Governments around the world have prosecuted suspected terrorists before they carry out acts of violence, but not many have been prosecuted solely for their alleged online activities in support of terrorism.
Those cases have been hampered by concerns about restricting free speech, the desire to monitor terrorist-linked sites for intelligence and the difficulty of identifying individuals online. Here are some examples of such cases:
Sami Al-Hussayen — A 34-year-old graduate student in computer science at the University of Idaho, Al-Hussayen was arrested in February 2003 and accused of designing, creating and maintaining Web sites that provided material support for terrorism. It was the U.S. government's first attempt at using statutes prohibiting material support for terrorism to prosecute activity that occurred exclusively online. The definition of “material support” used by the prosecutors had been expanded under the Patriot Act of 2001 to include “expert advice or assistance.”
Al-Hussayen had volunteered to run Web sites for two Muslim charities and two Muslim clerics. But prosecutors alleged that messages and religious fatwas on the sites encouraged jihad, recruited terrorists and raised money for foreign terrorist groups. It didn't matter that Al-Hussayen had never committed a terrorist act or that he hadn't written the material. Prosecutors said it was enough to prove that he ran the Web sites and knew the messages existed.
Jurors were not convinced, however. They acquitted Al-Hussayen in June 2004. “There was no direct connection in the evidence they gave us — and we had boxes and boxes to go through — between Sami and terrorism,” said one juror.
The case attracted national attention, and according to University of Idaho law professor Alan Williams, “triggered a heated debate focused mainly on a key question: Were Al-Hussayen's Internet activities constitutionally protected free speech or did they cross the line into criminal and material support to terrorism?”
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear challenges to the material support statute — which critics complain is too vague — in two related cases this session.
Younis Tsouli — In late 2005, British police arrested 22-year-old Tsouli, a Moroccan immigrant and student who prosecutors alleged was known online as “Irhaby 007” — or Terrorist 007. The government linked Tsouli and his accomplices Waseem Mughal and Tariq al-Daour to “the purchase, construction and maintenance of a large number of Web sites and Internet chat forums on which material was published which incited acts of terrorist murder, primarily in Iraq.”
Tariq al-Daour, Younis Tsouli and Waseem Mughal (left to right), in 2007 became the first to plead guilty to inciting murder for terrorist purposes online under the U.K.'s Terrorism Act of 2000. (AFP/Getty Images)
Tsouli had been in active contact with al Qaeda in Iraq and was part of an online network that extended to Canada, the United States and Eastern Europe. In July 2007, Tsouli, Mughal and Al-Daour “became the first men to plead guilty to inciting murder for terrorist purposes” under the U.K.'s Terrorism Act of 2000.
Samina Malik — In November 2007 the 23-year-old shop assistant became the first woman convicted of terrorism in the United Kingdom when she was found guilty of “possessing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”
Malik had downloaded and saved on her hard drive The Terrorist's Handbook, The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook and other documents that appeared to support violent jihad. She had also written violent poems about killing nonbelievers. Her defense portrayed her as a confused young woman assuming a persona she thought was “cool.”
Her conviction sparked public outrage. Muhammed Abdul Bari, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said, “Many young people download objectionable material from the Internet, but it seems if you are Muslim then this could lead to criminal charges, even if you have absolutely no intention to do harm to anyone else.” An appeals court later overturned her conviction and clarified a new requirement that suspects must have a clear intent to engage in terrorism.
Ibrahim Rashid — In 2007 German prosecutors charged the Iraqi Kurdish immigrant with waging a “virtual jihad” on the Internet. They argued that by posting al-Qaeda propaganda on chat rooms, Rashid was trying to recruit individuals to join al Qaeda and participate in jihad. It was Germany's first prosecution of an Islamic militant for circulating propaganda online.
“This case underscores how thin the line is that Germany is walking in its efforts to aggressively target Islamic radicals,” wrote Shawn Marie Boyne, a professor at Indiana University's law school. “While active membership in a terrorist organization is a crime … it is no longer a crime to merely sympathize with terrorist groups or to distribute propaganda.” Thus, the prosecution had to prove that Rashid's postings went beyond expressing sympathy and extended to recruiting. The court found him guilty in June 2008.
Saïd Namouh — On Oct. 1, the 36-year-old Moroccan resident of Quebec was convicted under Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act of four charges largely related to his online activities. In March 2007 he had helped publicize a video warning Germany and Austria that they would suffer a bomb attack if they didn't withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. He also distributed violent videos on behalf of Global Islamic Media Front, a propaganda arm of al Qaeda. Intercepted Internet chats revealed Namouh's plans to explode a truck bomb and die a martyr. “Terrorism is in our blood, and with it we will drown the unjust,” Namouh said online.
— Barbara Mantel