Terrorism Laws, Charges & Statute of Limitations

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International and domestic terrorism are defined in federal law under 18 USC 2331. International and domestic terrorism are defined as violent or dangerous acts that endanger human life, and violate state or federal law. Further, such acts are intended to coerce or intimidate civilians, or are intended to influence government policy or government conduct through mass destruction, kidnapping or assassination.

It is important to note that an individual can be federally charged with terrorism not just for committing a terrorist act, but threatening to commit one.

The US government has many Joint Terrorism Task Forces that it uses to investigate terrorism, including chasing down possible leads, gathering evidence, making arrests, providing security for events, and sharing intelligence with other anti-terrorism stakeholders in the state and federal governments.

The National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF) is the central terrorism task force in the US that coordinates the activities of nearly 4,000 task force members across the US.

Terrorism Laws

One of the newest and most significant federal terrorism laws is contained in the US Patriot Act, which was passed in the aftermath of the 911 terrorist attacks in 2001. According to Section 802 of the Act, the definition of ‘terrorism’ was expanded to include domestic acts of terrorism, as well as international.

The law states that a person is engaging in domestic terrorism if they commit an act that is ‘dangerous to human life’ that violates state or federal laws, if such an act intends to:

  • Intimidate or coerce civilians
  • Influence government policy by coercion or intimidation
  • Affect how a government conducts its affairs assassination, kidnapping or mass destruction

Also, the acts must occur within the territorial jurisdiction of the US. If they don’t, then the act or acts are viewed as international terrorism.

Terrorism Crimes and Charges

It is a state and federal crime to commit an act of terrorism or to make a terrorist threat. A terrorist threat is defined as threatening to commit a crime that could result in death, terror, serious injury, or extensive property damage.

Not all threats are criminal in nature, and not every threat is a terrorist threat. The federal government views a terrorist threat as containing one or more of these elements:

  • Threats: A terrorist threat can be made in writing or verbally, but it also can involve innuendo and body language. Some federal courts have ruled that you can be convicted on a federal terrorist charge for making a terrorist threat, if a ‘reasonable person’ would conclude that your actions conveyed a threat to do violence.
  • Specific: The threat has to specify death, injury or serious property damage. However, it is not necessary to state a time, place or method for threat to be considered a terrorist threat.
  • Reasonable: The threat has to be reasonably possible. For example, if you threaten to destroy the White House with an army from Mars, this is not a credible threat. If a ‘reasonable’ person can conclude the threat is credible, it is a terrorist threat.
  • Terror: Federal law does not require a terrorist threat to cause another party to feel fear or terror. The mere action of making the terrorist threat is sufficient for you to be charged.

Many federal and state agencies can be involved in a terrorism investigation, including the CIA, FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and the Department of Justice.

Terrorism Penalties

A federal conviction for terrorism charges leads to serious penalties. Using a weapon of mass destruction can result in a prison term of anywhere from a decade to life in prison. If anyone was killed due to terrorist activities, the punishment could include the death penalty.

Some states and the District of Columbia have banned capital punishment. But if you are charged with a federal terrorism charge, state limits on the death penalty are irrelevant.

Even if no one was hurt, you can face a long prison sentence for committing an act of terrorism, or even merely threatening to do so. For example, a conviction for providing support and/or resources to a terror organization can result in a federal prison sentence of 20 years.

Terrorism Sentencing Guidelines

Sentencing pertaining to acts of terrorism vary depending upon the exact nature of the crime. For example, making a terrorist threat, conspiring to commit an act of terror, and actually committing an act of terror will result in different penalties.

Terrorism Statute of Limitations

Section 809 of the US Patriot Act eliminated the statute of limitations for offenses that result in a foreseeable risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person.

Other less serious acts of terrorism, such as making terrorist threats, generally are subject to an eight year statute of limitations, per 18 USC 3286.

Terrorism Cases

Terrorism cases occur in the United States every year. Some of the recent terrorism cases that have been in the news include:

  • In November 2016, a 20 year old man from Morganton, North Carolina pleaded guilty to a federal terrorism charge. Justin Sullivan pleaded guilty to attempting to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries, meaning that he planned to kill, assault, or maim at least one person that would have affected interstate or foreign commerce (Charlotte Observer).
  • In December 2016, a Suffolk, Virginia man was charged in federal court with trying to provide material support to ISIL, according to a statement from the Department of Justice. Lionel N. Williams, 26, was arrested on Dec. 22, who was allegedly plotting to carry out an act of terror in the area of Hampton Roads, Virginia. The federal affidavit stated that William sent money to a person he thought was gathering funds for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is an Islamic group that commits acts of terror around the world (Tidewater News).

Terrorism Quick Links & References