Federal officials take terrorism charges very seriously, and a conviction involving terrorism could mean a life sentence or even the death penalty. Terrorism is not only limited to overseas groups. It can equally be applied to people who have never even stepped foot outside the country. Under the increasingly broad terrorism laws, the government can bring attempted terrorism charges, even when no one was ever harmed.
Federal Terrorism Charges
Terrorism charges usually involve allegations of a violent or dangerous activity, combined with the intent to intimidate or coerce the public or government. Under federal law, the activity or attempted actions which could fall under terrorism charges include:
- destruction of an aircraft;
- nuclear or biological weapons threats;
- government official kidnapping;
- government employee assassination;
- arson or bombing property;
- use of explosives;
- attacking a federal facility;
- conspiracy to murder, kidnap, or maim;
- take a hostage;
- attacks on trains or mass transit;
- weapons of mass destruction;
- harboring terrorists;
- providing material support to terrorist organizations;
- helping finance terrorist activity;
- use of torture;
- bombing public places;
- nuclear sabotage;
- assaulting a member of a flight crew;
- destroying a gas pipeline;
- and other criminal violations.
18 U.S. Code § 2332b - Acts of Terrorism Transcending National Boundaries
International vs. Domestic Terrorism
Many of the terrorism laws in the United States changed after September 11, 2001. Federal agencies now have more resources allocated to both the investigation and prosecution for terrorism, including international terrorism and homegrown terrorism.
The difference between international and domestic terrorism generally depends on where the activity primarily took place. If the action primarily takes place outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or crosses transnational boundaries, it is considered international terrorism. When the acts primarily occur within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., it may be considered domestic terrorism.
The definition for terrorism remains the same under the U.S. Code. It involves an act that is violent or dangerous to human life, where the act appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence government policy through intimidation or coercion; or affect government conduct by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.
Conspiracy and Aiding and Abetting
Conspiracy is an additional criminal charge that is separate from the actual criminal violation. Conspiracy involves two or more people agreeing to commit a crime, and take some overt action to further the crime. This means that a defendant can be found guilty not only of committing an act of terrorism, but they can also be guilty of the separate crime of agreeing with someone to commit the crime and taking overt action.
Under 18 U.S.C. § 2, acts of the perpetrator become the acts of the aider and abettor, and the person aiding and abetting can be charged with having done the acts himself. Anyone who aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures the commission of a crime is just as punishable as the person primarily responsible for the crime.
With these charges, the prosecution would not necessarily have to prove that a defendant was primarily responsible for acts of terrorism, but if they aided, abetted, counselled, commanded, induced or procured the commission of the named violations, they could be punished just as the person primarily responsible.
Even where there is no bombing, killing, or even any likelihood that any terrorist activity will ever occur, a person can be charged with threatening terrorism. Threatening to kill, kidnap, maim, or assault any person in the U.S. is a criminal offense. It is also a felony to threaten to destroy or damage any structure in the United States if it creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury. Whoever threatens to commit a terrorist act can be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
Federal Terrorism Investigations
There are a number of federal and state agencies that can be involved in a terrorism investigation. This includes local law enforcement, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and the U.S. Attorney.
Investigations may start with minimal evidence against a suspect. Even simple messages on social media may be enough to trigger an investigation. Investigators may use informants to help gather additional evidence to charge a suspect with terrorism charges. However, informants can be unreliable, or even work to persuade a law-abiding person to agree to commit a crime. Some informants are paid money, while others may be facing their own criminal charges and work as an informant to be given preferential treatment.
If you, or someone you know becomes the target of a terrorism investigation, you may not know how to respond. Ignoring the investigation or trying to run away will not resolve the matter. Whether or not you want to cooperate with the government is a critical decision which could help or hurt your case. As soon as you become aware of an investigation, legal counsel can help you take the steps to avoid prosecution.
A conviction for terrorism charges can lead to serious penalties. Use of a weapon of mass destruction carries a sentence for any term of years, including life in prison. If any person was killed as a result of terrorist activities, the punishment can include the death penalty.
While a number of states and the District of Columbia have banned the death penalty, when a person is charged with a federal crime, the state limits on on the death penalty do not apply. Federal terrorism penalties can include a death sentence even where a state has banned the death penalty.
Even if no one is harmed or killed, an individual can face a long prison sentence. A conviction for providing material support or resources to a terrorist organization can result in imprisonment for 20 years. If anyone was killed as a result, then the sentence can be life in prison.
Defenses to Federal Terrorism Charges
Allegations of terrorism are very serious, and the public and local community often jump to conclusions of guilt well before the defendant has had their day in court. Whether it is a case of mistaken identity, or because someone seeking revenge made false accusations, there are a number of defenses to a federal terrorism charge.
In order to gain a conviction on terrorism charges, a federal prosecutor bears the burden of proving the elements of each count “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty. A criminal defense lawyer who understands federal terrorism charges will conduct an in-depth investigation into your case, to develop the best strategy to defend the charges against you, and keep you out of jail.