Tighter border controls between the United States and Canada are likely to be less useful than better domestic intelligence and information-sharing in detecting homegrown terrorist plots in North America, experts on terrorism said yesterday.
By the account of Canadian authorities, the suspected fertilizer-bomb plot that led to the arrest Saturday in Ontario of 17 men - most of them Canadian citizens of South Asian origin - appeared to follow the pattern of attacks in Madrid, Spain, in 2004 and in London last year. As in those instances, officials said, those accused in the Canadian case are Muslims with no evident ties to al-Qaida leaders overseas except a shared ideology.
"These are the metastases of the cancer of international Islamic extremism," said John O. Brennan, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a former career CIA officer. "It shows the terrorist threat may be within our midst and not coming from off our shores."
Brennan said that although improved border technology and a planned requirement that Canadian visitors carry passports could help, there is no chance of stopping all potential terrorists from crossing a 4,000-mile border that includes huge swaths of forest and the Great Lakes.
"You don't want to paralyze the cross-border traffic and trade that's so important to both countries," Brennan said in an interview. Rather, he said, the lesson for the United States is the value of careful, patient intelligence collection to detect threats.
Speaking in similar terms yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised what she called Canada's "very great success in their counterterrorism efforts."
"We have excellent counterterrorism cooperation with Canada, and we're very glad to see this operation being a success," Rice said on CNN's Late Edition. "We don't know of any indication that there is a U.S. part to this, but by all means, we have the best possible cooperation."
The FBI said Saturday that there were contacts between two of those arrested in Canada and two men living in Georgia who were recently arrested, Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee. But the bureau reiterated in a statement yesterday that "there is no current outstanding threat to any targets on U.S. soil emanating from this case."
Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman, said the bureau and its Canadian counterpart "have worked closely on this investigation" as they have on many previous counterterrorism matters. He declined to give details.
The Canadian arrests come in the midst of an intense political debate over illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico. The news focused new attention on the Canadian border, which is twice as long and much less patrolled than the Mexican border. Proponents of tighter immigration controls said the Canadian arrests underscored the threat they said lurks just beyond American borders.
Michael W. Cutler, a former veteran immigration agent now at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said relatively liberal political asylum rules in Canada for immigrants, combined with the relatively open border, is "a nightmare for the U.S."
But Cutler acknowledged the impossibility of sealing off the border with Canada and said better enforcement of immigration laws inside the United States may be more important than tighter entrance controls. "The bottom line is, we can't just focus on the border," he said.
Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the United States, denied yesterday that his country had weak asylum rules or was home to large numbers of al-Qaida sympathizers.
"I think that our immigration laws as they are implemented are very close in the outcomes as the United States immigration laws," Wilson said on Late Edition. "We take very seriously these issues of terrorism."
As part of the intelligence reorganization of 2004, Congress required that, starting in 2008, Canadians must show a passport or a similarly secure document to enter the United States. But under legislation recently passed by the Senate and pending in the House, the requirement would be postponed until at least June 2009.
Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican and the main proponent of delaying the passport requirement, said in a statement yesterday that it in no way reflected a lack of "vigilance against terrorism."
Instead, Coleman said, his amendment was designed to make sure new border-crossing procedures are tested to make sure they can work without "strangling the economies of our border communities."