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World: Are Trials A Deterrent To Terrorism?

A courtroom artist's depiction of Zacarias Moussaoui's trial April saw landmark legal proceedings in the United States and Spain against accused terrorists with suspected links to Al-Qaeda.

The U.S. State Department reported on 28 April that 651 serious international terrorist incidents took place in 2004, more than triple the 175 such incidents recorded the previous year.

Even amid the trials in Europe and the United States, it seems appropriate to ask whether secular Western justice provides the best avenue to trying individuals who reject those systems' authority and show little fear of their judgments.

The Trials

In a courtroom hearing in Arlington, Virginia on 22 April, Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty to all six counts of conspiracy to engage in terrorism. With the plea, Moussaoui became the first person to be convicted in a U.S. court in connection with the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Then on 26 April a jury in Alexandria, Virginia convicted Ali al-Timimi, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader, to what prosecutors say will be a mandatory life sentence. He was found guilty of all 10 charges against him, the most damaging of which was soliciting others to wage war against the United States.
"Let justice be done, though the world perish." -- Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I

In Spain -- the second country after Germany outside the United States to try suspects in connection with the 9/11 attacks on the United States -- a trial of 24 suspects accused by the Spanish government of membership in Al-Qaeda began in Madrid on 21 April. Among the accused are Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, a Spaniard of Syrian origin who has been charged with being the leader of Al-Qaeda in Spain. Yarkas denied in court being a follower of Osama bin Laden, VOA news reported on 26 April.

Another defendant in Madrid is Al-Jazeera correspondent Tayssir Alouni, who was arrested on 12 September 2003. Alouni's exclusive interviews with bin Laden made him famous during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. His arrest has raised questions about the propriety of the relationship between the popular televised Arabic-language news program and Al-Qaeda.

Among the accused but not present in Madrid is Mamoun Darkanzali, a German of Syrian origin who has appealed against extradition from Germany to Spain. According to the website, "Spanish authorities claimed Darkanzali had been an important figure, providing logistical and financial support to bin Laden in Britain, Spain, and Germany since 1997." In the past, Darkanzali has denied any links with Al-Qaeda. He faces up to 12 years in prison in Spain if convicted of membership of a terrorist organization.

(The current trial in Madrid is not to be confused with another investigation linked to the 11 March 2004 train bombing in Madrid, which killed 202 people and wounded 1,700. In that case, evidence pointed to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which the authorities have linked to Al-Qaeda and have accused in the suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco in 2003. By January, Spanish police had arrested 62 suspects linked to the train bombing, according to CNN on 5 January.)

In Germany, few militants have been convicted. The most important case to date has been that of Mounir al-Motassadeq, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in February 2003 but subsequently ordered released by an appellate-court decision.

Motassadeq was alleged to have been a member of a local terrorist cell in Hamburg led by one of the presumed pilots in the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed Atta.

Lack Of A Deterrent

Regardless of the outcome of the Madrid trail, the confession and conviction in Virginia, and convictions in other trials held around the world, the number of terrorist attacks has risen dramatically. This has led some to question whether trials are a successful deterrent in the war on terrorism -- or simply an avenue to punishing terrorists.

"European criminal systems and courts must learn to deal with ruthless terrorists who proclaim their innocence at all costs," Emerson Vermaat, the author of "Al-Qaeda's Deadly Planning," which was published recently in the Netherlands, wrote in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" of 27 April. "If a terrorist operation can be halted by arresting someone involved in it, even in the absence of conclusive proof, so much the better."

Vermaat said he sees the existing court system as weak and ineffective when it comes to dealing with terrorists. Courts in Europe are arguably prone to releasing suspects on technicalities, which in at least one instance appear to have allowed a terrorist to return to illegal activities.

And while the sharp jump in reported terrorist incidents might be partly due to a change in the methodology for tabulating terrorist attacks, the overall picture that emerges is that terrorism is on the rise and the traditional role of the criminal justice system as a deterrent is not working.

Terrorists, unlike other criminals, do not seem overly concerned with being placed on trial and punished for their acts. Incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation -- three of the main goals of the criminal justice system -- do not seem have a noticeable impact on terrorists.

Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, has written: "The criminal justice system, as effective as it has been in dealing with terrorist defendants, also has obvious -- and maybe some not so obvious -- limitations. One limitation of the criminal justice system is that it necessarily has only limited deterrent effect" (

White continues: "We must recognize that when we are dealing with a very large number of committed extremists who are willing, indeed anxious, to die in service of their cause, the deterrent effect that we can achieve through prosecutions is necessarily limited. We clearly need other, more broadly effective measures."

While White goes on to list a number of such measures -- including better intelligence gathering and coordination between law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- one question remains unanswered: Does the secular Western legal system provide the best way of trying individuals who do not recognize its authority over them or their acts, and therefore do not fear its judgments?