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Loophole Prevents Minors From Being Charged in Terror Plots

He was a quiet 17-year-old high school student in Plano, TX. In 2018 he planned to kill as many Americans as he could.

His target was a mall in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, a rapidly growing, affluent community built mainly of transplants from other states. After considering several other possible targets, such as a Hindu temple and his own high school, the junior terrorist, Matin Azizi-Yarand, decided on the largest mall in North Texas. He wanted to “leave a message for America” in blood. He’d arranged to buy over $1400 in weapons and gear in preparation for his Jihadist-style terror attack.

The former Plano West Senior High School student reached out online for help with the terrorist plot. He planned it for May 2018 during Ramadan so no Muslims would be hurt, Brown said. Ramadan is Islam’s holiest month and includes prayers, fasting from dawn to dusk and nightly feasts.

“He did not think Muslims would be in the mall during a Muslim holiday,” US Attorney Joseph Brown said. “This suspect’s arrest saved lives.”

Luckily, for police and civilians he wanted to murder at Stonebriar Mall, his weapons provider was also an FBI informant. Matin was arrested at school and charged with criminal solicitation of capital murder and making a terroristic threat. A year later, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years, with parole possible in 10.

Why such a light sentence for the planning of such a horrific event?

If Azizi-Yarand had been an adult, federal prosecutors would have brought terrorism charges. However, because he was 17-years-old at the time, considered a minor under federal law, the US Attorney’s Office was limited in the charges they could level on him.

According to federal attorneys, it is “extremely rare” for a juvenile to be prosecuted as a terrorist.

Federal law allows prosecutors to charge anyone supporting or working with a State Department-designated terror group, even if the person was not in contact with the group, with terrorism. But to charge a juvenile with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the attorney general would have to determine that the suspect committed what’s known as a “crime of violence” under federal law.

The Justice Department’s ability to charge minors for supporting terrorist groups has been hampered by a 2018 Supreme Court decision, forcing prosecutors to hand off at least one such case to local authorities in a state without utilizing anti-terrorism laws.

The court considered the case of a Filipino man who had been convicted of robbery. The law in place at the time, which made it easier to deport those convicted of serious crime, was deemed too open to interpretation in what constituted a violent crime. As a result, the SCOTUS voted 5-4 to strike down the law. The deciding vote was Trump nominee, Neil Gorsuch

“Vague laws invite arbitrary power,” Gorsuch wrote.

The decision opened a loophole which prevented Federal Prosecutors from charging Matin. No one died, so a violent crime was only planned, not committed. The Trump administration is currently working on closing that loophole.

SCOTUS’s decision meant feds couldn’t charge Matin with terrorism

After the Supreme Court ruling, the Department of Homeland Security said the decision “significantly undermines” its ability to deport people convicted of “certain violent crimes,” but the implications for terror cases weren’t immediately apparent.

It isn’t clear how many cases the Justice Department has handed off or dropped because of the Supreme Court ruling.

Trying terrorism cases in state court can be problematic. Many states, including Texas, have no criminal statute against aiding a foreign terror organization. And, where such laws do exist, bringing state charges can complicate federal investigations.

State prosecutors aren’t normally trained to try a case connected to terrorism, and the prospect can be a challenge for those not familiar with radical Islamic groups, according to Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “For state prosecutors it’s a learning curve,” he said. “You have to understand the nuances of ISIS ideology.”

The Feds’ hands are tied

This leaves federal law enforcement “in this strange limbo where either they kick it to a state level case or they track that individual until they turn 18,” Hughes said.

As a result, Azizi-Yarand couldn’t be charged with a federal terrorism law. Facing only state charges, the teen struck a plea deal and was sentenced to 20 years in prison with the possibility of parole after 10. Prosecutors presented the case as an example of local and federal collaboration, but also said that the criminal charge that would have best fit Azizi-Yarand’s acts is not available in state court. And with the SCOTUS decision, it’s no longer available for federal prosecutors either.

 

A charge of supporting a terror group “would’ve fit this crime better than the laws that we used,” Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis said last month when the plea deal was announced.

Azizi-Yarand can possibly be released in 2029. If he tries to plot another attack, will there be another FBI informant to stop it?

Sarah Morton

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