United States v. Amawi: Federal Conspiracy Statute is Put to the Test – and Wins
Mohammad Amawi, Marwan El-Hindi and Wassim Mazloum were charged and convicted of violating, among other laws, 18 U.S.C. § 956(a)(1), which states that anyone who “con
with one more other persons, regardless of where such other person(s) are located, to commit at any place outside the United States an act that would constitute the offense of murder, kidnapping, or maiming if committed in the…territorial United States shall, if any of the conspirators commits an act within the jurisdiction of the United States to effect any object of the conspiracy, be punished….” Amawi, El-Hindi, and Mazloum were members of a Muslim congregation at a local mosque in Toledo, Ohio. Between 2002 and 2005, an FBI informant, Darren Griffin, began establishing a relationship with the three men individually, often citing a desire to “train for ‘jihad,’” assist in the recruiting and training of other potential extremists, and to create a front for this training to take place. The three men, in turn, also expressed their interest in participating in Griffin’s plan to train others in jihadist activities, namely “bomb-making, weapons training, and certain paramilitary tactics.” (see page 4 of opinion). In subsequent meetings, the men watched jihadist videos, including ones that instructed the viewer on bomb making and displayed attacks on Americans. The three defendants and Griffin were present together in the same place only once in 2005. At this meeting, the men discussed their
readiness to train for jihad, potential recruits, and how to fund the operation. The facts also showed that the three men worked individually with Griffin to procure funding, participated in target practice on a shooting range twice, and continued to discuss the next steps of the operation, including travel to Jordan. Eventually, Griffin and Amawi did travel to Jordan in late 2005, bringing with them laptops, CDs containing jihad training videos, and a satellite phone. In early 2006, the FBI ended Griffin’s involvement, traveled to Jordan and arrested Amawi. The three men were eventually charged and convicted conspiracy to kill or maim Americans abroad and with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
The conviction was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where the convictions were unanimously affirmed. The broad language of 18 U.S.C. § 956(a)(1) was put to the test. The question for the Sixth Circuit was whether the inchoate conversations and actions undertaken by the men, which did not include any actual interaction with a terrorist organization or the determination of an actual target for their plans, were enough to establish conspiracy to maim or kill United States national abroad. The federal conspiracy statute does not require prosecutors to prove that the defendants had a specific target, established a date and time for the attack, or possessed the actual means to carry out the attack. Here, the Sixth Circuit affirmed that the men’s conversations with the informant, in which they expressed a desire to partake in a jihadist activities, including the nature of the trainings they were interested in, was enough to show their intent, which “adopted the conspiracy’s main objective.” (see page 19). The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that a cohesive, common plan was never established, stating that the “correct standard of proof…[does not require] the government…to prove that a formal agreement to commit the same offense existed…[a]cts that ‘may reasonably be interpreted as participation in a common plan’ can be used to establish and implicit agreement.” (see page 20). In essence, inchoate speech and actions that cannot be linked to a specific target or a specific plan of action are, nonetheless, sufficient in proving a violation of the federal conspiracy statute, so long as a shared intent to participate in the killing or maiming United States nationals abroad was expressed in a “collective venture.” The court also noted the defendants’ point that they only met once as a group, which was insufficient in establishing a conspiracy by stating that the conspiracy component of the statute does not have any minimum time period of duration or minimum number of meetings.
A point to consider is the fact that the three men were sentenced to imprisonment from eight years to twenty years. The sentencing guideline allowed for life sentences for all three men, despite the fact that none of them actually contacted terrorists or terrorist organizations, did not actually take up arms against United States nationals or military personnel, did not have a concrete plan of attack, and did not actually assemble any weapons that could be used to kill or maim Americans abroad.
Whether this decision opens the doors to opening the floodgates of litigation remains to be seen. Judging from the fact that the court also stated that the government does not have to prove that such groups of people agreed on a shared target, the same country, or the same means of an attack, in addition to just showing an intent to participate in such activities, could potentially open the door to increased criminal prosecution. This decision, along with the broad language of the statute certainly gives the government more leverage to pursue suspected groups of people whose plans have not yet reached fruition, but may still pose a threat.