Al-Marri Is (Probably) a Terrorist — We Should Have Tried Him

The Justice Department received an extension from the Supreme Court in the pending appeal of Ali Saleh Mohamed Kahlah al-Marri, an exchange student who allegedly arrived in the United States on September 10th, 2001, as an Al Qaeda sleeper agent. He is the only person presently domestically detained as an enemy combatant, a practice I oppose. The Obama administration is taking the extra time to reconsider the government’s position.

The Fourth Circuit previously held that al-Marri can continue to be detained as an enemy combatant. The unclassified version of the evidence against him is available in the Rapp Declaration. I highly recommend you read the whole thing. Al-Marri is (probably) a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda. We should have tried him.

The fight against Al Qaeda is part military, part law enforcement. Whichever approach we use, this is a struggle where the population is not incidental to the battlefield, the population is the battlefield. Insurgencies and terrorism are 10% tactical, 90% propaganda. By making a legal martyr out of al-Marri, we give him a propaganda victory he has not earned.

The FBI did exactly what we want domestic terrorism investigators to do: it gathered evidence to produce an indictment. The government should have followed through with prosecution instead of moving him to a military brig. We prosecute domestic terrorists for criminal actions, and al-Marri should be treated no differently. 

Former FBI special agent and terrorism expert Mike German infiltrated two domestic terror organizations and brought charges against their members. As German says in his excellent book, Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent, prosecuting terrorists for fraud charges should not give us pause. 

As an FBI agent my counterterrorism investigations never resulted in anyone being charged with terrorism. The terrorists I arrested were charged with specific criminal offenses; possessing and transferring illegal firearms and explosive devices, illegally using firearms and destructive devices, conspiring to use illegal firearms and destructive devices, and conspiring to violate civil rights. Terrorists use these crimes to accomplish their political goals. Once I had evidence of their illegal activities, I could bring charges against them. Certainly the motive behind their conduct came into play to prove they had the requisite criminal intent, but the laws I enforced had absolutely nothing to do with the terrorists’ ideology.

German also points out that terrorists rely on their claim to be something more akin to soldiers than criminals to maintain political legitimacy. IRA terrorists held by British authorities staged a hunger strike to retain treatment as “prisoners of war” rather than “criminals.” Ten of them willingly starved to death rather than be lumped in with murderers and rapists, the goal of the British “criminalization” strategy. As German writes:

The reasons for the hunger strike reveal much about the IRA and about terrorists in general. They didn’t strike over the anti-Catholic discrimination that led to the civil rights movement. They didn’t strike over the RUC’s police abuse or the stationing of British troops in Northern Ireland. They didn’t strike over being arrested without charges, interned, and tortured. They didn’t strike over indefinite detentions or even over Bloody Sunday. They knew all those things helped their cause. They went on hunger strike because the British government was going to make them look like criminals.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of the 9/11 attacks, sees the writing on the wall — the Obama administration intends to close down the Military Commissions and try him and his co-conspirators in a traditional court of law. This is why he tried to plead guilty and become a martyr for his cause. If we convict al-Marri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court and not a Military Commission or one of the proposed national security courts, the Al Qaeda boogey-man is revealed as a thug, not a noble Muslim soldier. 

Mike German’s recent Cato podcast with Caleb Brown is here. German also spoke on a panel at Cato’s recent conference, Shaping the Obama Administration’s Counterterrorism Strategy. The video file is available here and the podcast can be downloaded here. Cato filed an amicus brief in the al-Marri case with the Constitution Project and the Rutherford Institute.