The United States has been subject to numerous terrorist attacks throughout its history. As early as 1886, we saw the Haymarket Square Incident in Chicago where protesters described by authorities as "anarchist" detonated a bomb during a labor rally, killing a police officer and prompting them to open fire. Numerous civilians and police officers were killed in the chaos. Fast-forward to 2016 and the Orlando nightclub massacre in which a lone gunman shot innocent patrons at a popular dance club, resulting in 49 deaths and 53 injuries. If we’ve learned anything from terrorist attacks, whether homegrown terrorist or born abroad, often, attackers do not act alone. As in the case of the Orlando nightclub shooter, his wife was charged in 2017 in connection with aiding and abetting terrorism by providing material support to the killer. Her case is yet to be decided by a jury.
Follow along as we discuss the law against providing material support to terrorists, a definition of domestic terrorism, and where you go to learn more about this crime or find legal representation if you are charged with a federal crime against the government.
Supporting Terrorism: Statutory Prohibitions
There are a number of federal laws in the U.S. Code specific to supporting terrorism, including Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Chapter 113B – the law prohibiting terrorism generally. When we are discussing domestic terrorism, those acts occurring primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, we mean acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; or those that appear to be intended to:
- intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
- influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
- affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.
So how does one support terrorism? There are four relevant sections of the statute which relate to acts considered in support of terrorism. These include:
- Harboring or concealing terrorists (Penalty: fined or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both)
- Providing material support to terrorists (Penalty: fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both; and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life)
- Providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations (Penalty: fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both; and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life)
- Prohibitions against the financing of terrorism (Penalty: fined or imprisoned up to 20 years depending on the facts)
Providing Material Support to Terrorists: What Does That Mean?
A person can be convicted of providing material support to terrorists in four distinct ways. The four types of support, as upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, are described as "training," "expert advice or assistance," "service," and "personnel." The law has come under fire by civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for alleged vagueness in defining "material support" statutes. The ACLU argues that these laws allow a prosecutor to get a conviction without having to show that any specific act of terrorism has taken place, or is being planned, or even that a defendant intended to further terrorism. Advocates maintain these laws are sufficiently clear and necessary to keep America safe. The law remains on the books as of 2017.
We saw an example of this statute in action against Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan. Named as an "illegal enemy combatant," he was charged and convicted in 2008 of "providing material support" to al Qaeda. He was sentenced to five and a half years in a military prison, but his conviction was later overturned and he was cleared of all charges.
Supporting Terrorism: Additional Resources
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Terrorism is a hot-button word in the world today. Whether the accused is a homegrown terrorist or a person born outside of the United States, any person accused of acts that can be conceived of as supporting terrorism are taken seriously by the government. In fact, if you are being charged with any federal crime, you should be taking your situation very seriously. FindLaw can help. Get matched with a federal criminal defense attorney today and get a free case review to learn more.