PORT ANGELES — About 11 years after their brush with an Osama bin Laden-trained terrorist, two of the men who helped capture Ahmed Ressam expressed relief Monday at the death of the al-Qaida leader.
Many people on the North Olympic Peninsula read bin Laden’s name for the first time in 1999 after Ressam drove off the MV Coho ferry with explosives.
On Dec. 14, 1999, Ressam, carrying a fake Canadian passport bearing the name Benni Noris and driving a late-model Chrysler rented in Vancouver, B.C., rode the Coho from Victoria to Port Angeles.
Ressam drove onto U.S. soil with 100 pounds of explosive materials hidden in the trunk’s wheel well.
Millennium celebrations at Seattle’s Space Needle were closed to the public as a security measure.
It was later revealed that Ressam — who was given the nickname of “millennium bomber” — was planning an explosion at Los Angeles International Airport.
This was 21 months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which spawned the Department of Homeland Security and the stricter border security imposed today.
Customs inspectors at the Port Angeles port of entry discovered the explosives shortly after capturing Ressam in a foot chase through downtown Port Angeles.
Within a week of Ressam’s arrest, the federal government linked the Algerian national with three terrorist training camps in Afghanistan financed and run by bin Laden.
Current Clallam County Commissioner Mike Chapman was one of the customs inspectors who chased and captured Ressam that night.
“Congratulations needs to be given to the men and women in uniform who carried out their work in the raid which got Osama, much like the work we did 11 years ago when we captured Ressam,” former customs inspector Chapman said Monday.
“Credit also needs to be given to the president, who ordered the raid. It is a good day for America and a good step in the war on terror.”
Chapman, who was among the customs inspectors decorated for their arrest of Ressam and discovery that chilly December night, noted that although some cases get more noteworthiness than others, “men and women put their lives on the line every day.”
“This is a reminder that it can happen locally at the border or on a federal level in the military.”
A fellow customs inspector who first opened the Chrysler wheel well and discovered the powdery substance in 1999 was Dan Clem, now a district attorney in Oklahoma.
Contacted by phone Monday, Clem said he was rejoicing at news of bin Laden’s death.
“His death is a very joyous occasion and there should be more of the same,” he said.
“Putting it as bluntly as I can, those people are scum.”
Ressam, whose 22-year conviction is being reconsidered after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a review over its leniency, remains in federal prison in Colorado.
Clem recalled the day when he first encountered al-Qaida’s network through Ressam, saying he never imagined the international connections it would have.
“My small part in that event was I discovered the explosives in the trunk — in the tire compartment in the floor of the trunk where there was no spare tire,” he said.
“I thought it was narcotics at first, but we brought [Ressam] over so we could see his reaction — and he just turned white.”
Reporter Paige Dickerson can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at [email protected]