Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 04/2010

In Pursuit of Justice: Prosecuting Terrorism Cases in the Federal Courts

Richard B. Zabel, James J. Benjamin

May 2008

Human Rights First


In recent years, there has been much controversy about the proper forum in which to prosecute and punish suspected terrorists. Some have endorsed aggressive use of military commissions; others have proposed an entirely new ‘national security court’. However, as the nation strives for a vigorous and effective response to terrorism, we should not lose sight of the important tools that are already at our disposal, nor should we forget the costs and risks of seeking to break new ground by departing from established institutions and practices. As this White Paper shows, the existing criminal justice system has proved successful at handling a large number of important and challenging terrorism prosecutions over the past fifteen years without sacrificing national security interests, rigorous standards of fairness and due process, or just punishment for those guilty of terrorism-related crimes. We have analyzed the actual experience of more than 100 cases brought in federal court that involve terrorism that is associated organizationally, financially, or ideologically with self-described jihadist or Islamist extremist terrorist groups like al Qaeda. Based on our review of that data and our other research and analysis, we have found that the justice system has capably handled these cases, and continues to evolve to meet the challenge terrorism cases pose. This is not to say that the civilian criminal justice system, by itself, is the answer to the problem of terrorism far from it. However, as we move forward, we should confidently and judiciously make use of the criminal justice system an existing and valuable resource that reflects many of the best aspects of our legal and cultural traditionsÑas one of the important tools in the campaign to eradicate international terrorism.