New law heralds US terror shake-up

2012-02-14 11:01

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 date."

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.