Terror conviction rate high in U.S., raises questions

Monday, September 5, 2011 | 7:35 a.m. CDT; updated 7:51 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 5, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's a stellar record by the numbers: Nine out of 10 major terrorism cases tried in U.S. federal courts over the past decade have been successful. But they may not tell the whole story of the government's war on terror.

Of the nearly 200 most serious terrorism cases brought to court since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, some 178 have ended in convictions, either through a guilty plea or a jury's decision, according to a review by The Associated Press of government documents and interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The AP analyzed cases that fit the Justice Department's definition of the most serious terrorism cases, using a March 2010 report to Congress as a starting point and compiling a list of 345 defendants since the 9/11 attacks. The figures vary from other independent analyses of terror prosecutions, some of which included lesser terrorism offenses, and others that included cases where charges were never formally filed.

The conviction rate is about the same as for drug dealers or bank robbers, with one key difference: The goal is to stop terrorists before they attack, not punish them afterward.

"The criminal justice system has proved itself capable of handling even the most difficult and challenging terrorism cases in a manner that has produced just and credible results," said James Benjamin, a former federal prosecutor and author of a 2008 study that looked at the success of such prosecutions.

Critics say there's another way to look at the data: The conviction rate is boosted by the Justice Department's overly broad definition of terrorism, as well as reluctance by jurors to acquit on such serious charges and defendants' fear of going to trial and accepting plea bargains instead.

"There is now a massive, self-perpetuating counterterrorism machine in the United States," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who represented Ali Al-Timimi, serving a life sentence for his role in an alleged jihadist plot in northern Virginia. "They'll take a conventional case and they will turn it into some grotesque, overexaggerated claim of terrorism."

A 2007 report by the Justice Department's Inspector General concluded that the agency's collecting and reporting of terrorism statistics was haphazard and decentralized, and that many statistics contained inaccuracies. The report criticized the government for tagging cases under a terrorism category when charges were filed, but not changing that designation after no evidence of terrorism was found.

Many of the serious cases reviewed by the AP allege violations of the government's main anti-terror law, the material support law, which was on the books even before the USA Patriot Act was adopted in the wake of the terrorist attacks. On Sept. 11, 2,753 people were killed at the World Trade Center, 184 killed at the Pentagon and another 40 in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.

The material support law bans providing "material support" to terrorist groups. Critics say the law is vague and punishes free speech and legitimate charitable aid. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality last year.

"The breadth of the statute makes it easy to prosecute people," Georgetown University law professor David Cole said. "But it also makes it difficult to know whether many of the individuals who were prosecuted were actual threats, were actually engaged in supporting terrorism as opposed to something else."

The Justice Department pursues all terrorism charges based on the facts of the case, the evidence and the law, spokesman Dean Boydsaid.

"Regardless of which designated foreign terrorist organization may or may not be implicated, every case is pursued aggressively and lawfully," Boyd said in a statement.

The 196 cases are among 345 terrorism cases the U.S. has brought since 9/11 and defined as the most serious under Justice Department guidelines.

They include Yemeni-Americans in Buffalo accused of visiting terrorist camps in Afghanistan; U.S. citizens plotting jihad in Oregon; Muslim converts in Raleigh, N.C., alleged to be plotting overseas jihad; leftist rebels accused of kidnapping Americans in Colombia; Somali immigrants in Minneapolis accused of supporting terrorists at home in Somalia; fundraisers tied to Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil Tigers and alleged supporters of Hezbollah in Philadelphia.

Among other findings from the AP analysis:

  • About eight dozen defendants are still awaiting trial.
  • More than 50 defendants are either fugitives overseas or are being held by other countries awaiting extradition requests by the U.S.
  • Eight people charged with major terrorism crimes have been reported killed overseas, including Khaddafy Janjalani, prosecuted as a leader of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines and killed there in a 2007 clash with government troops.
  • Eighty-one cases were in New York City, including a 2007 plot to blow up fuel lines at JFK Airport and a 2009 plot to bomb city subways.

The story of a terrorist suspect in Ohio shows just how carefully a terror case must be pieced together, even at the risk of the suspect bolting.

By the time FBI agents arrested Christopher Paul as he walked home from mosque prayers in April 2007, the Ohio native's alleged involvement with terrorists at home and abroad was one of the worst-kept secrets in town.

One of Paul's best friends, Iyman Faris, had been arrested and convicted in 2003. Another friend, a Somali immigrant named Nuradin Abdi, was charged in 2004 over an alleged threat to shoot up a shopping mall. Throughout this time, the FBI methodically gathered information about Paul.

Paul, 47, converted to Islam while attending Ohio State, changed his name to Abdulmalek Kenyatta and went to Afghanistan to fight occupying Soviet troops, according to government prosecutors.

In the 1990s he allegedly traveled to Germany and made contact with a terror cell there. One of his alleged contacts, Mohamedou Ould Salahi, is a Guantanamo Bay detainee identified by the 9/11 Commission as a host to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Germany. There's no evidence that Paul himself had any role in the attacks.

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Paul discussed possible terrorist plots with Faris and Abdi, according to federal prosecutors and court documents reviewed by the AP.

Abdi was sentenced to 10 years in 2007, and Faris to 20.

Today, Paul is serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to a terrorism-related charge of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. He has not responded to requests for interviews.

The FBI says it took its time — four years — collecting evidence against Paul.

"In all investigations there comes a time when you've got probable cause to arrest someone," FBI spokesman Mike Brooks said. "That doesn't mean that that's the time you're going to arrest the person."

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