U.S.: Using Unrelated Laws to Prosecute Alleged Terrorists

3 MINS READDec 3, 2005 | 01:23 GMT
The FBI and other federal authorities have come under increased scrutiny over the past week for allegedly targeting specific imams for deportation. Most criticism has centered around the idea that federal resources are being wasted on Muslim suspects not charged with terrorism-related offenses, but instead with visa violations. Such cases prompt many to believe that large quantities of federal resources are being squandered on seemingly trivial issues. In the latest deportation case, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers on Nov. 25 arrested Fawaz Damra, the imam of Ohio's largest mosque, the Islamic Center of Cleveland. Damra had served two months in jail for a June 2004 conviction of lying on his 1994 application for U.S. citizenship about connections to organizations that Washington considers sponsors of terrorism. Damra, a Palestinian who came to the United States in the mid-1980s, unlikely is connected to the greater al Qaeda movement, though he is thought to be connected to Palestinian militant groups who have not conducted attacks against U.S. targets. Although the FBI has acknowledged that, in the post-Sept. 11 world, it is discreetly investigating people suspected of encouraging terrorist activity within the United States, arrests most often are made after information is uncovered as part of other, more pressing, investigations. Damra, for instance, was not an FBI target until the bureau came to believe — through separate intelligence gathered via wiretaps, human intelligence sources or electronic intercepts — that he was involved with terrorist organizations. Investigations of specific suspects do, however, serve the government's new policy of pre-empting possible terrorist activities in any way possible. This is an old tactic applied to the new reality. For example, although it might have been impossible to convict Al Capone on murder charges in the 1920s, U.S. authorities essentially took him out of commission by convicting him on charges of tax evasion. The same principle is being applied to suspected militants. Law enforcement does not always have enough evidence to convict suspected militants of ties to terrorist organizations, but it often can try them on charges related to other activities, including visa violations or fraud involving passports or other documents. Convictions on such crimes typically are not severe enough to warrant the same penalties as terrorism convictions, but they are sufficient to break the chain of events that might eventually bring about terrorist activity. This type of disruption by law enforcement also was seen in the detention and arrest of Imam Shabbir Ahmed from a Lodi, Calif., mosque. Though it was unclear whether Ahmed was planning an actual terrorist attack, he was arrested and deported on charges of violating his religious work visa. Any network Ahmed had established from California that could support terrorist activity likely fell apart with his deportation to Pakistan. Given the minor charges against them, those whom federal authorities describe as terrorism suspects often seem somewhat innocuous. Many, however, likely once posed a real threat to U.S. security. And, although there likely are many reasons to explain the lack of attacks in the United States, this could be one of them. These efforts, therefore, are certain to continue in the years ahead — and likely will be expanded beyond jihadist suspects to, for instance, radical Jewish extremists and preachers of white hate.

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