A few days before Christmas, the U.S. indicted three men at the Federal District courthouse in Brooklyn for plotting suicide bomb attacks. This is an extraordinary, almost unique case: none of the people or conduct has any connection to the U.S. The defendants are foreign nationals, captured by some African government ont their way to join up with al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist group. To be clear, there is no suggestion that they planned to target American nationals or facilities, or had even ever been to this country before.
This is an aggressive – and unconstitutional – assertion of universal jurisdiction. The U.S. is prosecuting foreign nationals for their participation in a foreign civil war. Congress, as the Supreme Court recently reminded us in the Health Care decision, is truly one of limited regulatory powers, and thus the first question about such a case is what Art. I power gives Congress the power to punish entirely foreign conduct with no U.S. nexus.
The men have been charged under the “material support for terrorism” statute, 18 USC 2339B . Apart from the many controversies about the substantive sweep of the law, it casts a very broad jurisdictional net. By its terms, it applies to foreigners who support designated foreign terror groups with no connection to the U.S. In other words, it makes terrorism anywhere a federal offense.
While the statute has previously been used to prosecute extraterritorial conduct by foreigners that conducted significant dealings in the U.S., this is only the second apparently “universal” prosecution.
The Art I. authority for prosecuting conduct under universal jurisdiction is the “Define and Punish” clause. Yet the clause limits universal jurisdiction to crimes, like piracy, that are i) “offenses against the law of nations,” and ii) treated as universally cognizable by the law of nations. Congress cannot “define” something as a universal offense when the law of nations has not done so – not because of any superiority or comity of international law, but because that is the limit place by the Define and Punish Clause.
More importantly, recently several federal courts have adopted this position.
Thus in U.S. v. Bellaizac-Hurtado, 700 F.3d 1245 (2012), the 11th Circuit held unconstitutional a universal jurisdiction prosecution of drug trafficking in a foreign country. It held that drug trafficking had not been recognized as a “offense against the law of nations,” and thus cannot be reached by Congress under the Offenses Clause. One of the judges added in concurrence that because drug trafficking is not universally cognizable in international law, it cannot be punished universally through the Offenses power.
Similarly, in U.S. v. Ali, the a D.C. federal district court threw out charges of piracy and conspiracy to commit piracy because universal jurisdiction for such acts only ran on the high seas. And the Fourth Circuit in U.S. v. Dire
680 F.3d 446 (2012) agreed in dicta. (And of course, in Kiobel the Supreme Court is reconsidering whether universal jurisdiction exists under the Alien Tort Act.)
Material support for terrorism is a particularly weak case for the Offenses Clause, as the D.C. Circuit had ruled in Hamdan that it was not a war crime (though this does not rule out its being another type of international offense), and terrorism itself does not violate international law, as the Second Circuit has held in Yousef.
Indeed, I know of know other case in the world of material support for terrorism being prosecuted through universal jurisdiction. In prosecutions under the Define and Punish Clause, courts have increasingly (and properly) required actual evidence of past state practice to establish an international norm, as I’ve discussed here before.
The policy behind the material support statute, when applied without a U.S. nexus, is to punish actors whose political actors whose goals and methods the U.S. disapproves of. Al Shabab is a pernicious and destabilizing force, but that does not give the U.S. Congress Art. I power to criminally punish entirely foreign conduct simply because it runs counter to U.S. foreign policy.
There are other ways the U.S. can, consistent with the Constitution, engage and repress Al Shabab and other purely foreign terror groups. It can help local governments that are fighting them. It can even use military force itself. It the beef with Al Shabab is that it is an ally of other forces actively hostile to the U.S., it members (but perhaps not supporters) could perhaps even be detained militarily as co-belligerents.
(Thanks to Jon Bellish for the pointer.)
UPDATE: The defendants seem to be among the folks discussed in today’s Washington Post renditions story:
The three European men with Somali roots were arrested on a murky pretext in August as they passed through the small African country of Djibouti. . . . U.S. agents accused the men — two of them Swedes, the other a longtime resident of Britain — of supporting al-Shabab, an Islamist militia in Somalia that Washington considers a terrorist group. Two months after their arrest, the prisoners were secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York, then clandestinely taken into custody by the FBI and flown to the United States to face trial.