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Why Terror Prosecutions Work By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, June 25, 2004

On June 17, a courageous Federal jury in Akron, Ohio, undid the second link in the terrorism chain started over fifteen years ago by Sami Al-Arian in Tampa, Florida, when he allegedly began supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).  They convicted Fawaz Damra, the Imam of the Islamic Center of Cleveland, for deliberately concealing his affiliation with PIJ terrorists and an Afghan refugee center in Brooklin that has also been linked to terrorists when he applied for U.S. citizenship in 1993. The jury said his support of terrorists amounted to inciting the persecution of Israeli Jews. 

Damra conducted his PIJ-related activities in association with Al-Arian and the Islamic Committee for Palestine, a supposed charitable organization based in Tampa which was really a front for PIJ support efforts, as evidence in the trial demonstrated.  The first link to be broken in this nefarious chain was the deportation of Al-Arian’s brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar in 2002. Al-Najjar was arrested on secret FBI evidence that he was supporting terrorism, but was released years later when the U.S. government would not reveal its sources. In August, 2002, he was deported to the United Arab Emirates for a visa violation. Al-Najjar and Al-Arian were also members of the World Islam Study Enterprise, along with Khalil Shikaki, the brother of PIJ founder Fathi Shikaki, Ramadan Shallah, who lead PIJ. Al-Arian goes to trial in Tampa in January.    


Damra has been the focus of significant media coverage for a number of years, and his case has drawn the attention of many Muslim and civil rights organizations.  The trial, however, was excruciatingly fair.  U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin issued a number of rulings limiting what Federal prosecutors could present, and even say, in Court.  Those rulings prevented any references to al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden or even the term “radical militant Islam,” since they might be too inflammatory for the jury.  Damra had three highly capable defense attorneys, and the courtroom was filled with his supporters each day of the trial.  He was free on bond before and during the trial, and even remains free on bond until his sentencing in September. 


Damra now faces a maximum of five years in prison and a minumum of having his U.S. citizenship revoked. His fate rests with Judge Gwin. While Damra is entitled to the full panoply of appeals, if he ultimately loses those appeals and thus his U.S. citizenship, he will once again be a permanent resident alien, but one with a felony conviction who is known to have supported terrorists.  Presumably, the U.S. Government would at some point be interested in instituting deportation proceedings against Damra.


The case against Damra demonstrates several things.  First, while the wheels of justice may grind agonizingly slowly in some instances, they do move forward.  Damra was known to be a member of Al-Arian’s alleged band of PIJ operatives for many years. However, investigative and prosecution issues surrounding the larger case, not the least of which were issues dealing with classified information that were cured by passage of the Patriot Act, necessitated that action against Damra had to be put off until recently.  Ironically, that action came only months before the statute of limitations would have expired on the naturalization fraud on which he was convicted.  Secondly, while the charge was an immigration violation, it was directly linked to supporting terrorism. 


This once again shows the strong correlation between immigration crimes and those who support and pursue terrorism; and it shows the perfect sense it makes to aggressively pursue such immigration violations as a means of targeting those suspects, especially when other violations may not be so readily prosecuted.  The Bush administration has unapologetically pursued terror suspects with whatever legal means at its disposal, and this case demonstrates why that policy is not only right, but that it can be done with a great deal of fairness to the accused.  Finally, the conviction demonstrates, perhaps on a smaller scale, that just maybe the U.S. Government is on the right track in the Al-Arian caper after all. 


There were several dedicated, hard working investigators and prosecutors on the Damra case, and while on the surface it appeared to be a simple single count prosecution, it was a prosecution full of complex issues directly linked to terrorism and a larger case yet to be tried.  Lead Department of Justice Prosecutor Cherie Krigsman, in her final closing argument to the jury members, told them the case boiled down to their using common sense to evaluate the evidence.  That jury, composed of fine citizens of the community of Akron, Ohio, did just that, and rendered their verdict against Fawaz Damra.  Our system worked and we should be proud of that.  And, with agents and prosecutors like the ones who worked the Damra case on the job, we can all sleep a little better at night, except perhaps people like Fawaz Damra and Sami Al-Arian.        


Bill West is a retired INS Supervisory Special Agent.  He is now a consultant on counter-terrorism matters and a freelance writer.      

Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer.

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