By Jesse Major
Peninsula Daily News
PORT ANGELES — Two decades have passed since U.S. Customs inspectors in Port Angeles foiled a terrorist’s plot to kill and injure as many Americans as possible by blowing up a passenger terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.
Saturday marked 20 years since officers arrested Al Qaida-trained terrorist Ahmed Ressam, now 52, after he debarked from the MV Coho ferry driving a rental car filled with highly-volatile explosives.
“At the time no one knew what he was bringing across the border,” said Mike Chapman, who tackled and arrested Ressam after a short foot pursuit on Dec. 14, 1999. “I think we all thought it was narcotics initially.”
Officials later learned that Ressam was bent on killing and maiming as many Americans as possible by blowing up a passenger terminal at LAX.
After the historic arrest, full-time Customs Inspectors Diana Dean and Mark Johnson, and then-part-time Inspectors Chapman – who is now a state representative for the North Olympic Peninsula — and Dan Clem received exceptional service medals for their efforts.
The explosive components for what prosecutors said could have been suitcase bombs — including four timers — were hidden in the trunk of Ressam’s rented luxury Chrysler.
Ressam 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.
“Real lives were spared and the longer time goes on the more grateful I am none of us were hurt, no one in town was hurt,” Chapman said last week.
“The dock on the waterfront could have been blown to smithereens. There’s a whole host of circumstances where a lot of people could have been really hurt and thankfully when he came to shore we were able to stop him.”
Legal experts have said the arrest 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.
Ressam’s was the last car in line at about 5:30 p.m. when 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.
Dean questioned him further about his destination, and Ressam got out of his car.
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.
Ressam — who carried a Canadian passport and Costco card, both with the fake name of Benni Antoine Noris, for identification — was nervous and sweating.
The FBI later tested just 5 pounds of the fertilizer-phosphate mixture — and the blast shreded a sedan. Officials initially thought it was drugs they discovered, but 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.
The pill bottles were unscrewed at the ferry landing so the contents could be tested for drugs.
Clem wanted to see Ressam’s reaction to what they discovered. That’s when Ressam ran.
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.
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.
The pursuit lasted five to 10 minutes. Ressam ran up Laurel Street, hiding under a truck parked on First Street. With his gun drawn, Chapman ordered him to stop.
Ressam crawled from under the truck, ran back down Laurel, and ran back to first after confronting Johnson. Then he 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.
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.
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, it was learned later.
After an 18-day trial in the spring of 2001, Ressam was convicted of nine counts: an act of terrorism transcending a national boundary; placing an explosive in proximity to a terminal; false identification documents; use of a fictitious name for admission; false statement; smuggling; transportation of explosives; possession of an unregistered explosive device; and carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony.
Facing a possible sentence of 65 years to life in prison, in early 2001, Ressam agreed to provide information to the United States and testify against others. However, Ressam ceased providing information in 2003, according to the FBI.
“It became a bigger case in the wake of 9/11,” Chapman said. “Though he had been convicted, he cooperated with the U.S. government. He gave the government significant information in the wake of 9/11 as to how these [sleeper] cells worked.”
Information he provided helped convict several terror suspects and prompted the famous August 2001 FBI memo titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S,” according to the Associated Press.
In 2005, and in a second sentencing hearing in 2008, Judge John C. Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison, but in 2012, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back for resentencing, finding that the 22-year sentence was unreasonably low.
Had the 22 years in prison stuck, Ressam could have been released from prison last July.
Instead, he was resentenced to 37 years in prison. He is serving time at ADX Florence in Colorado and is scheduled for release July 1, 2032, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He will be 65 years old if released then.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gautlieb contributed to this report