Terrorists out on "good behavior"

France and Britain are letting some very scary people out of jail -- is the Bush-led war on terrorism partly to blame?

By Mark Follman
Published March 14, 2005 9:44PM (EST)

Despite frantic warnings from intelligence agencies, France and Britain are letting some very scary people out of jail, reports Newsweek today. Next month will bring a sentencing hearing for Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian man who was caught smuggling bomb-making materials into the United States from Canada in Dec. 1999, and who was later convicted for plotting to bomb L.A. International Airport. But some of the terrorist suspects Ressam fingered when bargaining with prosecutors have already been set free, according to the magazine -- despite Ressam's testimony against them and corroborating reports from "intelligence agencies across two continents."

"One worrisome case is that of Fateh Kamel. Labeled a jihadi 'mastermind' by law-enforcement sources in Europe and North America, he allegedly helped to recruit Ressam to the cause. He was arrested on a visit to Jordan and extradited to France, where in 2001 he was sentenced to eight years for trafficking in forged ID papers and 'association' with terrorists implicated in subway bombings there. The evidence against him included Italian wiretaps. 'I'm not afraid of dying, and killing doesn't frighten me,' he was quoted as saying. 'If I have to press the remote control, long live the jihad!' France released him in January, reportedly for 'good behavior,' and a Canadian government source confirms Kamel is back in Canada."

What this might mean for diplomatic relations across the Atlantic, the report doesn't say. But it does underscore the difficulty of fighting the war against terrorism effectively through law enforcement -- a formidable challenge in and of itself, but no doubt made even more difficult by the Bush administration's dropping numerous suspects into an extrajudicial black hole. Once you hogtie 'em and ship 'em off to secret prisons, or to foreign countries where there's a decent chance they'll be tortured, it gets a bit harder to make a clean case in a court of law.

All the same, democratic justice is no panacea for the terror threat, either.

"Among those released was another London jihadi once labeled 'truly dangerous' by a British judge. Radical imam Abu Qatada claims to be a religious scholar with no terrorist ties. But he has been described by investigators as Al Qaeda's 'ambassador' in Europe, and had been held without charges for two years. German government documents describe him as the onetime leader of a British terror cell set up by the notorious Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a fellow Jordanian, but no one has produced the kind of evidence that would convict the imam in a British court. Under Parliament's newly approved antiterror controls, Abu Qatada and other former British detainees will be on the streets, but their activities are supposed to be closely monitored. U.S. officials won't say what they're doing to guard against the threat of new attacks by former detainees. Other countries failed to make a solid case against them. It's far from certain that America could do better."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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