Material Support Statute: A Neutrality Act for Everyone

In the next few days, I’ll discuss possible sources of Art. I authority for the the federal prosecution of three foreigners for fighting on the side of al-Shabab in Somalia, and brought forcibly to the U.S. for trial. Previously, I’ve argued that this prosecution cannot be sustained under the Offenses Clause. But first lets put this in historical and political context.

The use of the material support statute to prosecute foreign fighters in foreign wars is certainly novel, but it has a a historical cousin, which highlights the unusualness of the present prosecution in Brooklyn.

The Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, and subsequent Act, banned Americans from participating, or providing what we might call material support, to the belligerents in the Napoleonic Wars. The idea was such involvement could drag the U.S. into the war. The measures were extremely controversial, leading to the Pacificus-Helvedius debate between Hamilton and Madison. One of the secondary questions was the source of constitutional authority: it was variously placed in what I’d call the “dormant war power” – violations of neutrality by citizens undermined Congress’s prerogative of choosing our wars – or various treaty obligations to the particular warring states. Foreign commerce would do too. (I discuss the Art. I basis for the law in Part II.D.2 of this new article.)

The extraterritorial application of the Material Support statute to foreigners engaged in foreign wars essentially applies the Neutrality Act to the world. Not only must Americans stay of the of designated conflicts, everyone else must to. Of course, the effect is the opposite of the Neutrality Act: instead of distancing the US from foreign wars, it imports them into U.S. court rooms.

It is interesting to note that two of the men have Swedish citizenship, and the third had British citizenship. He became a news item last year when the U.K. revoked his citizenship shortly before his mysterious disappearance in Africa. He only reappeared in Brooklyn federal district court.

Given the lack of protest by Sweden, and the citizenship-stripping by Britain, one might think they are happy/complicit about the U.S. prosecution. I’ve noted before the process of “Goalization,” how countries transfer pirates to African countries with less cumbersome justice systems – a kind of cheapest-justice-provider. Apparently the European governments were watching these Islamist fighters for a while but couldn’t move against them. So maybe transferring terror suspects to the U.S. for trial is the European version of America’s sending them to Egypt or Iraq…

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