National Security & Defense

The Corner

Do Captured Terrorists Belong in U.S. Courtrooms?

Today’s Morning Jolt features the shocking news about Matt Lauer’s sudden termination from NBC News, new polling numbers out of Alabama, and some not-so-great news out of a federal courtroom:

Do Captured Terrorists Belong in U.S. Courtrooms?

There are four potential conclusions to draw from the news that a jury convicted Libyan terrorist Ahmed Abu Khattala on several conspiracy charges, but not murder, in a U.S. federal criminal court yesterday.

1. Maybe the prosecution really dropped the ball. (Not likely.)

2. Maybe proving guilt for a chaotic terrorist attack halfway around the world is more difficult than it looks. (More likely, more on this in a moment.)

3. Maybe this is why military tribunals and/or drone strikes are a better way to deal with terrorists.

4. Maybe he just got the descendants of the O.J. Simpson jury.

As the New York Times points out, this is not the first time an Islamist terrorist walked into a U.S. courtoom and a jury decided not to convict on a slew of the most serious charges.

Khattala was convicted on four counts — including providing material support for terrorism, conspiracy to do so, destroying property and placing lives in jeopardy at the mission, and carrying a semiautomatic firearm during a crime of violence — but acquitted on 14 others. He faces life in prison.

The mixed verdict showed the difficulty of prosecuting terrorism cases when the evidence is not clear-cut. The outcome was reminiscent of the 2010 federal trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian man and former Guantánamo Bay detainee who was charged in federal court as a conspirator in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa that killed hundreds. Mr. Ghailani was acquitted of most of the charges, including each murder count for those who died, but he was still sentenced to life in prison for a conviction on one count of conspiracy.

This aspect of the case appears to support the second conclusion above:

Prosecutors acknowledged that no evidence existed that Mr. Khattala had personally fired any shots or set any buildings ablaze, but argued that he had nevertheless helped orchestrate the attacks and aided them while they were underway. To make that case, they drew primarily on testimony from three Libyan witnesses and on a database said to be Mr. Khattala’s cellphone records.

Prosecutors presented witnesses who said that leading up to the attacks, Mr. Khattala had talked about the need to get rid of what he saw as an American spy base in Benghazi, and gathered weapons with his militia a few days beforehand.

There were roughly 150 attackers in Benghazi more than five years ago; so far the United States government has captured just two of them. The U.S. caught the second perpetrator just last month, nabbing Mustafa Al-Imam during a special operations forces raid in Libya.

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