2017 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

Trial and Terror

About the Project

A year-long investigation by The Intercept reveals that more than half of the almost 800 people prosecuted on international terrorism-related charges since 9/11 have been released, often with no provision for supervision or ongoing surveillance. That’s not a reason to be alarmed, however, it’s a reason to be skeptical of what these prosecutions achieved in the first place. The FBI spends more than $3 billion a year on counterterrorism efforts, and every new terrorism prosecution provides new justification for that expense.

In the war on terror, U.S. courts have represented the primary stage of what can fairly be described as national security theater. The Intercept’s investigation reveals that more than one-third of those prosecuted for terrorism were the victims of FBI stings, in which an informant or undercover agent provided the means and opportunity for otherwise incapable individuals to move forward in terrorist plots.

Most of the terrorism defendants have been charged with material support for terrorism, criminal conspiracy, making false statements, or immigration violations — vague, nonviolent offenses that give prosecutors wide latitude for scoring quick convictions or plea bargains. When these individuals have served their time, the Bureau of Prisons simply returns them to their communities, their role in the play fulfilled.

The Intercept’s analysis shows that the majority of the defendants had no direct contact with terrorist organizations. A large proportion of terrorism suspects who did have connections to terrorist groups were instead recruited as informants or cooperating witnesses and served little or no time in prison.

The Intercept created a database of terrorism prosecutions and sentencing information, which will continue to be updated regularly, that includes all cases designated as international terrorism-related prosecutions by the DOJ’s National Security Division.