Where’s the Terror?


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Where's the Terror?
Post-9/11 prosecutions end with a whimper
Brian Doherty

Many elements of post-9/11 law enforcement are supposed to be justified by a 
real, serious, ongoing threat of further domestic terror assaults. Without that 
threat, the ways 9/11 supposedly had to change law enforcement become 
meaningless‹or sinister. So it pays, five years down the line, to recall some of
the highlights of federal arrests and prosecutions of what were generally 
announced as domestic terror cells‹organized groups in the U.S. who posed a 
serious, organized threat of committing terrorist acts, often in cahoots with 
overseas foes.

*The first big post-9/11 terror cell arrest, a mere week after the strike, was 
in Detroit. And it even ended up in two convictions for terror-related 
conspiracy. However, the case was rife with prosecutorial misconduct, was lame 
to begin with (despite assurances we were dealing with a "sleeper operational 
combat cell") and ended with the convictions overturned and the prosecutors 
indicted for lying to the jury in the case. The judge who overturned the two 
terror conspiracy convictions (out of four accused‹a third got convicted on 
document fraud charges) said, "The prosecution materially misled the court, the 
jury and the defense as to the nature, character and complexion of critical 
evidence that provided important foundations for the prosecution's case," 
including identifying doodles as sketches of targeted planes and military bases.
To boot, the main prosecution witness was a professional con man, and two 
witnesses who might have cast doubt on the government's case were deported 
before trial.

*One actual success, at least in terms of arrests and convictions that have not 
yet been overturned, was the takedown of the Lackawanna 6, a bunch of 
Buffalo-based Muslims. What they are guilty of is having attended an al Qaeda 
training camp, prior to 9/11. What they don't appear to be guilty of, by any 
evidence the government was able to present, was planning any terrorist act in 
the United States, despite long and intense FBI surveillance (brought to an end 
by direct order of President Bush, who wanted a collar, dammit.) Still, using 
the wonderful logic of post-9/11 terror-stopping laws and arrests, FBI agent Ed 
Needham, told the New York Times, "We were looking to prevent something. And we 
did. Obviously nothing happened. So we all did our job."

*Then there was the Lodi terror cell‹a father and son team, with the son 
convicted in April (the jury deadlocked on dad, who then prior to retrial pled 
guilty to a non-terror related offense and had the terror charges dropped in 
June) based merely on a pair of mutually contradictory confessions in which the 
FBI agents supplied all the details, with no corroborating evidence for his 
alleged attendance at Pakistan terror camps or plans to commit terrorist mayhem 
in the U.S. An experienced FBI agent who was kept from testifying on their 
behalf called the interrogations at the heart of this case "the sorriest 
interrogation, the sorriest confession, I've ever seen."

*The March 2004 conviction of three Muslims in Virginia (part of an initial 
group of 11, many of whom pled out to lesser charges) for playing paintball in 
the woods‹hyped by prosecutors as paramilitary training for jihad when combined 
with their connection with a Kashmiri separatist group that was not, at the time
of their possible attendance at one of their training camps, even on the U.S. 
list of official terror groups (though it is now). Again, no convincing evidence
of any specific plans to commit mayhem in America, as even the FBI 
admitted‹saying the arrests were more "preemption"‹a rather scary ground to 
criminalize playing paintball and supporting a foreign political cause.

*More recently, we've seen the June arrest of the hapless "Seas of David" group 
in Miami, who were induced by FBI plants to talk big about schemes to blow 
things up that they had no means to carry out.

*And who can forget the post-London "terror cell phone" of would-be cell phone 
resale entrepreneurs of the Arab extraction? Reports of this bust in the shadow 
of the "liquid bombs on a plane" scare indicated it was terror-related‹and 
included breathless reports of airline passenger lists and info in their 
possession. (It turns out one of their mothers worked for a Jordanian airline 
and left them in the car.) The case has since fizzled into a collection of 
misdemeanor charges of giving names to cops differing from those on the 
suspects' identification papers. Alleged terror plots have been forgotten.

The big picture is no more impressive than these sorry anecdotes. Two years 
after 9/11, a Syracuse University-based federal government information and 
watchdog group called Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) did a 
thorough analysis of post-9/11 terror law enforcement, finding that

    despite the three-and-a-half-fold increase in terrorism
    convictions [from the two years after 9/11 compared to two
    years before], the number who were sentenced to five years
    or more in prison has not grown at all from pre-9/11 levels.
    In fact, the number actually declined, dropping from 24
    individuals whose cases began before the attacks to 16
    after. What has jumped are the numbers of individuals
    convicted but sentenced to little or no prison time.

TRAC also found that many terror-related cases passed on to prosecutors by the 
feds were never acted on; "more than a third of them (34.9 percent) were 
rejected because the prosecutors decided they lacked evidence of criminal 
intent, or that there was minimal federal interest or that 'no federal offense 
was evident.' Another substantial number of referrals (14.9 percent) were 
declined because they were backed up by 'weak or insufficient admissible 
evidence.'" And remember, when the Justice Department crows about terror arrests
and plays on our 9/11 memories, that two post-9/11 "terror" cases which resulted
in significant prison sentences, according to TRAC,

    included a Georgia man who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years for
    detonating a pipe bomb in the then-empty car of his girl
    friend and a Texas convict who attempted to arrange the
    assassination of a federal judge in Colorado from his prison
    cell in Texas.

A June 2005 Washington Post analysis of Department of Justice terror cases found
only 39 legitimate convictions that had a clear terror or national security 
nexus; the median punishment (some indication of how serious courts ultimately 
considered their crimes) was 11 months.

None of this is proof that the country is not crawling with organized 
terror-planners, who may strike even while you are reading this sentence. 
However, when we look behind the headlines that attend an initial "terror cell 
bust," we don't seem to find any solid evidence that the country is harboring 
large numbers of terrorist conspirators‹or if it is, that U.S. law enforcement 
is doing any good at capturing them, with or without post-9/11 law enforcement 
tools and emphasis.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason and author of This Is Burning Man 
(Little, Brown), just out in paperback. His book on the history of the American 
libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism, will be out early next year from 

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