New law heralds US terror shake-up
Chicago - The sentencing this week of a Nigerian man dubbed the underwear
bomber after he tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner could mark the end of
international terror prosecutions in US civilian courts.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty in October to eight terrorism
charges in the botched al-Qaeda Christmas Day 2009 plot and faces a mandatory
minimum sentence of life in prison on Thursday.
But the next big terror case in the United States will likely be handled by
a military tribunal due to a new law that will require those who plot or carry
out attacks on American soil to be held in military custody.
Civilian law enforcement had previously been charged with handling terror
suspects arrested on US soil.
President Barack Obama signed the bill reluctantly on December 31 to ensure
the funding of US military operations abroad.
The bill's provisions, however, were modified with the effect that civil law
enforcement can take the reins of a terror case if a waiver is obtained.
Detention without trial
"This waiver requirement politicises domestic terrorism investigations
and could backfire," said Dixon Osburn, director of law and security at
Human Rights First.
The bill also allows for the indefinite detention of terror suspects without
trial - including US citizens - but critics believe it could jeopardise
investigations by sidelining federal and local law enforcement and making it
difficult to transfer suspects out of military detention.
Civilian law enforcement has proven itself far more successful than the
military at prosecuting terrorism cases despite a decade-long debate over the
treatment of such suspects, Osburn said.
The case of Abdulmutallab, who concealed explosives in his underwear which
did not properly detonate, may be among the most high-profile, but it is not
the only example of a successful terror prosecution in a civilian court.
"It's one case out of more than 400 since [the terrorist attacks of]
9/11 where our federal courts have effectively brought individuals to justice
following our rules," Osburn said.
"That's in sharp contrast to military tribunals where only six people
have been convicted and there's 171 men in Guantanamo still waiting for a court
Surprise guilty plea
The head of the FBI's Detroit field office said the Abdulmutallab case showed
civilian law enforcement is the best way to handle domestic terrorism.
Speaking to reporters after the guilty plea, Andrew Arena noted there were
no military officials among the hundreds of agents and officers who rushed to
the airport after Abdulmutallab's explosives failed to detonate aboard a
Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam as it made its descent into Detroit.
"We did get actionable intelligence that day and in the days after
that," Arena said, noting that this information was obtained without
resorting to any controversial 'enhanced' interrogation tactics.
Abdulmutallab's high profile trial ended after his surprise guilty plea on
the second day of his trial.
Attorney General Eric Holder hailed the guilty plea for removing "any
doubt that our courts are one of the most effective tools we have to fight
terrorism and keep the American people safe".
Yet it had no impact on Republican lawmakers who insisted that the military
is best suited to fighting the war on terror both at home and abroad.
Victims to testify
The shift to military prosecution could also restrict the amount of
information available to the public, said Karen Greenberg, director of the
Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.
"The incredibly important thing is for the American people to understand
who wanted to harm them, why they wanted to hurt them and for the American
narrative to come out as well," she said.
Abdulmutallab's guilty plea will not prevent prosecutors - or the 289 people
he aimed to kill aboard that flight - weighing in on Thursday.
Several victims are expected to testify at the sentencing hearing, where
prosecutors will also make their case for the judge to impose the maximum
sentence on each count.