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Prosecution and Punishment of International Terrorist in Federal Courts: 1980-1998

NCJ Number
Criminology & Public Policy Volume: 1 Issue: 3 Dated: 2002 Pages: 311-338
Date Published
28 pages

This study profiles the prosecution and punishment practices of international terrorists by the United States from 1980 to 1998.


The recently proposed move toward the use of military tribunals is a radical and sudden departure from prior treatment of terrorists in Federal courts. The treatment of international terrorists has become increasingly politicized over the past 20 years. The move to military tribunals reflects a step in a consistent shift in Federal anti-terrorism policy. A brief summary of the historical and legal issues affecting the investigation and prosecution of terrorists in Federal courts over the past 20 years is provided. The data from the article were derived from The American Terrorism Study, a project that began monitoring Federal prosecutions of terrorists in 1988 (dating back to 1980) and continues to the current time. The samples were divided into pre- and post-implementation of Federal sentencing guidelines. Results show that, of the more than 2,700 crimes terrorists were charged with during the past 20 years, slightly over 1,000 involved the activities of international terrorists. These 102 international terrorists, comprised one-fourth of indictees, charged with nearly 40 percent of the total number of crimes. International terrorists committed a disproportionate number of Federal crimes. International terrorists were more likely to complete their acts of terrorism, whereas the majority of domestic terrorism cases involved prevented acts of terrorism. Both the number of international terrorists indicted and the number of crimes committed increased in the post-sentencing guidelines era. Racketeering and RICO statutes were much more likely to be used for the prosecution of domestic terrorists than for international terrorists. International terrorists, like their domestic counterparts, were much less likely to plead guilty. The analyses suggest that the Federal Government has, until recently, been relatively successful in prosecuting international terrorists in traditional courts. Increasingly, Federal prosecutors have had to deal with courtroom strategies by defense attorneys that jeopardize intelligence and security resources. International terrorists, when convicted, have been punished more severely than have domestic terrorists. 5 tables, 26 footnotes, 26 references

Date Published: January 1, 2002