WASHINGTON, March 3 -- A U.S. government counter-terrorist expert told United Press International Friday that a Montreal-based terrorist cell of Saudi expatriate Osama bin Laden had planned to "bring down" the Seattle Space Needle in a bombing attack and mount additional attacks against Disneyland in late December 1999.
"We knew that the Space Needle and Disneyland were targets," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The plot fell apart when a courier from the ring, a 32-year old Algerian man, Ahmed Ressam, was stopped Dec. 14 by U.S. Customs officials at Port Angeles, about 60 miles northwest of Seattle after crossing the Canadian border. He was carrying more than 1,000 pounds of explosives and four timers similar to those that had been used in a 1994 Philippines-based plot allegedly aided by bin Laden to blow up 11 U.S. airliners simultaneously.
When asked if the bombers planned to blow up the Space Needle or target participants of Millennium eve celebrations in Seattle, the U.S. government official, an experienced counter terrorist analyst, responded: "They planned to bring (the Needle) down."
He also claimed that other shipments of explosives from Canada to locales in Washington state and California had escaped detection.
A former CIA official hotly rejected this claim: "That doesn't sound right," he said. "I don't think we saw any evidence of that." He also disputed the idea that the plan was to topple the Needle. "Rassam had enough explosives and timers for four, maybe five bombs," which probably would have been used in "an anti-personnel capacity" to cause "large-scale casualties, he said.
A former CIA analyst and State Department counter-terrorism official said that while the Space Needle had been a target of the cell, he believed that the likelihood of the plan's being successful in damaging it was "exceedingly slim."
The bin Laden group "had this grandiose plan," but to "make the thing come tumbling down" takes a lot of coordination, planning, and a skilled team," he said.
Bin Laden appears to have lacked that, he said. He described Rassam, the courier, who ran as U.S. Customs officials began to search his car, as "a complete knucklehead." Rassam gave himself away entirely, acting shifty, nervous and "even sweating profusely," the former CIA and State Department official said. He based his comments on contacts with law enforcement officials who were involved in Rassam's arrest and detention, he said.
Part of the failure of the plan was due to the "stinginess" of bin Laden's financial support for the operation, this source said. "We heard that part of the problem was that these guys were short on cash and causing a small crime wave in Canada, ranging from burglaries to armedrobbery to supplement the cell's funds."
"Bin Laden, in spite of all the talk about his wealth, doesn't like to spend his money. Look at the World Trade Center or the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in East Africa -- bin Laden's guys are always short on cash, living in fleabag hotels," the former CIA analyst said.
In Paris, in a trial headed by magistrate judge Michele Bernard-Requin, the accused ringleader of the Montreal network, Fateh Kamel, an Algerian-born Canadian citizen, denied that he was a network organizer or that he had supplied false documents to Islamic militants.
But according to published reports, Bernard-Requin disagreed. He said that Kamel's apartment in the Montral suburb of Anjou was a regular meeting place for bin Laden operatives, and named Kamel as a key coordinator for a vast support network of Islamic militants in Europe.
Bernard-Requin said that the Kamel apartment was used by bin Laden operatives in transit fro paramilitary camps in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The trial opened Feb. 7.
Ahmed Rassam is being tried in absentia at the same proceeding, according to U.S. officials.
The Montreal connection surfaced during the trial of Kamel and 23 others. In a report by the Parisian National Post, a Franco-Algerian named Laifa Khabou allegedly flew to Montreal four years ago to pick up black market passports and he stayed with Kamel before turning the passports over to militants who were involved in a plot fo kill the president of Turkey.
Another member of the Montreal ring, Mohamed Zaki Majoub, is being deported from Canada to Saudi Arabia, charged with entering Canada with a false passport and allegedly being engaged "in criminal activities" as a member of the Egyptian terrorist organization, The Vanguards of Conquest, that U.S. officials said has "known ties to bin Laden."
In Britain, partly in response to U.S. pressure, British police last month raided several houses in London and arrested 10 men, six of which have been charged with terrorism.
One of these was Mustafa Labsi, 31, an Algerian with direct links to the Montreal ring, U.S. officials said. According to press reports, Canadian documents show that Labsi rented an apartment where Rassam is believed to have stayed.
Labsi was charged with possessing electronic equipment, forged identity papers, fake credit cards, and computers. Ressam goes on trial on Los Angeles March 12.
The U.S. sources declined to name targets other than Disneyland and the Space Needle. But all said that, to the best of their knowledge, no bomb maker had been identified or apprehended.