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Al Qaeda and Al Capone By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, June 13, 2005

During the Great Depression and Prohibition, organized crime flourished with the rise of smuggled liquor.  Bootleggers begot gangsters, murderers and crime kingpins.  In Chicago, one of the most powerful crime lords of the day was Al Capone.  Capone was slick and savvy, and insulated himself with a veneer of legitimacy.  But Capone was finally put away by a Federal task force who successfully investigated and prosecuted him for tax fraud.  The Capone case has been cited in US law enforcement ever since as the prime example of the “get ‘em any way you can” approach. 

In the early 1980s, generally believed to be the start of the “war on drugs” when wild shootouts flared in the streets of south Florida among rival drug gangs, the infamous “cocaine cowboys” from Colombia and other South American countries, the Federal Government stepped in and created the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF).  The idea was to attack these violent drug organizations with multi-agency law enforcement task forces that would combine the investigative jurisdiction and skills of numerous agencies and bring them to bear against the bad guys and take them down, as with Al Capone, any way they could.  It worked.  While the war on drugs has arguably been far from won, the OCDETF program over the years resulted in thousands of arrests and convictions and huge drug, weapons, contraband and money seizures across the nation.  When cases on suspects could not be made specifically on drug charges, but it was known the suspects were linked to drug organizations and the suspects were involved in other criminal and illegal activity, they were arrested and charged that way.  Many such suspects went away on violations for weapons, money laundering, tax fraud and immigration.

During the late 1980s, the FBI recognized the value of this multi-agency task force approach in the counter-terrorism arena and created the Joint Terrorism Task Forces.  However, that effort was very limited at the time, with only thirteen task forces around the country until the late 1990s, and only a few other agencies were allowed to participate.  The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), due to very near-sighted senior management, participated in the JTTF program only in New York and a handful of other locations, essentially on an ad hoc basis until at least into the mid-1990s.  Never mind that so many of the targets of counter-terrorism investigations were foreign nationals who invariably violated US immigration and nationality laws.


INS finally got into the game, albeit just a bit more actively, in the mid and late 1990s, with the assignment of about 100 Special Agents nationwide to counter-terrorism duties by 2000.  Far short of what should have been, but better than what there was.   The focus was still the same, investigate aliens suspected of involvement in terrorism activities but who were also in violation of immigration laws.  No surprise, the majority of the suspects turned out to be aliens and the majority of the most viable charges that could be brought, especially charges that could be brought without divulging classified information, were immigration law violations.  It worked, but not without controversy.


Cases such as that of Mazen Al-Najjar, the brother-in-law of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror defendant Sami Al-Arian, who is currently on trial in Tampa, Florida, made national headlines when he was arrested and detained in May 1997 for deportation proceedings.  Al-Najjar had already been ordered deported by an Immigration Judge because he violated his student visa status…he entered the country in the early 1980s as a student and never left.  Al-Najjar had applied for various forms of relief from deportation before the Court and had been denied that relief.  All that occurred before the Government decided to arrest and detain him in May 1997.  After the arrest, the Government sought to detain Al-Najjar based, in part, on classified information. 


The limited use of such classified information in immigration proceedings was based on law and regulations that had been in existence for many years before the Al-Najjar arrest; but it had been rarely utilized.  An Immigration Judge ordered Al-Najjar detained without bond and the circus began.  Over the next three and a half years, Mazen Al-Najjar became the poster boy for numerous left-wing legal challenges against what was decried by some as the “draconian” use of “secret evidence” to hold him “without charges.”  Most of the media reported such nonsense in lockstep with the legal challenges posed against the Feds’ attempts to keep Al-Najjar detained while he appealed his deportation order.  Lost in the shuffle was the fact an Immigration Court had found him deportable in a fully open adversarial tribunal of an entirely viable violation of US immigration law, in proceedings where he was fully represented by counsel, and he was being detained while he pursued his appeal of the deportation order.  Somehow, that was translated by his supporters, headed by Sami Al-Arian, and most of the media as Al-Najjar being arrested and detained without charges on secret evidence.


Eventually, Al-Najjar won a temporary release from detention after then-Attorney General Janet Reno refused, at the end of her tenure during the last weeks of the Clinton Administration, to overrule as she had the authority to do, another Immigration Court decision setting bail…even though Reno was fully aware of all the available evidence, including classified evidence, against Al-Najjar and his associates at the time.  For three and a half years, Attorney General Reno considered and supported the position that Al-Najjar was what he is, a PIJ-linked supporter of terrorism, and suddenly she declined to exercise her legal authority to keep him detained as she was about to leave office. 


Al-Najjar eventually lost the appeals of his deportation order and was then taken back into INS custody.  Little known, but when he was rearrested outside his Tampa apartment, he did not go quietly.  The “peace loving professor” resisted arrest by fighting with the agents taking him into custody, and it took four INS agents to subdue him.  Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.  Al-Najjar was deported from the United States in 2002 to Lebanon.  His wife, while not detained, was also illegally in the US and her immigration case paralleled his.  She also was deported.             


There were a number of similar cases to that of Al-Najjar during the late 1990s, but his remained at the forefront for the campaign by those who resisted the use of classified information in deportation cases.  Sami Al-Arian, who used the issue as an entrée to various political leaders, spearheaded that effort.  The issue provided Al-Arian a veneer of legitimacy in his dealings with politicians.  Al-Arian was indicted in February 2003 in Tampa, Florida for terrorism support and related charges, including immigration fraud.  He was arrested shortly thereafter and his trial, along with three arrested codefendants, began June 6 and is expected to last at least six months.  The full scope of the suspected Tampa PIJ cabal will hopefully be revealed in the trial. 


The attacks on 9-11-01 changed everything.  The JTTF program expanded to every FBI office in the country and the INS participation expanded to each JTTF.  INS was then merged into the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003.  The Al Capone concept became even more important.  Attorney General John Ashcroft clearly committed the Federal law enforcement community, after 9-11, to going after terrorist suspects any legal way possible.  Not unexpectedly, many on the left criticized this as overreaction, especially when it became apparent that most of the violations being employed turned out to be immigration charges against aliens.   There was much made, negatively, about the 1200 or so “immigrants” who were arrested and detained for “minor” immigration violations.


That’s interesting.  It also demonstrates a notable lack of understanding of immigration law as it applies to deportation issues.  An alien is deportable if they simply overstay their visitor visa or if they hold resident alien status and are convicted of murder.  Deportable is deportable.  When it comes to being deportable, legally, there is no “minor” or “major;” there is only “deportable” (or, in the current terminology, “removable”).  No deportation misdemeanors and felonies, it’s all administrative and only one finding if an alien is a violator – removable.  There are then appeals and potential application for relief from deportation, and that’s what often ties up cases in litigation for sometimes years.  (This is probably not something the immigration defense bar wants to be widely known.)


So, targeting aliens who are deportable or otherwise in violation of immigration law and who come to the attention of the authorities because they are or might be linked to terrorism is somehow a bad thing?  What’s wrong with that?  The part about being aliens in violation of immigration law seems to be lost in the shuffle…like the facts behind Mazen Al-Najjar’s case were so easily obscured.  Perhaps it should be asked who really benefits from the diffusion of facts in all this.   


In spite of the strong and concerted effort to stop the Federal Government from employing a tried and true law enforcement strategy in the face of a genuine national security threat, the Feds are marching onward.  Cases continue to be made.  And, these are not just deportation cases.  Last year Al-Arian associate Fawaz Damra was convicted in Ohio of lying on his naturalization forms nearly ten years earlier about his connections to PIJ and other radical Islamists.  On June 6, in Falls Church, Virginia, Maher Amin Jaradat, a Palestinian descent naturalized US citizen was arrested by ICE and FBI agents from the JTTF on an indictment charging him with committing fraud in his naturalization process nearly ten years ago by allegedly concealing his links to terrorist organizations.  Naturalization fraud charges are particularly capable at times, since they allow for a broad basis of fraud and have a ten-year statute of limitations.  This seemingly “benign” felony has been used to take down torturers and terror suspects.  Within the past few days, FBI and ICE agents have arrested five men in Lodi, California in an investigation said to be linked to al-Qaeda.  Those charges, for now, are lying to Federal agents and immigration removal violations.        


These cases, far from demonstrating a callous and draconian government running amok, represent smart, aggressive and innovative law enforcement professionals utilizing all the tools at their disposal to root out and bring to justice those among us who are or could be a danger to us.  The fact these investigators and prosecutors are using statutes that before were perhaps underutilized should make no difference.  While it was many decades ago, it is likely that even Al Capone had supporters, even in the media, protesting those tax charges.  It’s a good thing the Feds back then paid no attention to them. 


Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who launched the criminal investigation against Sami Al-Arian in 1994.  He is now a counter-terrorism consultant 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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