John Ashcroft reminded Americans Monday of how effective the government’s post-9/11 effort to thwart Islamic militancy has been, announcing the indictment of a second conspirator in the most audacious plot for a second wave of aerial terror. Simultaneously, the attorney general underscored how effectively the Bush administration has worked with America’s allies in that effort, and the importance of the Patriot Act in meeting the challenges of the new threat environment.
The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in Boston, alleges that Saajid Mohammed Badat conspired with already-convicted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid to destroy American aircraft in flight.
Badat’s arrest on November 27, 2003, by Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism branch, coupled with the seizure from his Gloucester home of a kilogram of PETN, a powerful and pliable explosive, had been one of series of incidents that roiled both sides of the Atlantic–leading to cancelled overseas flights and fears that a 9/11 reprise was imminent. Nevertheless, the new American indictment relates not to that holiday season of heightened alert, but to the even more charged atmosphere of the weeks right after the 9/11 attacks.
Badat is charged with helping Reid plan a suicide bombing of American Airlines Flight 63, a trans-Atlantic voyage commencing in Paris that was planned to end in Miami on December 22, 2001. In mid-journey, Reid frantically struck matches in an attempt to detonate an explosive device secreted in the soles of his shoes. As it turned out, there was something of a 9/11 redux–but it came in the form of heroism on the part of the flight’s passengers, who, like those on the doomed Flight 93, confronted their assailant, this time, thankfully, with success. The flight was diverted to Boston, where Reid was taken into custody, ultimately convicted, and sentenced to a life term.
In some particulars, the indictment against Badat is reminiscent of the ongoing prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the U.S. for participation in the 9/11 attacks. Much of the government’s theory of Moussaoui’s guilt hinges on actions he took–including flight training–that precisely track the known activities of the 9/11 hijackers. Badat is alleged to have engaged in a similar parallel pattern with Reid: both obtaining new passports from British authorities after falsely reporting that they’d lost the previously issued ones; both traveling to al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan for training; both moving thereafter to Europe; both creating numerous email accounts to facilitate covert communications; and most importantly, both obtaining shoe-bomb components for the purpose of attacking U.S. interests.
But the government does not merely seek an inference that the two must have been working together because their patterns were similar. The indictment alleges that Badat and Reid used the e-mail accounts to communicate directly with each other and coordinate their efforts. This consultation is the principal basis for alleging that Badat is complicit in Reid’s attempt to bomb Flight 63 even though Badat was not on the scene. But plainly, their partnership was broader: The indictment charges–without additional amplification–that their anti-American plotting was not limited to destroying aircraft in flight.
The case appears strong. The explosives seized from Badat at the time of his arrest appear to match those in Reid’s bomb-laden shoes. Badat, moreover, is alleged to have confessed to being tasked “to conduct a shoe bombing like Reid.”
The new indictment charges Badat with six specific crimes: conspiracies to destroy aircraft and commit murder, criminal attempts to do those things, the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, and placing of an explosive device aboard an airplane. If eventually extradited and prosecuted here, he would face life imprisonment.
Whether he will actually be extradited is nonetheless open to doubt. Following his arrest last year, British authorities charged Badat–a British national–with violations of their own antiterror and explosives laws. English extradition is a long and exacting process even when the person sought is not also being prosecuted by the U.K. Even this case is a good example of U.S./U.K. investigative cooperation, Badat is certain to argue that British authorities should not subject him to a second trial in the U.S., where penalties tend to be far stiffer than what serious criminals face in Europe.
Still, the American charges are a powerful reminder that aggressive domestic law enforcement remains a key component in the Bush administration’s comprehensive approach to fighting what Norman Podhoretz, among others, so aptly calls “World War IV.” While that vigilance has been subjected to withering challenge by privacy extremists (the self-styled “civil-liberties lobby”), it too often escapes notice that–although we know they are trying mightily–Islamic militants have failed to carry out a domestic U.S. attack in three years.
The case is also yet another demonstration of the Patriot Act’s value. As Ashcroft explained in announcing the charges, the investigation of Badat was aided by Patriot improvements that permit the government to seek search warrants for Internet data from a court in one jurisdiction that is most familiar with the investigation, rather than having to waste time and resources in the communications age by seeking multiple warrants wherever Internet service providers might do business.
Most importantly, Badat is a dangerous terrorist looking to harm the U.S. and its allies. The looming American charges will underscore the importance of ensuring that he is duly hammered in the British system.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and a member of the Coalition for Security, Liberty and the Law, which supports renewal of the Patriot Act.