NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States has won convictions in 89 percent of cases involving terrorism charges brought since the September 11, 2001 attacks, a study by New York University’s Center on Law and Security found on Wednesday.
With the self-professed September 11 mastermind and four accused accomplices due to be tried in New York, the report found the federal courts provided a “a strong and effective system of justice for alleged crimes of terrorism.”
The Center on Law and Security reviewed 828 prosecutions that made up 337 cases against 804 people for its “Terrorist Trial Report Card: September 11, 2001 - September 11, 2009.”
“While we can only assess the cases that have been brought, federal prosecution has demonstrably become a powerful tool in many hundreds of cases, not only for incapacitating terrorists but also for intelligence gathering,” wrote the Center’s Executive Director Karen Greenberg.
The report found the Department of Justice had moved away from an initial practice of making high-profile arrests, but prosecuting few terrorism charges, to focusing more on building a case to pursue terrorism and other serious charges.
In the first year following the September 11, 2001 attacks, fewer than one in 10 announced terrorism arrests were tested in court, with prosecutors seeking lesser or unrelated charges. This rose the following year to fewer than two in five.
“The emphasis has shifted to trying accused terrorists as terrorists,” Greenberg said. “More and more, the allegations made in public have eventually been charged and proven in court.”
In 2001/02, just 8 percent of defendants labeled as “terrorists” in the media faced terrorism charges with 38 percent of those convicted, the center’s report found, while in 2006/07 47 percent of those called “terrorists” faced terrorism charges and 84 percent were convicted.
“The Justice Department has adopted a more disciplined approach, promising less in its public pronouncements and delivering more in the courtroom,” Greenberg said.
The study found the number of terrorism cases has fallen to an annual average of less than 30 from 127 cases indicted in the year following September 11, 2001.
Of the defendants whose citizenship could be identified, the report found the largest group was from the United States.
It said an accused affiliation with an extremist group was identified for less than half of the defendants, with the most common affiliation being with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), while links to al Qaeda came in second, accounting for 11 percent of defendants.
In nearly two thirds of cases, no specific target for an attack was identified, the study said, while in cases that did involve a specific target, two thirds were aimed overseas and 16 percent focused on military bases, equipment or personnel.
The Center on Law and Security found the Justice Department had also developed a successful strategy for convincing defendants to cooperate, leading to more arrests and greater intelligence.
“Much of the government’s knowledge of terrorist groups has come from testimony and evidence produced in grand jury investigations, including information provided by cooperators, and in the resulting trials,” Greenberg said.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Todd Eastham