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Algerian faces trial on terror charges

Arrest threw Seattle into a pre-millennium panic

LOS ANGELES — Fifteen months after his arrest threw Seattle into pre-millennium panic, an Algerian man faces trial for terrorist conspiracy charges in a case likely to add pieces to the puzzle of Islamic terror groups.

Ahmed Ressam, 33, said to be a graduate of Osama bin Laden's training camp for terrorists, was set to go on trial Monday in federal court. It would be the second ongoing trial probing bin Laden's shadowy organization.

Ressam is accused of entering Washington state aboard a ferry from Canada with a car loaded with bombmaking materials. His intention, authorities say, was to set off explosions that would kill hundreds at U.S. millennium celebrations.

His shocking arrest was one factor that motivated Seattle officials to cancel celebrations at the Space Needle.

Federal prosecutors say the arrest exposed an international terrorist plot that has resulted in three other arrests in Washington, Montreal and New York.

Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council adviser in charge of counterterrorism at the time, has said that bin Laden planned to hit U.S. targets worldwide in the first days of 2000, causing hundreds of casualties.

"What if January last year had started with 1,000 Americans dead at six or seven locations around the world?" Clarke has said. "We came very close to having that happen."

He said that attacks were thwarted by arrests including the apprehension of Ressam by customs authorities at Port Angeles, Wash. on Dec. 14, 1999. Authorities believe that Ressam planned several West Coast attacks at the new year.

Bin Laden, who lives in Afghanistan, is a Saudi millionaire and the alleged mastermind of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. Authorities have linked bin Laden to the Oct. 12 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, when two suicide bombers detonated their explosives-packed boat next to the warship as it refueled in Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding 39.

Four men are on trial in New York for the embassy bombings. Federal prosecutors there have tried to the men to bin Laden, who also is charged in the blasts but remains at large.

Terrorism experts say Ressam and several others implicated with him in the millennium plot trained in Afghanistan camps where bin Laden's Al Qaida group develops terrorists.

Ressam's federal trial was transferred to Los Angeles because of widespread publicity in Washington state.

He is currently on trial in absentia in France where prosecutors allege he was part of a group that bombed a Paris subway in 1996 and more recently was the alleged Montreal link in a network that supplied false passports and documents to Islamic militants worldwide.

According to a revised indictment filed in February, U.S. prosecutors may go further than the French in trying to link bin Laden to Ressam's "cell," which allegedly includes the other Algerians arrested in the Northeast.

One of those men, Abdel Ghani Meskini, 33, pleaded guilty in New York last week to federal conspiracy charges in connection with Ressam's alleged explosives smuggling. He agreed to cooperate with the government. Another man faces trial in New York, and a third may still be at large.

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