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June 23, 2017

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Canada appears to be a base for Islamist militants, never a target

MONTREAL -- If the news that two Canadians were among the hostage-takers who triggered the bloody siege of an Algerian gas plant was a surprise to many, perhaps it shouldn't have been.

While there has never been an attack on Canada's soil, experts say that since the 1990s the country has unwittingly become a base of operation for Islamist militants, particularly Algerians.

The attack on the In Amenas plant, mounted by Mokhtar Belmokhtar's al-Qaida-linked "Signatories in Blood," left 37 foreign workers dead and raised worrying questions about the reach and capabilities of North African militants.

Observers in Canada say their country hosts extremist cells of its own.

"Particularly in Montreal, there's a large Algerian network that has operated here for some 20 years," Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior agent with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told AFP.

The city has a large North African diaspora and many historical links to militants across the Atlantic.

"Some in Canada still harbor extremist convictions or close to that of the Armed Islamic Group," former French anti-terrorism judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere noted in a September 2011 interview with the daily La Presse.

"With the rise of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, we should be worried."

The Armed Islamic Group is blamed for more than a thousand deaths in attacks in Algeria and in France in the 1990s, and some of its members immigrated to Canada during that period.

"They landed as refugees, claiming to be fleeing the civil war," explains Fabrice de Pierrebourg, an investigative reporter for La Presse.

The Algerians set up a cell, which became known as "The Montreal Cell." It was finally dismantled in 1999.

Five of the cell members were sentenced in France in 2001 for ties to the Gang de Roubaix, which was blamed for bank attacks, murder and a failed car bomb attack against a G-7 finance ministers meeting in France.

The Montreal Cell's best-known member Ahmed Ressam — also known as the "Millennium Bomber" — was arrested on the Canada-U.S. border in 1999 driving a car packed with explosives.

He was jailed for plotting to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport.

Of greater notoriety is Toronto-born Omar Khadr, now the youngest detainee ever held at the U.S. "war on terror" prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, jailed for killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

His Egyptian-born father was considered an influential member of al-Qaida before he was killed in Pakistan in 2003 and his clan has been dubbed Canada's "First family of Terror."

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