TSC IntelBrief: The Islamic State Versus U.S. Civilian Courts
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Despite the fears of an ‘invasion’ of Islamic State supporters as they flee the group’s shrinking territory, the threat from the group in the U.S. has always been a very real, but manageable, concern.
• The combination of aggressive investigations by local and federal law enforcement and civilian court prosecutions is the best tool in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
• Counterterrorism depends on close and effective liaison with foreign governments; the August 28 arrest of 22-year-old Parveg Ahmed demonstrates how vital cooperation is between countries fighting the same enemy.
• Charges brought against ‘Sheikh Faisal’ in the State of New York show the diverse array of charges available to disrupt and deter criminal support for the Islamic State.
As the Islamic State’s territorial holdings continue to collapse in Syria and Iraq, the international community remains in a constant battle against the threat of attacks by the group’s followers, either as cells—as seen most recently in Spain—or as individuals. Addressing the threat from the collapsing Islamic State, and the ideology that will remain long after the fall of its ‘caliphate,’ will remain the counterterrorism challenge of our time. In the U.S., that challenge is being met with sustained success in terms of both preventing domestic attacks and disrupting foreign travel aimed at supporting the Islamic State elsewhere.
Despite the fears of an ‘invasion’ of Islamic State supporters or members as they flee the group’s shrinking territory, the threat from the group in the U.S. has always been a very real, but manageable, concern. The U.S. has suffered horrific terrorist attacks, such as those witnessed in Orlando or San Bernardino, but the relentless work of police from local to national levels, along with aggressive prosecution by civilian courts, have helped avert what are often simplistic plots from snowballing into deadly attacks. The U.S. also benefits from a relatively small number of people seeking to conduct attacks in the name of the Islamic State; in the last several years, the U.S. has charged less than 200 people with federal crimes related to the Islamic State, a remarkably small number given the large population of the country overall. While the violent ideology of the Islamic State is an issue of concern for domestic law enforcement, the population of the U.S. has proved remarkably resistant to its messaging.
On August 28, the Department of Justice (DOJ) brought federal charges against Parveg Ahmed, a 22-year-old U.S. citizen. Ahmed had traveled to Saudi Arabia in June 2017 for a religious holiday, but then attempted to travel to Syria for the Islamic State. He was detained by Saudi authorities and then deported back to the U.S. on August 28, where he was arrested. Counterterrorism depends on close and effective liaison with foreign governments, and this case demonstrates how vital cooperation is between countries fighting the same enemy. If convicted, Ahmed faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison without parole; such lengthy prison sentences are a hallmark of federal cases involving a charge of material support for terrorism.
On August 25, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office brought state terrorism charges against Trevor William Forrest aka ‘Sheikh Faisal.’ Faisal has a long history of terrorism-related charges and investigations; he was convicted in the U.K. for inciting murder in a terror-related case. After an eight-month investigation, the state charged Faisal with five felonies. Some of the crimes that Faisal was charged with were written into New York State law in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and New York has used these laws several times to charge people at the state level instead of depending on the federal system. The charges listed against Faisal show the breadth of his alleged crimes and the diverse array of charges available to disrupt and deter such criminal behavior: soliciting or providing support for an act of terrorism; attempting to provide support for an act of terrorism; and conspiracy in the fourth degree for an act of terrorism. Faisal was a charismatic speaker who attempted to persuade his followers not just to listen to his speeches on the ideology of the Islamic State, but also to travel to Syria and join or support the group. It is usually difficult to win a case in which the defendant simply encourages others to join a terrorist group, but providing material support of any kind in the furtherance of that goal is an element of the crime that the state now feels it can prove.
The combination of aggressive investigations by local and federal law enforcement and civilian court prosecutions is the best tool in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Contrast this with the abject legal failure and moral shame of the parallel system set up in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which still has not conducted a successful trial related to the September 11 attacks, despite great costs in time and resources. As the Islamic State continues to devolve back from a proto-terror state to a terrorist group, its dispersed followers will remain a significant threat in the West, and the civilian courts and law enforcement will remain the best defense.
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