|"The last several weeks or months have been kind of a crucible experience for us," said David Cris, the top terrorism official in the Obama administration's Justice Department. (AP File)|
Number of terror suspects spikes in past year
Internet recruits, new tactics cited
WASHINGTON - The number of suspects facing federal terrorism charges dramatically increased in 2009, providing evidence of what analysts call a rise in plots spurred by Internet recruitment, the spread of Al Qaeda overseas, and ever-shifting tactics of terror chiefs.
A review of major national security cases by the Associated Press found 54 defendants had federal terrorism-related charges filed or unsealed against them in the past 12 months.
The Justice Department would not confirm the figure or provide its own. But an agency spokesman said 2009 had more defendants charged with terrorism than any year since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The year that came closest was 2002, said the spokesman, Dean Boyd.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, called it “an extraordinary year, across the board,’’ adding that the wide range of cases show Al Qaeda “is in it for the long haul and we need to be as well.’’
The rate of terrorism charges accelerated in September, when authorities disrupted what they said was a burgeoning plot to detonate bombs aboard New York commuter trains.
The quick pace of cases continued until the end of the year, with an attempted Christmas bombing aboard a Detroit-bound airliner.
Congressional hearings are scheduled to begin today on why the National Counterterrorism Center failed to block the attempted airline bombing. The agency’s director, Michael E. Leiter, is scheduled to testify.
The counterterrorism center was formed in 2004, as part of the governmental changes that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. Its job is to integrate and analyze information from 16 government departments and agencies, including the Defense Department, the CIA, and the FBI.
One day in 2009 was particularly heavy for terrorism prosecutors: On Sept. 24, federal officials announced charges in five separate terrorism cases in Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.
David Kris, the top terrorism official in the Obama administration’s Justice Department, marveled at the volume of terrorism cases when he spoke at a conference of lawyers in November.
“The last several weeks or months have been kind of a crucible experience for us,’’ Kris said.
What truly constitutes a terrorism case can be a matter of legal and political debate.
In counting major terrorism cases, the AP used a rigorous standard that produced a conservative count. The various charges that made the list include conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, conspiring to murder people abroad, and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. The list also includes some cases that did not involve Islamic terrorists, such as the kidnapping of a US citizen in Panama.
But the 54 defendants do not include, for example, those charged only with lying to agents in a terrorism investigation or the Army psychiatrist in the Fort Hood military base shooting who faces nonterrorism murder charges brought by military prosecutors instead of civilian charges. Nor do the 54 include the five Washington, D.C.-area youths charged in Pakistan. If all those cases were also added the total number of defendants would be 63.
David Burnham of Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a private group at Syracuse University that analyzes government prosecution data, urged caution in counting terrorism charges.
“You have to be careful because everyone’s got a different way of doing it,’’ Burnham said.
Public charges don’t reflect other law enforcement activity, such as investigations that don’t lead to terrorism charges or sealed indictments that have yet to be revealed.
For example, in 2002 in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, there were a tremendous number of active investigations, and in some cases suspected terrorists were not actually charged with terrorism, but faced lesser accusations such as credit card fraud or immigration violations.
As hectic as 2009 was, counterterrorism officials will only be busier this year as the administration prepares to bring some Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial in the United States, predicted Patrick Rowan, who was President George W. Bush’s top Justice Department counterterrorism official and now works at the private law firm McGuire Woods.
“It is going to be an extremely busy and challenging year because of these Gitmo cases coming in that are going to place tremendous stress on the prosecutors, the judicial system, and the FBI,’’ said Rowan.
As for what’s behind the current increase, Rowan said it is too soon to tell whether the rise is temporary or will continue.
Anti-terrorism agents and prosecutors are more experienced and better at building criminal cases, Rowan said, but the terrorists have also adapted, using the Internet to recruit or in some cases just motivate lone attackers who take action on their own.