EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series marking the a 10th anniversary of the arrest of terrorist Ahmed Ressam in Port Angeles.
PORT ANGELES – A decade has passed since U.S. Customs inspectors at this city’s international ferry landing made what then Customs chief Ray Kelly called the biggest arrest in the agency’s history.
The capture of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian-born, Al Qaida-trained terrorist carrying explosives and bound for Los Angeles International Airport, is still fresh in the minds of those who helped stop his plans.
On Dec. 14, 1999, Customs officers detained, ran down after he escaped, then arrested the 32-year-old Ressam after he disembarked the MV Coho ferry from Victoria.
They later learned that Ressam was bent on killing and maiming as many Americans as possible by blowing up a passenger terminal at LAX.
The explosive components for what prosecutors said could have been suitcase bombs — including four timers — were hidden in the trunk of his rented luxury Chrysler.
Ressam later testified that the urea fertilizer and other chemicals hidden in the wheel-well were so volatile that he had planned to take the Amtrak to Los Angeles rather than risk driving there.
After his historic arrest, full-time Customs Inspectors Diana Dean and Mark Johnson, and then-part-time Inspectors Mike Chapman – who is now a Clallam County commissioner — and Dan Clem received exceptional service medals for their efforts.
In bestowing the award on Chapman, Kelly said Ressam’s arrest was the most significant ever made by his department, Chapman said.
Kelly, now commissioner of the New York City Police Department, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But legal experts backed Kelly’s superlative, saying the incident in Port Angeles marked the first time a terrorist had entered the United States with explosives and a plan to inflict indiscriminate harm on American citizens, the New York Times said.
“Once we realized what he had, we realized it was enormous,” Dean said.
At the time, the upcoming Millennium celebration and Y2K fears had created a heightened state of alert, said then Customs Inspector Steve Campbell, shift supervisor at the time.
He had recently received pictures of eight or 10 suspected terrorists to watch out for at the crossing — though Ressam wasn’t among them.
Ressam’s was the last car in line at about 5:30 p.m. when then-Customs Inspector Diana Dean became suspicious of his demeanor, wondering why he was hesitant to answer questions and questioning the roundabout route Ressam said he was taking — from Vancouver to Victoria to Port Angeles to Seattle.
Ressam — who carried a Canadian passport and Costco card, both with the fake name of Benni Antoine Noris, for identification — was nervous and sweating. According to a report in TheSeattle Times, Ressam was believed to have Malaria.
“There were just red flags all around him,” said Dean, whose suspicions began the chain of events that led to his arrest.
Dean questioned him further about his destination, and Ressam got out of his car for further questioning.
Ressam’s trunk was opened. Clem and Chapman found what looked like pickle jars, pill bottles, timers and 10 garbage bags filled with a white, powdery substance insulating the items.
“I thought it was a big bag of dope,” Clem recalled.
Instead, it was 118 pounds of urea fertilizer — the same explosive component used by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh — and several pounds of sulfate powder.
Also in the trunk were four timing devices and two small pill bottles.
The bottles contained hexamethylene triperoxide diamine — or HMTD — a crude primary explosive used in suicide bombings, and RDX– or cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, also known as cyclonite or hexogen — an explosive used in military and industrial applications.
There were also two olive jars of ethylene glycol dinitrate — or EGDN — an oily, explosive liquid similar to nitroglycerin but more volatile.
Ressam had learned to assemble bombs at a jihad training camp in Afghanistan in 1998, returning to Vancouver in 1999 with chemicals for making the explosive device.
In a later FBI test, when just 5 pounds of the fertilizer-phosphate mixture were exploded under a sedan, the blast left the car in shreds.
The pill bottles were unscrewed at the ferry landing so the contents could be tested for drugs.
“They told us later that unscrewing that top could have caused an explosion,” Clem said.
Clem wanted to see Ressam’s reaction to what they discovered.
Ressam blanched, ran
“The blood left his face,” he said. “He blanched.”
Johnson, with his hands on Ressam’s shoulders, felt him shudder.
He reached inside Ressam’s pocket for what Johnson believed was a cell phone, holding onto Ressam’s shoulder with the other.
Ressam suddenly slipped out of his camel-hair coat — a “fancyboy coat,” Johnson called it — and ran.
“Instead of running after him,” Johnson later told TheSeattle Times. “I’m like: Hey! Hey! You can’t do that!
First Chapman, then Johnson, ran after Ressam.
Clem flagged down a driver.
Campbell, who said he had been selling a truck decal to a driver, jumped in his own vehicle, a red Toyota Previa van.
Dean stayed behind to guard the contents of the trunk.
In leaving the Customs station, Chapman, Johnson and Clem bucked Customs policy, said Clem, a former Clallam County deputy prosecutor and now a part-time assistant district attorney in Oklahoma.
“The policy of Customs was not to run after those people,” he said.
“In fact, we could have been disciplined for doing that, but we ran after him anyway. It was too important. You can’t let a policy get in the way of capturing a serious criminal. When he ran from us, it was a federal crime. It’s called port running, for want of a better word.”
The pursuit, which lasted five to 10 minutes, “was like a slow motion chase,” Clem said.
Ressam ran up Laurel Street, hiding under a truck parked on First Street.
Chapman peered at him, gun drawn, ordering him to stop.
Ressam crawled out from under the truck, headed back down Laurel, glanced against a moving car, confronted Johnson, and ran back to First and headed east toward Lincoln Street.
Ressam stopped at the intersection of busy First and Lincoln streets and tried to get into a 1997 Oldsmobile driven by Port Angeles Carol Loth.
“He had the deadest eyes I’ve ever seen,” Loth recalled in an interview. “They were like, nobody’s home, nothing.”
With Ressam’s hand on her door handle, Loth ran the light, spinning the slightly-built Ressam around.
The delay gave Chapman time to catch up with him.
He shoulder-tackled Ressam to the ground. Johnson arrived, planting a knee on Ressam’s head and immobilizing him, Johnson recalled.
While they examined the contents of the trunk back at the ferry terminal, Ressam settled lower and lower in his seat, practically lying on the floor, Chapman said.
“It was really bizarre at the time,” said Chapman, who thought Ressam might be reaching for a weapon and told him to stop.
“I think he thought the whole block was going up in smoke. I didn’t put it together until later in the week, when I knew they were explosives.”
The explosives were stored overnight in the Customs facility in the federal building on First Street, their volatility still unknown.
“I remember running up the stairs with them, which wasn’t the smartest thing to do,” Johnson said.
The heat-sensitive contents also were stored in a warm room.
‘God looking out for us’
“God was looking out for us that day,” Johnson said.
Two federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent drove 900 miles on Interstate 5 to ATF labs in Walnut Creek, Calif., with the pill bottles in the back seat before their volatility was determined, according to testimony at Ressam’s trial.
“His crime, if carried to fruition, would have ended in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of innocent people,” the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle said in a sentencing memorandum.
Ressam was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for conspiring to bomb LAX. He was convicted in Los Angeles on April 6, 2001 of nine federal charges, including an act of terrorism transcending a national boundary.
Ressam could be released July 6, 2019, when he would be 52 years old.
On Monday: Where are they now?
________Staff writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at [email protected]s.com.