Trucker or Terrorist?

by Ingrid Phaneuf

WINDSOR, Ont. – Is Jamal Akkal a wannabe trucker or a failed terrorist?

The 23-year-old truck driving school grad was arrested in Israel in November on suspicion of terrorism.

Just a few weeks prior to his arrest, Akkal was just another University of Windsor student taking a truck driving course in the hopes of making a buck.

“He did very well in his course,” said Guy Rahim owner of the Ontario Truck Driving School attended by Akkal, a Windsor resident.

Akkal attended the course in September, just prior to leaving for the Gaza Strip in October (to find a wife, say family members living in Windsor).

“His instructor wrote ‘He would be an asset to any company,'” said Rahim, adding Akkal was a good student who passed the course with a mark of 89 per cent. He graduated Sept. 19 with an AZ licence qualifying him to drive a tractor-trailer.

Rahim wasn’t even aware the man arrested in Israel had attended his school until he got a call from a Windsor Star reporter shortly after reports of Akkal’s arrest surfaced.

“I used to go speak to the students and that’s how I knew him. Akkal seemed like he was a very nice guy. I heard he told everyone he was going home to get married and then come back.”

Students at the school have criminal background checks before being admitted, said Rahim.

“Akkal had a clean record.”

But clean record or no, at least one of Akkal’s classmates suspected his reasons for attending truck driving school. In fact, David Monk, 35, now a working driver, was so suspicious of Akkal that he reported him to the RCMP.

“He said he was taking the course so he could put himself through school by working on the weekends – he wanted to study to be a social worker,” said Monk. “But he was spending $4,700 on the course – which would take a year to pay off by itself. I just thought it didn’t add up that he would spend so much money for a job he would only be able to do one or two days a week. He was really quiet too.”

Monk admitted he has lived in fear of another terrorist attack ever since 9/11.

A Belle River resident, who drives for Wolverine Systems, Monk said Akkal was very focused on his truck driving lessons, but kept to himself.

Monk said his suspicions jelled on Aug. 14 – the day of the major power blackout – when the two got to talking while behind the wheel of a truck in the training yard.

“It was in the morning and I said to him, ‘When you can drive, where’re you going to work after?

“And he looked at me and it’s the first time he talked. And he said to me: ‘I’m getting married in two years, I go to University of Windsor social work, I drive transport on weekends to pay for my schooling.'”

Akkal’s story of working part-time didn’t make sense to Monk, who explained a trucker could only earn between $100 and $300 per weekend on a run, depending on the destination.

Spotty attendance

Monk said he was also suspicious when Akkal failed to attend classes which included Canadian Customs officers speaking on border clearance procedures and missed a driving course held in Michigan, which would have required presenting papers as he crossed the U.S. border.

He said family members urged him to report Akkal’s behaviour to authorities.

He called Windsor police, who told him to contact the RCMP. He said he left a recorded message at the RCMP’s Windsor office, giving his name and Akkal’s, but was never called back.

Whether Monk’s report had anything to do with Akkal’s arrest in Israel, for crimes allegedly committed in that country (Akkal was charged in Israeli military court Dec. 15 with two counts of military training and one of conspiracy to commit murder) remains in question. The RCMP certainly remains mute on the subject.

“We don’t comment on ongoing investigations,” was all Truck News got out of RCMP media director Inspector Andr Guertin.

Monk said the decision to call RCMP was not based solely on Akkal being Middle Eastern, but on his behaviour.

“If he’s innocent I’d feel terrible, it’d just be a terrible thing. But on the other hand it wasn’t me that arrested him,” Monk said.

Meanwhile, Akkal is being held in a prison near Tel Aviv and being prosecuted in military court. Israeli authorities there and in Canada say he has confessed to being a member of a new Hamas terrorist cell that was planning to attack Jewish targets in Canada and the United States.

Akkal has reportedly told family members and his lawyer that he was tortured through sleep deprivation into making a confession.

He has also publicly denied the charges.

“There’s nothing true about them,” Akkal said to reporters as he was escorted into court by armed guards Dec. 15.

Akkal’s lawyer, Jameel Khatid, tried but failed to have charges transferred from military to civilian courts. According to Khatid, the prosecution is seeking the 10-year maximum prison term for Akkal.

“The trial is based wholly on the accused’s testimony, extracted under physical duress, after 20 hours of interrogation each day over 20 days,” Khatid told reporters. “Mr. Akkal was exhausted and confused and did not know what admissions he was signing as they were written in Hebrew.”

Prior to leaving for Gaza, Akkal was registered for the pre-social work program at the University of Windsor in the fall of 2002 and spring of this year and had taken English and computer courses at St. Clair College, according to one of two brothers who live in Windsor.

Monk, meanwhile, said he’s been racked with guilt since he learned of Akkal’s arrest.

“If it’s true that he’s not a terrorist and he’s been arrested and kept awake and forced to sign a confession in Hebrew like they say in the newspapers I feel terrible. Nobody deserves that. I just hope he gets a fair trial. I just hope they don’t hang him. If they do I will live with it for the rest of my life.”

While Akkal remains in prison Monk is fearful of reprisals.

“Now everyone will think I’m a racist. I only did what I thought was right.”

Since the appearance of Monk’s name in local and national media, Monk has been caught in a media firestorm.

“My family has gone to stay somewhere else. And I’m terrified to answer the door. I only got one call from a Jewish lady who said she was grateful,” said Monk in late December.

Asked whether the caller had identified herself as Jewish, Monk explained: “No, but I could tell from her accent.”

Industry alerted to

terrorist threat

Elsewhere, but in related news, the U.S. department of Homeland Security and the American Trucking Associations jointly issued an alert to North American carriers Dec. 9, which was picked up and posted in an Ontario Trucking Association members’ newsletter Dec. 12.

The “Special Alert” warned of “suspicious activity that may signal active terrorist attack planning involving the American Trucking Industry.”

“A series of observations have been made over the last months, increasing in frequency over recent weeks of certain types of activity that may represent the characteristic operational acts of active terrorist planning which may seek to attack the trucking industry or to exploit the trucking industry in conducting an attack on the United States.”

The alert went on to state: “A concentration of these observations has been in the area around the eastern end of Lake Erie, and in North and South Carolina. The reports frequently have involved fuel and chemical tanker operations or have been made at or in the vicinity of fuel and chemical production and storage facilities and terminals.”

The acts characteristic of terrorist activity described by the alert include: Targeting and casing: the observation and photographing of facilities and operations, attempted interviews of personnel to obtain information regarding operations and facilities, and the following of vehicles en route; and Rehearsal: attempts to enter facilities by unauthorized personnel, aggressive driving behaviour, multiple vehicles actively “boxing” the target truck, and potential rused or staged accidents to cause the target truck to stop on roadsides in isolated areas.

Government an
d RCMP officials in Canada, however, said the alert does not apply to Canadian trucks, this despite the recent arrest of Canadian truck driver Jamal Akkal on suspicion of terrorism and the fact the U.S. alert was posted on the Ontario trucking Association Web site.

“The U.S. government has its own alert system which they use as they see fit,” said Inspector Andr Guertin, director of media relations for the RCMP. “To the best of our knowledge and ability no direct information indicate to us Canadian trucking industry at risk.”

Further calls by Truck News to the Canadian Transport Minister’s office, Transport Canada and the newly created the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Department, headed by minister Ann McLellan (the new department is supposed to combine the tasks of several current bodies to oversee the RCMP, CSIS and border and port security) revealed the department shares the belief the alert and the arrest of Akkal have made no great impression.

“If it was felt the alert applied to Canadian truck companies an alert would have been issued,” said spokesman Max London.

Neither London, nor Inspector Guertin felt Canadian officials had been caught sleeping at the wheel. n

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