U.S. Campaign Produces Few Convictions on Terrorism Charges
Statistics Often Count Lesser Crimes
By Dan Eggen and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers Sunday, June 12, 2005; Page A01
First of two parts
On Thursday, President Bush stepped to a lectern at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy in Columbus to urge renewal of the USA Patriot Act and to boast of the government’s success in prosecuting terrorists.
Flanked by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush said that “federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted.”
Those statistics have been used repeatedly by Bush and other administration officials, including Gonzales and his predecessor, John D. Ashcroft, to characterize the government’s efforts against terrorism. But the numbers are misleading at best.
An analysis of the Justice Department’s own list of terrorism prosecutions by The Washington Post shows that 39 people — not 200, as officials have implied — were convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security.
Most of the others were convicted of relatively minor crimes such as making false statements and violating immigration law — and had nothing to do with terrorism, the analysis shows. For the entire list, the median sentence was just 11 months.
Taken as a whole, the data indicate that the government’s effort to identify terrorists in the United States has been less successful than authorities have often suggested. The statistics provide little support for the contention that authorities have discovered and prosecuted hundreds of terrorists here. Except for a small number of well-known cases — such as truck driver Iyman Faris, who sought to take down the Brooklyn Bridge — few of those arrested appear to have been involved in active plots inside the United States.
Among all the people charged as a result of terrorism probes in the three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, The Post found no demonstrated connection to terrorism or terrorist groups for 180 of them.
Just one in nine individuals on the list had an alleged connection to the al Qaeda terrorist network and only 14 people convicted of terrorism-related crimes — including Faris and convicted Sept. 11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui — have clear links to the group. Many more cases involve Colombian drug cartels, supporters of the Palestinian cause, Rwandan war criminals or others with no apparent ties to al Qaeda or its leader, Osama bin Laden.
But a large number of people appear to have been swept into U.S. counterterrorism investigations by chance — through anonymous tips, suspicious circumstances or bad luck — and have remained classified as terrorism defendants years after being cleared of connections to extremist groups.
For example, the prosecution of 20 men, most of them Iraqis, in a Pennsylvania truck-licensing scam accounts for about 10 percent of individuals convicted — even though the entire group was publicly absolved of ties to terrorism in 2001.
“For so many of these cases, there seems to be much less substance to them than we first assume or have first been told,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand Corp., a think tank that conducts national security research. “There’s an inherent deterrent effect in cracking down on any illicit activity. But the challenge is not exaggerating what they were up to — not portraying them as super-terrorists when they’re really the low end of the food chain.”
Justice Department officials say they have not sought to exaggerate the importance or suspected associations of those prosecuted in connection with terrorism probes, and they argue that the list provides only a partial view of their efforts.
Officials said all the individuals were first put on the list because of a suspected connection or allegation related to terrorism. Last week, they also said that the department had tightened the requirements for including a case on the terrorism list.
Barry M. Sabin, chief of the department’s counterterrorism section, said prosecutors frequently turn to lesser charges when they are not confident they can prove crimes such as committing or supporting terrorism. Many defendants also have been prosecuted for relatively minor crimes in exchange for information that is not public but has proved valuable in other terrorism probes, he said.
“A person could not have been put on this list if there was not a concern about national security, at least initially,” he said. “Are all these people an ongoing threat presently? Arguably not. . . . We are not trying to overstate or understate what we’re doing. You don’t want to put language or a label on people that is inconsistent with what they have done.”
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department database has served as the key source of statistics on the status of terrorism investigations in the United States and has been cited frequently in official speeches and testimony to Congress. The list obtained by The Post includes 361 cases defined as terrorism investigations by the department’s criminal division from Sept. 11, 2001, through late September 2004. Thirty-one entries could not be evaluated because they were sealed and blacked out. (The list does not include about 40 cases filed since then that account for Bush’s total of about 400.) The Post sought to update and correct data whenever possible, including noting convictions or sentences handed down within the past nine months.
The list of domestic prosecutions does not include terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba or at secret locations around the world. Nor does it include many of the approximately 50 people the Justice Department has acknowledged detaining as “material witnesses,” or three men held in a military prison in South Carolina, one of whom has been released.
The Post identified 180 cases in which no connection to al Qaeda or another terrorist group could be found in court records, official statements, the 9/11 commission report or news accounts. Even some of the terrorism-related cases featured early allegations of terrorist connections that were later dropped.
Of the 142 individuals on the list linked to terrorist groups, 39 were convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security. More than a dozen defendants were acquitted or had their charges dismissed, including three Moroccan men in Detroit whose convictions were tossed out in September after the Justice Department admitted prosecutorial misconduct.
Not surprisingly, these minor crimes produced modest punishments. The median sentence for all cases adjudicated, whether or not they were terrorism-related, was 11 months. About three dozen other defendants were given probation or were deported. The most common convictions were on charges of fraud, making false statements, passport violations and conspiracy.
Two life sentences have been handed down so far: to Richard Reid, the British drifter who was foiled by passengers in his attempt to blow up an aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean; and Masoud Khan, a Maryland man convicted of traveling to Pakistan and seeking to fight with the Taliban against U.S. forces. Two others convicted of terrorism-related crimes face life sentences: Ahmed Abdel Sattar, an Egyptian-born postal worker convicted of conspiring to kill and kidnap in a foreign country; and Ali Timimi, a Northern Virginia spiritual leader convicted of encouraging others to attend terrorist camps. (Timimi was indicted in late September and was not on the list obtained by The Post.)
Only 14 of those convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security have clear links to bin Laden’s network, most notably Moussaoui and Reid. Others include Faris, an admitted member of al Qaeda who sought to sabotage the Brooklyn Bridge, and six Yemeni men from Lackawanna, N.Y., convicted of providing material support to terrorists by attending an al Qaeda training camp before Sept. 11.
In addition, Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, who is most closely associated with Afghanistan’s deposed government, trained at an al Qaeda camp.
The patterns discovered by The Post are similar to findings in studies of Justice Department terrorism cases by New York University and Syracuse University, each of which examined more limited sets of data.
More than a third of the cases on the list arose from a post-Sept. 11 FBI dragnet, which resulted in the arrests of hundreds of Muslim immigrants for minor violations unrelated to the hijackings or terrorism.
“What we’re seeing over time is the equivalent of mission creep: Cases that would not be terrorism cases before Sept. 11 are swept onto the terrorism docket,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former Clinton administration Justice official who heads the national security program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “The problem is that it’s not good to cook the numbers. . . . We have no accurate assessment of whether the war on terrorism is actually working.”
Tracking Al Qaeda
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, many veteran U.S. counterterrorism officials assumed that al Qaeda sleeper cells were hiding in the country, awaiting orders to launch attacks. The strikes — carried out by 19 hijackers who arrived in the United States and trained here undetected — prompted an aggressive campaign by the Justice Department, the FBI and other agencies to identify al Qaeda operatives on U.S. soil.
The results from the Justice Department database, however, raise the possibility that the presence of al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers within the United States is either limited or largely undetected, many terrorism experts say. “These kind of statistics show that we really don’t know if they exist here in any significant way,” said Martha Crenshaw of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, who has studied terrorism since the late 1960s. “It’s possible that they could have sleepers planted here for a long time and we could always be very surprised. But I’d say that’s less likely compared with them trying to repeat a 9/11-style infiltration from the outside.”
Other experts and government officials say the relatively small number of domestic terrorism prosecutions is partly the result of the administration’s strategy to handle some of its most dangerous suspects — such as Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed — outside U.S. courts.
As a result, only a limited number of potentially significant cases have been pursued publicly in U.S. courts.
Viet D. Dinh, a Georgetown law professor who headed the Office of Legal Policy at Justice before and after the attacks, said the primary strategy is to use “prosecutorial discretion” to detain suspicious individuals by charging them with minor crimes.
“You’re talking about a violation of law that may or may not rise to the level of what might usually be called a federal case,” Dinh said, referring to credit-card fraud and other offenses. “But the calculation does not happen in isolation; you are not just talking about the crime itself, but the suspicion of terrorism. . . . That skews the calculation in favor of prosecution.”
Bush administration officials have frequently compared the strategy to the anti-Mafia campaign by former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, who vowed to prosecute mobsters for crimes as minor as spitting on a sidewalk. But many defense lawyers and civil liberties advocates argue that the Mafia analogy is misplaced.
David Z. Nevin represented Idaho graduate student Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a Saudi national who was acquitted of federal terrorism charges in a closely watched trial last summer but agreed to be deported rather than fight immigration charges. Nevin said there are key differences between current counterterrorism cases and the prosecutions of gangsters such as Al Capone, who was famously convicted of tax evasion to get him off the street. “Everybody knew that Al Capone was committing murders and was doing all sorts of things. They just couldn’t convict him,” Nevin said.
“That’s fine if you take it as a given that you have the devil here,” he continued. “The problem is that you end up with people like Sami Al-Hussayen. . . . Whenever you live in that realm, you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to hurt innocent people.”
Using One Case to Build Another
In the end, most cases on the Justice Department list turned out to have no connection to terrorism at all.
They include Hassan Nasrallah, a Dearborn, Mich., man convicted of credit-card fraud who has the same name as the leader of Hezbollah, or Party of God. Abdul Farid of High Point, N.C., was arrested on a false tip that he was sending money to the Taliban and was deported after admitting he lied on a loan application. Moeen Islam Butt, a Pakistani jewelry-kiosk employee in Pennsylvania, spent eight months in jail before being deported on marriage-fraud and immigration charges.
And there is the case of Francois Guagni, a French national who made the mistake of illegally crossing the Canadian border on Sept. 14, 2001, with box cutters in his possession. It turned out that Guagni used the knives in his job as a drywall installer. He was deported in March 2003 after pleading guilty to unlawfully entering the country.
“His case had nothing to do with terrorism, as far as I’ve ever been told,” said Guagni’s attorney, Christopher D. Smith.
Some of the cases, however, remain murky. The question of involvement in terrorism lingers even after formal allegations of such ties have been dropped.
Consider the case of Enaam Arnaout, director of the Illinois-based Benevolence International Foundation, who was indicted amid great fanfare in October 2002 for allegedly helping to funnel money and equipment to al Qaeda operatives on three continents. The charity was shut down.
Less than a year later, prosecutors dropped six of the seven charges against Arnaout, and he pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering for funding fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya. During a sentencing hearing in August 2003, U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon told prosecutors they had “failed to connect the dots” and said there was no evidence that Arnaout “identified with or supported” terrorism.
The administration views the case differently. Bush, in a speech Friday at the National Counterterrorism Center in Northern Virginia, said investigators had “helped close down a phony charity in Illinois that was channeling money to al Qaeda.”
Sabin, the Justice Department’s counterterrorism chief, said he could not discuss the specifics of most cases. But he said one case in particular illustrates the government’s strategy: the conviction of Abdurahman Alamoudi, who admitted to taking $1 million from Libya and using it to pay conspirators in a scheme to kill Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.
Alamoudi, who once worked with senior U.S. officials as head of the American Muslim Council, has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators as part of a plea agreement. Sabin said the case is “a significant success story” that shows how prosecutors can use one case to help build others.
“We have been successful in obtaining information and fueling our intelligence gathering efforts with many of these cases,” Sabin said.
Research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.