Counter-Terrorism: The Moussaoui Mess


May 14, 2006: The trial and sentencing of Zacarias Moussaoui is perhaps the biggest example of why the "law enforcement" approach to terrorism is doomed to failure. One terrorist, who pled guilty to being one of those who plotted the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was able to create a media circus, and now will be held for the rest of his life at a "supermax" prison. Sounds fine and dandy, right?

The first problem, of course, is that Moussaoui's arrest came during peacetime, and a lot of the evidence against him did not involve information that, if revealed in open court, could compromise intelligence sources. This is not the case for a number of other captives, particularly those caught in Afghanistan or on foreign soil and turned over to the United States. Sometimes, the leads will come from a program like that carried out by the National Security Agency. Other times, it will come from an informant. In the former case, it is never a good idea to let the enemy know you are reading their mail. Informants also need to be protected, not just to preserve a present flow of information, but also to make recruiting future informants possible. Dead informants lead to major recruitment difficulties.

The second problem is that having Moussaoui alive and in prison can lead to problems of its own. He might not get the martyrdom he seeks, but in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been prison breaks staged by al-Qaeda. While they are less likely to succeed in the United States, it is a safe bet that in the future, terrorists who take hostages will demand his release.

The third problem will be the fact that future al Qaeda terrorists will have observed this trial and will have taken notes on the lessons to be learned if they are captured in the future. Numerous court documents are already available online, and will give these terrorists plenty of material to figure out what mistakes Moussaoui made, and how to avoid them.

Fourth, and finally, al Qaeda members on the outside may try to use portions of the American legal process to cause havoc. In a recent statement on a web site known to have been used by al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden stated that Moussaoui had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks. This will at least create more trouble in the media for the FBI and other counter-terrorism efforts in the United States.

Ultimately, Zacarias Moussaoui will be in a supermax prison for the rest of his life, unable to directly harm anyone. The lessons he has taught America will likely fade away in the face of media campaigns by human rights groups. The lessons he teaches future al-Qaeda terrorists will have the potential to kill a lot of innocent people. - Harold C. Hutchison (


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