A federal jury in Manhattan has returned what is transparently a compromise verdict in the terrorism trial of Ahmed Ghailani.
The case centered on al-Qaeda’s bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. There were 285 counts, including separate murder charges for each of the 224 people killed. Ghailani was acquitted on 284 of them and convicted on a single charge of conspiracy to destroy government buildings.
That sounds like a great victory for Ghailani, but it is nothing of the kind. On the one count of conviction, Ghailani faces a sentence of up to life imprisonment, and there is a mandatory minimum term of 20 years in jail. In that sense, it is a victory for the government: The object of a terrorism trial is to neutralize the terrorist, and one count will do the trick.
But beyond that, the Justice Department walks away from the case as a big loser. That’s because the Obama administration made this much more than a terrorism trial. It cherry-picked the case to be a demonstration that the civilian criminal-justice system is up to the task of trying terrorists. This was to be the “turn the clock back” moment — specifically, back to the Clinton years, when Eric Holder was deputy attorney general and when prosecution in civilian courts was the U.S. government’s principal response to the jihadist onslaught that began with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
This was the model that Barack Obama campaigned on and that the anti-anti-terrorist Left takes as an article of faith. No more Bush-era counterterrorism: no enemy combatants, no military commissions, no indefinite detention, and certainly no aggressive interrogation. The president and his attorney general are adamant that “the rule of law” must be restored.
Never mind that the laws of war — which support all the Bush-administration measures — are
the rule of law during wartime. Never mind that at no point in our history have the nation’s wartime enemies been given access to the civilian justice system and endowed with all the protections and presumptions that American citizens receive. To the Obama Left, the law-enforcement approach is effective national security, a way to win the hearts and minds of Muslims and consequently make ourselves safer. It makes no difference that the country was demonstrably unsafe — and repeatedly attacked — during the Clinton years. Nor does it matter that people in Islamic countries have no idea of the legal differences between American civilian and military proceedings — they care only that we are imprisoning Muslims, not about the abstruse details of our basis for doing so.
The Obama Justice Department saw the Ghailani case as the perfect opportunity for the civilian system to prove itself. After all, the case had already been tried successfully: In 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, four terrorists were convicted and sentenced to life terms. Moreover, while critics of the law-enforcement counterterrorism model emphasize that civilian due process requires the government to hand over too much sensitive intelligence, thereby educating the enemy while we are trying to defeat the enemy, that argument was significantly diminished in Ghailani’s case. Because the case had already been tried in the civilian system, most of the relevant intelligence had already been disclosed. You could contend that this was not a good thing, but for better or worse it had already been done.
But instead of a shining moment for proponents of civilian prosecution, the Ghailani case is a body blow.