U.S. Efforts to Extradite Terrorism Suspects Founder
Sunday, December 21, 2008
SOUTH LITTLETON, England -- Soon after al-Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, a U.S. federal judge issued a warrant for Khalid al-Fawwaz, an accused conspirator in the attacks and a confidant of Osama bin Laden.
British police promptly arrested Fawwaz, a Saudi national, at his home in London. Two other al-Qaeda suspects were later detained nearby. British authorities pledged to extradite the men to the United States as swiftly as possible so they could stand trial.
But a decade later, none of the defendants has moved any closer to a U.S. courtroom. One died of cancer in July. The other two, including Fawwaz, remain in prison here as their hearings drag on.
As the long-delayed British extraditions show, it is extraordinarily difficult to bring international terrorism suspects to justice by prosecuting them in U.S. civilian courts. The cases underscore the challenge facing President-elect Barack Obama as he tries to find a way to close the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and end the military tribunals set up by the Bush administration to handle terrorism cases from abroad.
Britain and other allies have long complained about Guantanamo, the tribunals and extralegal U.S. tactics used to fight al-Qaeda. At the same time, however, they have often blocked or resisted efforts by the U.S. government to prosecute accused terrorists in federal court.
Fawwaz and the others are among half a dozen accused terrorists whom the U.S. government has been seeking for years to extradite from Britain. Despite British approval of a "fast-track" extradition law in 2003 and a new treaty with the United States, the defendants have thwarted every attempt to deport them, aided by a British bureaucracy in no hurry to move the cases along.
"When we follow the letter of the law, it's not good enough for them. I think they're just trying to thumb their nose at us," said Daniel J. Coleman, a retired FBI agent who investigated the 1998 embassy bombings and pushed for Fawwaz's arrest. "They view us as the Belgian Congo. It's insulting to the United States. Our justice system is better than theirs."
Other allies have also been reluctant to extradite terrorism suspects for trial in the United States, sometimes letting them go free instead.
In December 2005, Germany freed convicted terrorist Mohammed Ali Hammadi, who had hijacked a TWA flight in Europe in 1985 and was serving a life sentence. Instead of deporting him to the United States, where he had been indicted for murdering a U.S. Navy diver during the hijacking, Germany allowed him to return to his native Lebanon, which does not have an extradition treaty with Washington. U.S. officials filed a diplomatic protest in Berlin and are offering a $5 million reward for Hammadi's arrest.
In Yemen, the government has refused to extradite three al-Qaeda members indicted in the United States, including two men charged in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Yemen says it cannot extradite the men because they are Yemeni citizens. But it has also refused to keep them locked up, ignoring $5 million rewards posted by the U.S. State Department for their capture.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, the United States has managed to extradite a handful of minor terrorist figures. Oussama Kassir, accused of running terrorist Web sites and other crimes, was extradited from the Czech Republic in September 2007. Wesam al-Delaema, charged with trying to kill Americans in Iraq, was extradited from the Netherlands in January 2007. But most al-Qaeda leaders in U.S. custody have been apprehended overseas by the CIA, in secret operations designed to avoid judicial oversight.
Obstacles to extradition have loomed especially large in Britain, where al-Qaeda suspects have exploited a cumbersome legal process and a slow-moving bureaucracy to stave off deportation.