The Joint Terrorist Task Force
The Joint Terrorist Task Force celebrated its 20th anniversary of the founding by the FBI and the New York Police Department (NYPD). The celebration was held (very appropriately) at the World Trade Center (WTC), the site of the February 1993 terrorist bombing. With that bombing, international terrorism became an unwelcome domestic reality in New York and the United States.
As it happened, at the time of the World Trade Center bombing, I was the interim United States attorney in Brooklyn, in the Eastern District of New York. But about two weeks later, I was nominated to become the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York where I had served as an assistant United States attorney from 1978-1981. The WTC case thus became one of my earliest and highest priorities. Little did I know that international terrorism cases would remain so prominent as a top priority throughout my tenure as United States attorney and result (so far) in four major international terrorism trials with two more to be held next year, including the trial involving the East African embassy bombings that took place in August 1998.
Before I go on, let me say a few words of tribute to the JTTF. The FBI and NYPD formed the JTTF in May 1980 to address a rash of unsolved bombings that occurred all over the city—at banks, missions to the United Nations, businesses, and under cars—bombings being carried out primarily by domestic terrorist organizations operating in the United States (the Puerto Rican FALN group, various Croatian groups, an anti-Castro Cuban terrorist group called Omega 7 - an investigation I handled as an assistant United States attorney.)
The JTTF was created in response to this pressing law enforcement crisis. It was founded on the belief that interagency cooperation is essential to effectively tackle terrorism because the complex crime of terrorism cuts across agency lines and must transcend agency rivalries. The JTTF now includes, in addition to the FBI and NYPD, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the (INS), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the New York State Police, the U.S. State Department, the New York and New Jersey Port Authority Police, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Customs Service, the Amtrak Police, the Suffolk County Police Department, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Police, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. For twenty years, the JTTF has been a huge success story, measured both in terms of arrests and convictions of terrorists that the public knows about and (even more important) in the mostly unseen work of the JTTF in detecting and preventing terrorist acts that do not result in prosecutions or publicity. In my opinion, members of the JTTF are true heroes of the city.
Terrorist Incidents Involving New York City
International terrorism has particularly affected New York City in recent years. It is a subject that the USAO and all of us in New York have become all too familiar with, particularly since the terrorist bombing of the WTC on February 26, 1993, leaving six people dead, over a 1,000 injured, and the entire population in New York City permanently changed in some way. That act of deadly aggression was all too quickly followed by the so-called "Day of Terror," a plot simultaneously to blow up the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, the FBI's New York Office at 26 Federal Plaza, and the U.N. building –a scheme of mass destruction foiled by the JTTF.
In short order, this frightening plan was followed by the "Manila Air Plot"—a horrific terrorist plot hatched in the Philippines by Ramzi Yousef, one of the masterminds of the WTC bombing and a fugitive from American justice. His goal was, in a single 48-hour period, to blow up a dozen U.S. jumbo jets belonging to such airlines as Delta, United, and Northwest, carrying mostly American passengers between the East Asia and destinations in the United States—San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles and New York City. As many as four thousand persons could have been killed had this plot succeeded. It was foiled, largely due to the good fortune of a fire in the Manila apartment where Yousef and his fellow terrorists were building bombs to put on the planes. Shortly afterwards, Yousef was captured in Pakistan and returned to New York City to stand trial (separately) for the bombing of the WTC and the Manila Air plot. And at about that same time, the driver of the Ryder van that carried the WTC bomb to its destination was captured in Jordan and also returned to New York for trial.
As a result of these events, our office has handled four major international terrorism trials:
• The 1994 trial of four defendants for the World Trade Center bombing;
• The 1995 trial of twelve defendants for the Day of Terror plot;
• The 1996 trial of three defendants for the Manila Air plot; and
• The 1997 trial of Ramzi Yousef and the driver of the Ryder van for the World Trade Center bombing.
All twenty defendants in these four cases, including Yousef, were tried and convicted by separate juries sitting in federal court downtown at Foley Square, each time with twelve New York citizens doing their duty and serving as jurors in long and difficult trials. Two different federal judges presided over these trials: Kevin T. Duffy and Michael B. Mukasey, both of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
These trials were followed by two other international terrorism cases. First, the FBI and New York law enforcement were very soon called on to handle the investigation and prosecution of the nearly simultaneous terrorist bombings on August 7, 1998, of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar as-Salaam, Tanzania, which tragically resulted in 224 deaths of both American and African citizens. Twenty-two defendants have been charged thus far with the embassy bombings or a broader conspiracy to kill American nationals living abroad. Six of the defendants are in custody in New York; one has pled guilty and five are awaiting trial.1 Thirteen defendants, including Usama Bin Ladin, the leader of the al-Qa‘ida terrorist organization, remain fugitives; the investigation continues. The State Department has offered rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of each of these fugitives; and Bin Ladin is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
The investigation and prosecution of the East Africa embassy bombings and of the al-Qa‘ida international terrorist organization headed by Usama Bin Ladin is likely to go on for years and result in a number of trials that will also be conducted in the federal courthouse in Manhattan. The embassy bombings case is assigned to United States District Judge Leonard B. Sand. The initial trial of the six defendants in custody in New York is scheduled to begin on January 3, 2001, and is anticipated to last nine to ten months. We are seeking the death penalty against two of the defendants.2
Second, Ahmed Ressam was arrested by U.S. Customs inspectors on December 14, 1999, as he attempted to escape from a car loaded with hidden explosives and four sophisticated timing devices he had allegedly brought from Canada into Seattle, Washington, on the public ferry. Ressam is purportedly a member of a terrorist network of Algerian nationals that had plans to engage in terrorism just before and after New Year's Eve 2000. Ressam's case is being handled by the Seattle United States Attorney's Office. A defense motion to transfer Ressam's case from Seattle to Los Angeles due to extensive pretrial publicity in Seattle was granted and the trial is currently scheduled to begin in March.
Our office has charged two other defendants with providing material support for terrorists (primarily in the form of money, identification papers, and airline tickets) in connection with the alleged bombing plot of Ressam. Our case is pending before United States District Judge John F. Keenan, who is now considering pretrial motions. One of the two defendants charged in New York, who was arrested in Canada in January 2000, recently waived extradition and has been brought to New York. An April 2001 trial date has been set for these two defendants.
Trying these many cases of international terrorism in New York City necessarily means, at least in the short run, some enhanced risk and security needs for the city. It also means an increased burden on the federal prison system charged with housing, separating, and containing a number of high risk, maximum security prisoners awaiting trial. These prisoners need, and are entitled to, access to their lawyers, and the experts, translators, and discovery materials necessary for their defense. The security burdens especially on the U.S. marshals and the NYPD are also greater. The cases will mean a lot of hard work and personal sacrifices, both here and abroad, for not only prosecutors in our office, the FBI, the NYPD—the entire JTTF—but also for our law enforcement and intelligence counterparts literally all around the world because that is where the evidence is; that is where the suspects are; and that is where international terrorism (directed especially at Americans) is being carried out.
How have we gotten to this point in New York? Does it make sense for New York City and the United States generally to take on the burden of fighting international terrorists operating abroad? What are the unique features and difficulties of prosecuting international terrorists in American courtrooms? What else are we doing, and how else are we seeking to combat terrorism, other than through law enforcement? How can we improve our effectiveness? These are all good, important and hard questions, which I'm not about to try to answer here.
But I do want to discuss very briefly the international terrorism cases we have investigated and prosecuted in order to illustrate concretely how international terrorism has shrunk the world in a very unwelcome way and, unfortunately, in a way that compels all of us—not only here in New York, but everywhere—to take the longer and broader view, and to pool our resources and resolve to try to prevent and combat terrorism wherever it occurs and in whatever form it takes—and to do it without changing our own way of life or diluting our fundamental principles.
In many ways, prosecuting terrorists is not much different from prosecuting other violent criminals. The laws are the same; the rules of evidence are the same; and, unlike in most other so-called civilized countries, terrorist defendants charged and tried in the United States are accorded all of the rights and protections given to every other accused defendant in our criminal justice system. That is how it should be. As proud as I am of the work of the prosecutors in my office that led to the convictions in these cases, I am even prouder of them and our entire criminal justice system because, despite the extreme seriousness of their crimes, all of these defendants were given an eminently fair trial and accorded every measure of due process that our laws provide.3
Like all trials, each one of these recent terrorism trials has presented somewhat different challenges for the prosecutors, the judges, and the juries.
First WTC trial. Here the evidence was almost entirely circumstantial. There was no eyewitness to identify any of the first four defendants who were apprehended and tried; no insiders to testify; no defendants confessed or testified. But there was the vehicle identification number plate found early on in the bombing rubble which pointed to a particular Ryder van that had been rented in New Jersey. And there were fingerprints, phone records, Ryder truck rental forms, bombing manuals, and chemical residues found in incriminating places, and even identifiable DNA from one defendant's saliva left on an envelope containing a letter sent to The New York Times claiming credit for the bombing. Once put together in summation, all of these bits and pieces added up to a very powerful case to present to the jury, which convicted all of the defendants on all counts. All four of the defendants tried were convicted on March 4, 1994, and sentenced to over 100 years in jail without the possibility of parole. (At the time of the WTC bombing, there was no applicable federal death penalty.) The convictions were affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on August 4, 1998.4
Second WTC trial. Yousef and the driver of the Ryder van, who were fugitives at the time of the first trial, were convicted after a separate trial in November 1997 and also sentenced to over 100 years in jail.5
Day of Terror trial. This was the trial of the defendants who plotted unsuccessfully to blow up New York City tunnels and public buildings; it was very different from the WTC bombing trials. The bomb plot having been foiled by law enforcement, the trial was basically a conspiracy trial. The JTTF had an informant who was able to infiltrate the terrorist group this time. He testified at trial how the conspirators had rented a warehouse in Queens where the terrorists went about building their bombs—all caught on videotape and audiotape by the JTTF.
Some of these defendants, unlike the WTC defendants, did take the stand and testify, mostly claiming that they weren't really building bombs over there in Queens but just training to fight in Bosnia. The defense also claimed that the FBI's informant, who had been paid $1 million, was an Egyptian intelligence officer making up the evidence of a plot to please Egyptian authorities, who had themselves in the past charged, but failed to convict, the lead defendant in our case of involvement in the murder of former Egyptian president Anwar as-Sadat. That defendant is the blind cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence after being convicted in New York for the Day of Terror Plot. Armed with this Egyptian intelligence theme, the defense in the Day of Terror trial attempted to put America on trial for allegedly doing Egypt's bidding. The informant who had infiltrated the terrorist group had also secretly taped the FBI agents and NYPD detectives to whom he reported. The conversations were used by the defense to try to put the government and law enforcement on trial—an all too common tactic these days—for supposed infractions of the rules in an unlawful and unfair effort to get the defendants at any cost. The accusations were baseless, but the defense's attempted use of the information still provided lots of material for distraction.
At trial, Sheikh Abdel Rahman, the leader of an international radical Islamic movement, was proven to have led an organization whose aim was to wage jihad, or holy war, of terror against the United States because he considered it an enemy of Islam and because he disapproved of the Middle East policies of the United States. After several days of deliberations, the jury on October 1, 1995, returned guilty verdicts against all ten defendants remaining in that case. (Two defendants had pled guilty during the trial.) On August 16, 1999, these convictions were affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
Manila Air trial. Unlike the earlier trials, this one is based almost exclusively on evidence obtained by foreign authorities, mostly in the Philippines; and nearly all of the witnesses were foreign. The involvement of foreign authorities in investigations and prosecutions that ultimately lead to charges tried in American courtrooms presents a lot of unique and difficult issues—issues that we saw in the Manila Air case, will see again in the embassy bombing cases, and likely in any future case involving terrorism committed abroad. It will most often be the case that either entirely, or in large part, foreign authorities will be the first on the terrorism crime scene and, at least initially, the primary ones conducting the investigation and any interrogations, obtaining evidence under their often very different rules and standards. These differences, although usually legally irrelevant, nevertheless give the defense the ability to appeal to the sympathies of American jurors whose sense of fair play and justice is more naturally and instinctively defined in terms of what American law provides and approves.
In Manila Air, for example, there were allegations that one of the defendants who had confessed to Philippine authorities had been mistreated while he was in custody in that country. Tapes of portions of these interrogations were given to U.S. law enforcement and, under our American rules of criminal discovery, were made available to the defense. The prosecution did not seek to introduce these statements at trial, but the defense did, in an effort to persuade the jury that none of the evidence gathered by foreign authorities should be trusted to serve as the basis for conviction. The Philippine officers came, testified in open court, and were subject to lengthy cross-examination by the defense lawyers.
Obviously, questioning by foreign law enforcement agents of a suspect held overseas is beyond our control or ability to regulate, and in some countries the questioning may not be done the way the FBI would do it. It is also the case that foreign officials present a convenient target for baseless allegations of mistreatment. Fortunately, juries are very good at getting at the truth and, in the end, the Manila Air jury, on September 5, 1996, convicted all three defendants, including Ramzi Yousef, of all charges.
Plainly, if we are to effectively prosecute international terrorism cases, we must deal with evidence that is gathered under foreign rules and by techniques we in America don't use or necessarily approve of. We must work through these differences in law and practice with our international counterparts so that critical evidence is not compromised, either legally or in its persuasiveness to an American jury.
Some further reflections on those trials: First, Yousef, the lead defendant in both the WTC bombing and Manila Air cases, although not a lawyer, represented himself pro se at the Manila Air trial, as is generally every defendant's constitutional right in this country. We shouldn't be surprised to see this in international terrorism cases where very often the defendant will be more interested in making a political statement than in mounting the best defense to the charges. We worried about the impact on the jury of the dynamic of Yousef serving as his own lawyer—the alleged terrorist performing (and performing well) the role of lawyer and talking eyeball to eyeball with the jury. But we shouldn't have been worried. After perhaps some initial surprise at the judge's announcement that Yousef would be acting as his own lawyer, the jurors calmly went about their business, listened attentively and respectfully, sorted through all of the evidence and reached their verdict.
Second, these terrorism cases have a special level of significance for investigators and prosecutors. That is so in part because of the subject matter itself; it also results from the fact that even the least of these defendants—in terms of role and evidence—is capable of walking out of a courtroom and committing new terrorist acts. They would likely do so with enhanced zeal and ruthlessness, and they would enjoy greater status in the terrorist world for having beaten the American system of justice. Our criminal justice system is simultaneously respected and feared because it is known as a system that cannot be fixed or corrupted. We must make sure that it continues to function fairly and effectively in cases involving international terrorism.
Third, it is imperative, assuming we can obtain the evidence, to charge all who had a role in a terrorist plot—from the leader, to the bomber, to the defendant who ordered chemicals or provided false identification papers or stolen cars to facilitate a successful getaway. If we are to be effective, we must prosecute the foot soldiers as well as the leaders; that is the best way to deter others from taking part in acts of terrorism. We must also continue to investigate, apprehend, and prosecute every participant in every terrorist crime, however long that may take.
Fourth, many of the terrorist crimes prosecuted by our office were committed by convicted defendants in the name of Islam, a very honorable worldwide religion that was demeaned by these defendants and their crimes. These crimes, not the defendants' religion, are obviously the object of our prosecutions and investigations; we will continue to pursue terrorists and prosecute terrorist crimes, irrespective of their motivation.
Finally, none of us should ever confuse being vigilant, vigorous, and prudently enhancing security with changing our fundamental principles and way of life as a free, open, and tolerant society. That is what we are all about as a country and city, and we can't allow any terrorist attack or threat of terrorist attack to change that. For then the terrorists would have won.
Protection from Future Attacks
The investigations in all of our office's terrorism cases continue, and we have indicted fugitives who remain to be apprehended. While we can't possibly round up, prosecute, and incarcerate for life, or obtain the death penalty against, every international terrorist wandering the globe bent on doing horrific harm to Americans, it would be wrong and blink reality, in my view, for us ever to think that it would be safer or wiser to just leave them abroad or simply deport them to get them away from the United States. The dangers to Americans and American interests do not stop at our continental borders but are worldwide, and the law enforcement response must also be worldwide.
Let me be more specific: one of the most chilling facts that came out during the Manila Air trial was part of the statement Ramzi Yousef gave to the FBI and the Secret Service on the plane bringing Yousef back from Pakistan where he had been apprehended. Although Yousef was willing to talk—even brag—about the Manila Air bombing plot, he wouldn't describe the nature or formula of the bombs to be used or how they could be gotten through airport security because; according to Yousef, there were still trained confederates of his who could and would carry out the planned bombings of American airliners. Yousef living in the Philippines or Ressam in Canada did nothing to protect Americans from their plotting. Nor should we think that terrorist attacks on Americans and American interests abroad aren't really our problem or responsibility here at home. That would be myopic, for we increasingly work, travel, and live abroad, so law enforcement must just as vigorously seek to combat the ravages of international terrorism committed abroad against America and American interests as we do when the terrorism is directed at targets within the domestic boundaries of the United States.
Will successful and firm law enforcement responses against international terrorism deter other terrorist attacks? We hope and believe that this has significant deterrent value. But we are not naive so we must and do expect similar attacks in the future. The embassy bombings in East Africa in August 1998 occurred after the trials and convictions in the WTC cases, as did the terrorist bombings directed at our American troops in Saudi Arabia, as did Ressam's ferry trip in December 1999 crossing the Canadian border into Seattle.
The sad fact is, many terrorist groups view America as the "Great Satan." Terrorist leaders issue fatwas (rulings on Islamic law) that bless or even command attacks on Americans. The entire U.S. information, financial, and communications infrastructure is at risk for terrorist attacks. The FBI and other parts of our government, together with the business community, are vigorously dealing with these risks, but we must all recognize that the United States is and will remain a primary global terrorism target for the foreseeable future. It is also an unfortunate but certain given that, no matter what we do, we cannot prevent every terrorist act directed at us, either at home or abroad.
To make matters worse, terrorist groups are more and more joining together to attack us as their common, number-one enemy. The Bin Ladin/East Africa embassies bombing indictment, for example, alleges involvement by members of al-Qa‘ida, al-Jihad, and the International Islamic Front. Increasingly, we should expect to see such joint ventures of terrorists and terrorist groups coming together to launch terrorist attacks.
This reality—that we cannot prevent all future terrorist attacks—has three main implications.
Cooperation. There is also a continuing need for strong, global, international law enforcement investigations and prosecutions of international terrorists and terrorist organizations. This has occurred in the Manila Air case and, even more dramatically, occurred and is still occurring in the embassy bombing case with the FBI and the JTTF working side by side with their counterparts in Kenya and Tanzania to find, apprehend, and bring to justice each and every participant in those horrific crimes. The message and importance of such strong international cooperation is clear: If you commit terrorist acts anywhere in the world, the world, with some notable exceptions, will pursue you, using every lawful means to find you and bring you to justice, no matter how long it takes.
We must also work with state and local officials and the business communities throughout the United States to maximize our ability to respond to any terrorist attack, wherever it occurs and whether it involves conventional weapons, weapons of mass destruction, or chemical or biological attacks. New York City, not surprisingly, is a leader in preparedness, too.
Leadership. Tackling international terrorism requires a global effort that naturally calls upon the United States to exercise a leadership role. And it is a role that we must forcefully and consistently exercise if we are to begin to be successful in combating and reducing the risks of terrorism, both at home and abroad.
Activism. Arrest and prosecution are obviously only two of the many tools to combat international terrorism, but they are powerful tools that have been successful and which we must continue to use. What do you do with a Ramzi Yousef who tells the FBI on the plane bringing him back from Pakistan that his objective had been to topple the twin towers of the WTC into each other so that the death toll would exceed those killed in the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II? He failed in that objective, he says, because he ran out of money, this time, to build a big enough bomb. What do you do? You use every tool in the counterterrorism arsenal—military, diplomatic, seizure of assets, and prosecution—to contain and stop the Ramzi Yousefs of the world.
We must recognize the threat international terrorism poses and not be oblivious, naïve, or passive, or bow to unfair and unfounded criticism, and shy away from vigorous investigations and prosecutions of terrorists. All of us must do our part to take all reasonable, lawful measures to combat and safeguard ourselves from terrorism. That New York City has been a leader in this effort is not something that it chose to do, any more than we chose to be the site of the WTC bombing. But it is a role that we must continue, so long as international terrorism remains a threat, and so long as New York, its landmarks, institutions, and financial and governmental centers remain such attractive potential targets.
Mary Jo White is the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, an area that includes New York City. This article derives from a talk she delivered to the Middle East Forum's lecture series in New York on September 27, 2000.1 Four of those were captured abroad and returned to New York to stand trial (two were returned from Kenya, one from South Africa, and one from Germany); two were arrested in the United States; and three additional defendants are in custody in England where we are seeking their extradition.
2 Those going on trial in January are Wadih El-Hage, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon; Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owali, a Saudi Arabian; Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a Tanzanian, and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, a Jordanian. If convicted, Mohamed and Al-'Owali could face the death penalty.
3 In this regard the concluding remarks of the Court of Appeals in affirming the convictions were particularly gratifying: "The ten defendants were accorded a full and fair jury trial lasting nine months. They were vigorously defended by able counsel. The prosecutors conducted themselves in the best traditions of the high standards of the Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The trial judge, the Honorable Michael B. Mukasey, presided with extraordinary skill and patience, assuring fairness to the prosecution and to each defendant and helpfulness to the jury. His was an outstanding achievement in the face of challenges far beyond those normally endured by a trial judge." United States v. Rahman 189 F.3d 88 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 120 S.Ct. 439 (1999), 160, (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 982 (1999).
4 United States v. Salameh, 152 F.3d 88 (2d Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1112 (1999).
5 United States v. Ramzi Yousef, 93 Cr. 180 (KTD).