New York Terrorist Plot a Test for Domestic Counterterrorism StrategyLiubomir Topaloff on May 29, 2009 in US Foreign Policy Commentaries
The recently released by FBI information about the arrests of four suspects who allegedly planned to blow up a few synagogues in NYC and shoot down military planes with a ground-to-air Stinger missile system will now become, perhaps, the greatest test for the argument that counterterrorism could be conducted successfully via the traditional court systems, without extrajudicial methods, such as Guantanamo or similar renditions.
To examine this I look into the particulars of each approach.
Theoretical Models of Crime Prevention and Counter-Terrorism: Memento Rumsfeld and his notorious ‘unknown unknowns?‘
He may be out of office, but the specter of his sound realist logic and eloquent expression is going to circle around for some time. If you have missed the splendid argument he made in front of a journalistic crowd in February of 2002, let me sum it up. Rumsfeld concluded, with absolute logical soundness, “There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.” You can’t object to that.
The problem with any successful counterterrorism policy is that a big part of it is to know the ‘unknown unknowns.’ One has to make a clear divide between the traditional court system designed to counter crime and a terrorism act. In all truth, each and every act of terrorism constitutes a crime, while not every crime is a terrorism act. This statement is no different than the claim that while all killers may be sent to jail, not all prisoners sent to jail are killers. This is a simple case of a subgroup. It sometimes entails, however, logical traps and one has to be careful how the statements are made. Consider
The Current Case
The arrested individuals, James Cromitie (a.k.a. Abdul Rahman), David Williams (a.k.a. Daoud), Onta Williams (a.k.a. Hamza), and Laguerre Payen (a.k.a. Amin) made a deal with a ‘cooperating witness’ (CW), whose identity and sex is not revealed (it is almost certain that he is a male).
They attempted to purchase Composite-4 (C-4) military plastic explosives and anti aircraft land-to-air missile system in order to blow up several synagogues and Jewish community centers in the Bronx. In cooperation with the FBI, CW furnished them with 30 pounds of inert C-4 which cannot explode, and a Stinger system which cannot fire. Now the defendants will have to stand trial to see if the court system will be able to sentence them for their alleged terrorist plot. , for example, the following: “some mathematicians wear glasses; anyone who wears glasses is an algebraist; ergo, all mathematicians are algebraists.” This is rather incorrect, and the problem is to be found in the fact that there may be mathematicians who are not algebraists but still wear glasses. Agreed? In the case of terrorism, the criminal investigation comes after the crime is committed. It cannot be otherwise. If we claim that we should preemptively prevent a crime from happening, what proof would we have that it would have happened in a first place? This issue served as the plot of one rather dull movie, The Minority Report, but the premise there was correct â€“ prosecuting crime based on intent is not only difficult to prove, but also plain wrong and sometimes could serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The penal system functions on the basis of deterrence. It is assumed that people are prone to evil doing, out of self-interest, nature, or emotions, but with the proper deterrents in place, only a few will cross the line. Ideally prosecution serves as both, a way to deliver justice and vengeance for victims and their families, as well as serve as a deterrent to would be criminals. Does it work? This is beyond the scope of today’s discussion.
With regard to terrorism, deterrence, punishment, and deliverance of justice clearly do not work. The threat to state and society from terrorism does not come from the dreadfulness of the act alone, but more from the symbolism of the act. Terrorists attack randomly and make a strong point that the state cannot guarantee their ontological security, therefore undermining the credibility of the state to fulfill its most basic duty â€“ provision of ontological security for its citizens over all other goals. In that sense prevention and preemption of a terrorist plot becomes essential.
Successful counterterrorism strategy, as we have established, relies upon thorough preliminary intelligence in order to prevent an attack; that is to deny the terrorists the ability to carry out an attack. This approach requires knowledge about the potential plot, ability to infiltrate, and ultimately prevent the attack without compromising or destroying potential evidence before it can be used against the terrorists. The following is a very short list of the problems associated with the implementation of this approach:
- The terrorist group may be too large and it may be impossible to comprehend the traits of the plotters, especially if the structure of organization is flat, and the leadership structure is either acephalous (that is without a formal leadership), or policephalos (that is with many centers of leadership);
- The group may be hard to detect because its structure is decentralized and consisting of cells, some of which are dormant until activated without showing signs suspicious activity;
- The group may be too small â€“ remember the Oklahoma bombing? How is it possible to infiltrate such a small and closed group? Or even worse, what about singular terrorists like the Unabomber?
- The group may be not only very secretive but also extremely closed â€“ membership in some groups is tested and re-tested constantly, and infiltration is nearly impossible, while reprisals against potential ‘traitors’ are severe and go far beyond the immediate physical punishment of the collaborators.
The Issue with the current case
One thing is for sure, the people living in the Bronx where the synagogues and the Jewish community centers are located must be extremely grateful that the FBI foiled the plot. The complaint for arrest of the four suspects, which reveals much of the information made public so far points to a premeditated attempt to disrupt the public order and randomly kill innocent people. The justification, as it is usually in such cases, is that the act would have been a moral response to what has been going on in Afghanistan. It is important to emphasize here that this is a case of home grown or domestic terrorism, as the only alleged link of the terrorists to an ‘international’ terrorist organization is the pretended impersonation of the CW as an affiliate to the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed, or JEM), a militant group which was founded in the late 1990s by Maulana Masood Azar, the former leader of the ultra-fundamentalist Islamist group Harkat ul-Mujahidin (HUM). Both JEM and HUM are listed by the US State Department as terrorist organizations, and both have focused on Kashmir, while actively developing connections with al-Qaeda. In any case, CW’s claim was contrived with the active help of the FBI.
The first serious test for the future trial will be in the form of the court. All evidence indicates that the defendants will be put on trial in a Federal court. This will exert extraordinary pressure on the prosecutors and would-be jurors to deliver justice, while simultaneously making it an exemplary trial. The more important issue would be the level of involvement of the CW. So far the evidence presented in the complaint indicates that Abdul Rahman has acted as the ringleader. However, much will depend on the ability of the defense and the prosecutors to determine the level of involvement of the CW. Was he just a supplier and imposter? Or was he an active participant in the planning and execution of the fake plot? The second could harm rather than help the prosecution of the terrorists. Furthermore, it is rather unclear at this point who funded the operation and how the funds were raised. This would be another hot issue, if it turns out that the CW had anything to do with this.
In short, the major challenge for this trial would be whether the prosecutors will be able to establish clear and independent intent by the perpetrators, or whether there is a chance that the CW played a somewhat leading role in the foiled terrorist attempt. In similar cases involving European suspects, such as Mamount Darkazanli, or Mounir al-Motassadek, the acused were released when the evidence was found to be either tainted or insufficient.
Other times it was a clear attempt to irritate the hubris and arrogant Bush Administration. The current case may turn to be a serious litmus test not only for the ability of the US judicial system to play a vital role in a more flexible counter-terrorism policy, a role for which most of the civil advocate groups vociferously support, but also for the current Obama Administration’s ability to put many of the Guantanamo detainees on trial. The trial will roughly coincide with another anti-terrorism case, which soon opens in New York. The suspect is
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who has been indicted for his role in the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. While the time and space approximation of the trials seem to make them two of a kind, in truth, they will be very different. Mr. Ghailani’s trial is what the former CIA director George Tenet would perhaps call a “slam dunk” as most of the evidence against him has been well collected even before 9/11, while in the later case the trial will have to demonstrate resolute to deal with terrorist threat while keeps from compromising the foundation of the justice system ‘guilty until proven guilty.’
Most importantly, the opponents on both sides of the debate for or against special legislation and special case treatment of terrorist suspects will have a grand showdown.
And the century old dilemma â€“ are the terrorists criminals and how to prosecute them in a democracy, will once again hit the wall of public policy, and political reconciliation. For one, I wonder about the real merits of the whole ‘terrorism branding’ business, apart of course from its overt propaganda use. At the end of the day, if there is a crime against people and property, it should be treated like one. If there is none, one has to wait and pray it does not happen. Otherwise, we risk opening a can of worms of exceptions, and as it is well known, temporary exceptions last forever.