Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a 2002 report by The Seattle Times on the case of the Millennium Bomber.
SEATTLE, Dec. 14, 1999 – FBI Agent Fred Humphries was more than a little weary when his home phone rang after 11 p.m.
His entire Seattle field office had been run ragged before, during and after the meetings of the World Trade Organization, the protest-pocked debacle that had left Seattle’s shop windows and civic pride shattered two weeks before.
Even Humphries, a wiry, high-energy, third-year man, was ready for a breather and a good night’s sleep. But seconds into the phone conversation, he was fully alert.
Agent Patrick Gahan, phoning from Port Angeles, was calling about an arrest Humphries had heard a bit about earlier that evening. U.S. Customs officers had detained a suspicious man coming by ferry from Canada. In his trunk were bags of white powder, mysterious chemicals and homemade timing devices.
The detainee, Benni Noris, seemed to speak only French. Gahan didn’t, so he was calling Humphries – who had learned French as a high-school student in Ontario, Canada – to help.
Humphries obtained a copy of the standard Miranda-rights card in French. He called the customs trailer in Port Angeles and spoke to the suspect on a speaker phone. Humphries read Noris his rights in French.
Then he asked, “Voulez-vous parler de ce qui est arrivé?” Do you want to talk about what has occurred?
“Non monsieur, je ne veux pas en parler.” No sir, I do not want to talk about it.
That sentence told Humphries plenty. He asked that Gahan turn off the speaker and get on the line.
What ID does this guy have? Humphries asked. A Canadian passport and baptismal certificate from Montreal, with the name Benni Antoine Noris, came the reply.
“There is no way this guy is who he says he is,” Humphries said. “There’s no way he’s from Montreal.”
The agent knew Quebecois French – and this wasn’t it. The accent, he thought, sounded like that of a language instructor he had in the Army – a man from Algeria.
Humphries, Gahan and customs officials decided to hold the suspect on suspicion of using false identification.
The next morning, Humphries wrote up a report. He gave it to Bob Houston, who oversees agents on the Seattle counterterrorism desk, expecting Houston to assign the case to a more experienced agent.
Houston handed the report back to Humphries. The case was his. He had helped on a number of criminal investigations but had never been assigned his own.
Here he was with his own major international case. It was a keen responsibility – coordinating with federal prosecutors, assigning tasks, conducting interviews and keeping track of evidence.
Humphries contacted the bureau’s Hazardous Materials Team in Quantico, Va., and asked for specialists to join him. And he began digging for details on Noris. He had no criminal history in Canada and had never been to the U.S., according to a review of databases.
The next day, Humphries drove to Port Angeles with two HazMat agents and set up a post at the Port Angeles airport. There, he took a call from an FBI agent based in Ottawa, the Canadian capital. The Ottawa agent had been given a photograph by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that might match Humphries’ mysterious Mr. Noris.
The agent faxed over the photo, saying only: “If this is your guy, you’ve got trouble.” No explanation; no name.
Humphries took the picture to the Clallam County Jail. The suspect looked drawn, with dark rings under his eyes. But Humphries found his resemblance to the photo unmistakable.
Eventually the man was identified as Ahmed Ressam, the Millennium Bomber.