Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the convicted terrorist referred to as the “Underwear Bomber,” has been sentenced to life in a U.S. federal prison. The 25-year-old Nigerian who attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his undergarments on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences and an additional 50 years in prison by a federal judge. The sentencing comes after Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty in October to charges including conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
The processing and subsequent sentencing of Abdulmutallab adds to the ever-growing body of evidence indicating that the American legal system can be, and has been, an effective way to prosecute accused terrorists. The U.S. shouldn’t have to resort to extralegal or constitutionally questionable methods such as indefinite detentions to combat terrorism. Instead, individuals caught planning or executing domestic terrorist attacks should be granted the full due process of law on American soil.
Abdulmutallab’s is one in a series of cases that have seen similar outcomes. Other terrorist suspects tried in civilian courts include the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, Ali al-Marri and more than a dozen others. As of April 2011, the conviction rate in civilian courts for Jihadi-related crimes, including those in which the government dropped the charges or a judge dismissed them, has been 87 percent, with an average prison term of 14 years, according to The Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. In the same time frame, military tribunals had produced five convictions and far more lenient sentences.
The argument that civilian courts don’t allow for effective intelligence gathering is specious. In fact, the prosecution has more tools at its disposal within a legal framework to ensure that valuable information is gained from terror suspects. For instance, prosecutors may be able to offer plea deals in the form of a shorter sentence or better living conditions in exchange for intelligence that is verifiably accurate.
In two major cases, Abdulmutallab and Mansour Arbabsiar — the man accused of plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C. on behalf of Iran — were read their Miranda rights but still provided a wealth of information about Al Qaeda and Iranian operations. Furthermore, American law permits a “national security exception,” which allows law enforcement to withhold the reading of Miranda rights until relevant information is extracted from the suspect, ostensibly to combat immediate threats to public safety.
The United States needs to combat terrorism with a strategy that reflects a moral backbone and coheres with what are often called American values — freedom, integrity and fairness. These values must be at the forefront of our discussion on national security, not merely considered as an aside or evoked when convenient. As cases like Abdulmutallab’s have shown, America does not have to compromise human dignity or due process for security.