several times for shoplifting and robbery. He sent small presents home. In 1996 he transferred about $1,000 to Kamel's bank account. On or about Dec. 4, 1999, Ahmed called home and chatted with his younger sisters, saying he would call again in a week or so. Ten days later he was arrested at the U.S. border with 118 pounds of high explosives in his car. A neighbor saw it on CNN and came to the Ressam's house. "He said he had some bad news," Kamel recalls. "My brother had been arrested in the United States. I started to tremble. I couldn't believe it." .
Officials are keeping Ressam under tight security, and his lawyers have instructed him not to talk. But he does seem to have taken up praying again; in prison he has requested a copy of the Koran. . Western diplomats in Algiers are convinced he had no tie to two GIA cells still operating in Algeria. Omar Chekikh, a founding member of the GIA who has accepted official amnesty, says, "Ressam was an unknown here. He has no link with the GIA." Outside experts believe Ressam was no worse than an accidental terrorist who drifted into the conspiracy. "He's an interchangeable piece in the Islamic movement," says Xavier Raufer of the Institut de Criminologie in Paris. "There are hundreds of people out there just like him." And that may be the most frightening thing about him.