Correction to This Article
An article in an early edition on June 12 incorrectly said that a Washington Post analysis of Justice Department data found 19 convictions for terrorism- and national- security-related crimes since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The correct number is 39. The mistake was caused by a typographical error.
Page 2 of 4   <       >

U.S. Campaign Produces Few Convictions on Terrorism Charges

Authorities have said the cases of Ali Alubeidy, left, and Mohammed Alibrahimi were not linked to terrorism, but the Justice Department still calls them terrorism-related.
Authorities have said the cases of Ali Alubeidy, left, and Mohammed Alibrahimi were not linked to terrorism, but the Justice Department still calls them terrorism-related. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

"For so many of these cases, there seems to be much less substance to them than we first assume or have first been told," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand Corp., a think tank that conducts national security research. "There's an inherent deterrent effect in cracking down on any illicit activity. But the challenge is not exaggerating what they were up to -- not portraying them as super-terrorists when they're really the low end of the food chain."

Justice Department officials say they have not sought to exaggerate the importance or suspected associations of those prosecuted in connection with terrorism probes, and they argue that the list provides only a partial view of their efforts.

Officials said all the individuals were first put on the list because of a suspected connection or allegation related to terrorism. Last week, they also said that the department had tightened the requirements for including a case on the terrorism list.

Barry M. Sabin, chief of the department's counterterrorism section, said prosecutors frequently turn to lesser charges when they are not confident they can prove crimes such as committing or supporting terrorism. Many defendants also have been prosecuted for relatively minor crimes in exchange for information that is not public but has proved valuable in other terrorism probes, he said.

"A person could not have been put on this list if there was not a concern about national security, at least initially," he said. "Are all these people an ongoing threat presently? Arguably not. . . . We are not trying to overstate or understate what we're doing. You don't want to put language or a label on people that is inconsistent with what they have done."

The Numbers

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department database has served as the key source of statistics on the status of terrorism investigations in the United States and has been cited frequently in official speeches and testimony to Congress. The list obtained by The Post includes 361 cases defined as terrorism investigations by the department's criminal division from Sept. 11, 2001, through late September 2004. Thirty-one entries could not be evaluated because they were sealed and blacked out. (The list does not include about 40 cases filed since then that account for Bush's total of about 400.) The Post sought to update and correct data whenever possible, including noting convictions or sentences handed down within the past nine months.

The list of domestic prosecutions does not include terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba or at secret locations around the world. Nor does it include many of the approximately 50 people the Justice Department has acknowledged detaining as "material witnesses," or three men held in a military prison in South Carolina, one of whom has been released.

The Post identified 180 cases in which no connection to al Qaeda or another terrorist group could be found in court records, official statements, the 9/11 commission report or news accounts. Even some of the terrorism-related cases featured early allegations of terrorist connections that were later dropped.

Of the 142 individuals on the list linked to terrorist groups, 39 were convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security. More than a dozen defendants were acquitted or had their charges dismissed, including three Moroccan men in Detroit whose convictions were tossed out in September after the Justice Department admitted prosecutorial misconduct.

Not surprisingly, these minor crimes produced modest punishments. The median sentence for all cases adjudicated, whether or not they were terrorism-related, was 11 months. About three dozen other defendants were given probation or were deported. The most common convictions were on charges of fraud, making false statements, passport violations and conspiracy.

Two life sentences have been handed down so far: to Richard Reid, the British drifter who was foiled by passengers in his attempt to blow up an aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean; and Masoud Khan, a Maryland man convicted of traveling to Pakistan and seeking to fight with the Taliban against U.S. forces. Two others convicted of terrorism-related crimes face life sentences: Ahmed Abdel Sattar, an Egyptian-born postal worker convicted of conspiring to kill and kidnap in a foreign country; and Ali Timimi, a Northern Virginia spiritual leader convicted of encouraging others to attend terrorist camps. (Timimi was indicted in late September and was not on the list obtained by The Post.)

Only 14 of those convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security have clear links to bin Laden's network, most notably Moussaoui and Reid. Others include Faris, an admitted member of al Qaeda who sought to sabotage the Brooklyn Bridge, and six Yemeni men from Lackawanna, N.Y., convicted of providing material support to terrorists by attending an al Qaeda training camp before Sept. 11.

<       2           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company