DECISION BRIEF: States should create terrorist offender registries

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Decision: Using the example set by the highly successful sex offender registry, each state in America should move to establish a terrorist offender registry.

Reason:  State and local law enforcement have the need to know if convicted terrorists are moving into their jurisdiction.

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Decision: Using the example set by the highly successful sex offender registry, each state in America should move to establish a terrorist offender registry.

Reason:  State and local law enforcement have the need to know if convicted terrorists are moving into their jurisdiction. Following the rise of the Islamic State, it has become increasingly clear that State and Local law enforcement play an important first responder role in addressing terrorism cases. At the height of the challenge the FBI was investigating over 1000 Islamic state related terror cases in all 50 states.  Since 9/11, U.S. law enforcement at the state and federal level has arrested hundreds of inmates on terrorism-related charges. Many of those inmates will be due for release within the next 5 years.

Background: Since the 1990s sex offenders in America have been required to register with their local sheriff so that law enforcement can be aware of their residence. This program has worked very well. The time has come for a similar registry for those offenders who have been convicted of terrorism offenses. The sex offender’s registry began as a state-level initiative, and only after it was established in multiple states did national legislation to facilitate federal support for the system develop. For this reason, it is entirely logic for the Terror Offenders’ registry to also begin at the State level.

Evidence from the United Kingdom and France clearly indicates that recently released terror offenders are a risk for launching new attacks. The 2020 Streatham knife attack by Sudesh Amman and 2019 “London Bridge” attack by Usman Khan, who had only been let out of prison a year prior has forced British authorities to reconsider its terrorist prisoner release policies. In France the Charlie Hebdo massacre was carried out by two brothers, one of whom, Cherif Kouachi, was previously jailed for attempting to travel to Damascus to fight for Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2005.

There is ample evidence from what goes on in U.S. prisons that convicted terrorists continue to stay involved in terrorism, network with other terrorists and seek to indoctrinate new recruits. Ahmad Khan Rahimi, convicted in the bombings in New York and New Jersey in September 2016. Rahimi has reportedly provided other inmates with copies of terrorist propaganda and jihadist materials. While Rahimi is unlikely to ever see the outside of a prison again he provides ample evidence of convicted terrorists continue to engage in their behavior after sentencing.  Other recently released inmates include the notorious “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh who was released despite stating his continued allegiance to jihadist ideology. Similarly, Kevin James who founded the group Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS) while in prison in 2004. Upon release he was later convicted in 2009 of plotting attacks on military and Jewish targets in California and sentenced to 16 years in prison, but released early in 2019, during which time he was already found to have violated release restrictions forcing a federal judge to apply additional restrictions.

While the emphasis in the post-September 11 era has been on jihadist terrorism, terrorism statutes apply to all forms of terrorism and a terrorist offender registry would not discriminate. A terrorist offender registry would address jihadists, white supremacists, militant environmental extremists, and other terrorists regardless of ideological motivation. A terrorist offender registry would give state and local law enforcement who are responsible for public safety a vital tool when terrorists are released from prison and come to live in their jurisdictions.

Pushback: Objections to a terrorist offender registry have been raised from a few sources. Academics within the “Counter Violent Extremism” community have attempted to argue -using vanishingly small data sets and relatively short tracking periods- that terrorism recidivism rates are significantly lower than other violent crimes, and therefore a registry is not necessary. Among the larger data set involving detainees at the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba however, evidence suggests a 20% to 30% recidivism rate. Moreover, according to the Counter Extremism Project, the recidivism rate for all federal prisoners is 44% and the recidivism rate for state prisoners is 76%. Given the heightened risk represented by terror attack, even comparatively low recidivism rates represents a significant danger.

Members of law enforcement administration also express worries about cost. However, when the state of Louisiana conducted a study committee on the subject, it was determined that to establish such a registry would only involve a one-time cost of $30,000. This reflects the fact that the methodology and infrastructure for registries have now been well-established for many years in many states. In addition to large sex offender registries in virtually every state, save New Mexico, registries for arsonists and even animal cruelty offenders have been established in some states with minimal cost and effort. Civil libertarian concerns that innocent people could end up on an “offender Registry” are not accurate, as to be listed in a terrorist offender registry, a person has to be convicted of an actual terrorist offense.

Governing Laws and Regulations: Terrorist Offender registry legislation has been proposed in several states, and successfully passed in Louisiana. As proposed, Terrorist Offender Registries would require an individual be convicted of a terrorism offense such as terrorism (18 U.S. Code Chapter 113B) or providing material support to terrorists (18 U.S.C. § 2339), or state-level versions of those laws. Offenders convicted of terrorism-related crimes who fail to register with local law enforcement after release from prison would be committing a felony. Unlike the sex offender registry, the proposed state terrorist offender registry legislation would restrict information as to the residential status of a convicted terrorist to law enforcement.

As with state-level sex offender registries, it is likely that federal legislation to facilitate the sharing of information between states and federal law enforcement on recently released prisoners may become necessary, but states can act immediately, even in the absence of such national legislation, to protect their states.

The Bottom Line: As the United States continues to address both foreign jihadist terrorism and domestic terrorism threats, there is a genuine risk that it may be overwhelmed as prior offenders are released, substantially increasing the resources required to monitor threats. This is the situation that has already overwhelmed British and European counterterror officials. U.S. States can proactively limit such a threat, by establishing state-level counterterrorism registries and should do so without delay.

Christopher Holton

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