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Guilt By Association Needed to Nab Terrorists



In Vietnam, most historians agree that America fought with one hand tied behind its back. In the current war against terrorism, we may be doing the same, but not because of our lack of political will. Instead, we are constrained by our commitment to individual liberty and due process.

One illustration of this is our criminal law that prevents us from convicting terrorists based on guilt by association. The U.S. declined an offer by Sudan to extradite Osama bin Laden in 1996 because it lacked sufficient evidence to convict him in a U.S. court. While bin Laden had committed few, if any, terrorist acts at that point, we knew that he was in the process of organizing a vast terrorist network.

Although we cannot change history, we face a similar quandary today. Evidence may indicate that many of the hundreds of individuals in the U.S. currently sought by the F.B.I. have general ties to bin Laden and Al-Qaida, but there may be no proof that some of these individuals participated in any specific acts of terror or even knew of them. This is especially likely given the reports that bin Laden’s terrorist cells operate largely independently to reduce the risk of an informant.

Unfortunately, our criminal laws may be inadequate to successfully prosecute such individuals. In order to be convicted of conspiracy, the defendant must have participated in planning a specific act, not merely be a member of a group engaged in organized crime. To overcome this difficulty and successfully prosecute organized crime units such as the Mafia, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) was enacted in 1970.

However, for several reasons, RICO is inadequate for prosecuting people who are simply members of terrorist groups. First, the defendant himself must have engaged in a "pattern of racketeering activity." This has been interpreted by courts to mean that the defendant himself must have committed at least two underlying crimes. The fact that the defendant is a member of a terrorist enterprise that has committed crimes is insufficient.

Secondly, in Reves v. Ernst & Young, the Supreme Court held that, in order to be convicted under RICO, the defendant must participate in the management or operation of the criminal enterprise. Thus, underlings like Mohammed Atta who simply following instructions from bin Laden or his lieutenants, may be exempt from RICO.

Finally, although RICO prohibits conspiracies, such a conspiracy occurs only when the purpose of the conspiracy is to employ a pattern of racketeering acts, or income derived from them, to acquire an interest in an enterprise, or to conduct an enterprise's affairs. This is inapplicable to most terrorists, whose goal is not to acquire or control enterprises, but to destroy human life.

In addition to RICO, there is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that states, in part, “whoever within the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.” This penalty is probably too light but, more importantly, this Act does nothing to allow for the criminal prosecution of a member of a terrorist network in the United States who does not give financial support, but is simply waiting for instructions. 

This leaves several options. Most immediately, the U.S. could extradite such individuals to their home country, especially if it is an Arab regime friendly to the U.S. In these countries, they are not burdened by our legalisms; they simply behead infidels and ask questions later.

However, Congress must take action to fill this gap in our criminal laws. One approach would be to amend RICO or pass a new law stating that being associated with a terrorist group is a prosecutable offense, even if the defendant has not yet committed an underlying crime.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is nothing in the Constitution forbidding guilt by association. While the First Amendment protects freedom of association, the framers certainly did not mean to include the freedom to be part of a criminal association.

Nevertheless, to avoid any First Amendment challenge, the legislation could include a short grace period in which anyone in the U.S. who has had past communications or associations with Al-Qaida or another terrorist group would be required to contact authorities to explain their involvement and tell all they know. Thus, the First Amendment would not be an issue, as the actual crime would be not coming forward, rather than associating with a terrorist group.

To be sure, there are dangers, such as if the definition of terrorist groups was somehow excessively broadened to include, for example, a generally peaceful anti-abortion group because one member happens to bomb an abortion clinic. However, the State Department recently released its updated list of 28 terrorist organizations. This list is based on sharply defined criteria, making abuses unlikely.

Abraham Lincoln had to suspend habeas corpus and trample on some civil liberties in order to preserve the union and end slavery. In this war against terrorism on our own soil, we must not only make sure that our hands aren’t tied; we must take the gloves off.

Marc Levin is Executive Vice President of the American Freedom Center (, a Houston-based legal and public policy research institute. He can be contacted at


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