August 8, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: Terrorism and Recidivism in the U.S.
Within the United States, the so-called ‘war on terror’ has been fought primarily, and largely successfully, by law enforcement and civilian courts. The combination of terrorism investigations led by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)—aided by local, state, and international partners—and prosecutions handled by the U.S. Federal courts, has resulted in hundreds of convictions for terrorism-related crimes in the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Sixteen years later, the war on terrorism in its current form has lasted long enough that many of those convicted in the earliest material support cases will be reaching eligibility for release within 3-5 years. The prospective release of these individuals raises the question of how the U.S.—which treats and funds terrorism cases much differently than other crimes—will mitigate the risk of recidivism among those released.
According to an August 6 report by the Associated Press (AP), the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (the federal penal system which houses those convicted of federal terrorism charges) is holding 380 individuals convicted of crimes related to international terrorism, and another 83 for those involving domestic terrorism. There will likely be a spike in both of those numbers, given the high pace of terrorism investigations by the FBI involving the so-called Islamic State. The FBI has upwards of 900 ongoing terrorism investigations, though these cases vary widely in terms of their seriousness and complexity.
While some of those convicted of terrorism offenses receive life sentences, the bulk of the post-9/11 cases involve the suspect providing some level of ‘material support or resources’ to a terrorist group. The U.S. criminal codes for the two most common charges are 18 U.S.C. §§2339A and 2339B, with the latter specifically pertaining to foreign or designated terrorist groups. The level of actual support in these cases varies widely, from providing iTunes gift cards which can be used as cash, to attempting to join the Islamic State and kill in its name. The sentence for a conviction of one count of 2339A is no more than 15 years; 2339B is no more than 20. Thus, many of those convicted of material support crimes in the years just after 9/11 will start to be released over the next five years or so.
Two factors may help mitigate the risk posed by those released on terrorism-related crimes. First, the number of potential releasees is very small when compared to the overall prison population. Second, terrorism cases are treated very differently than other criminal investigations and prosecutions. There is no shortage of manpower and funding when it comes to terrorism cases. The question is whether the increased attention, funding, and prioritization dedicated to terrorism cases continues during a convicted individual’s incarceration, and then post-release. These individuals will likely be monitored more closely than other released prisoners. However, as we’ve seen in the EU, adequately monitoring individuals who may still be committed to conducting attacks is particularly challenging, especially with law enforcement agencies already operating at full capacity. The wide range in material support cases—from the amateur and simplistic (though still potentially deadly and serious) to the more committed and concrete—means the risk of recidivism, as with all crime, is highly dependent on the individual in question.
One factor that may increase the risk of terrorism-related recidivism in the U.S. is the unique set of motivations behind such crimes. Most violent criminals are young, and tend to ‘age out’ of violent crime, although there are exceptions to be sure. Incarcerating individuals convicted of the most serious violent crimes for long periods of time thus removes those individuals from society during their years of potential peak violent criminal activity. While some of those convicted of material support for terrorism acted impulsively, the ideological pull of groups like the Islamic State is such that supporters of terrorism often do not ‘age out’ of their motivations. The continued pace of terrorism investigations, and the looming release of hundreds of individuals convicted of terrorism-related crimes, highlights the need for proactive solutions to the challenge of recidivism.
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