Senior Specialist in American Public Law
Federal authorities can and have prosecuted terrorist attacks on commercial airlines under a wide variety of federal statutes. Some of those statutes outlaw crimes committed aboard a commercial airliner; some, crimes committed against the aircraft itself; others, crimes involving the use of firearms or explosives; still others, crimes committed for terrorist purposes. Within each category, the law reaches co-conspirators and other accomplices. Moreover, although most apply when committed within the United States, many apply to terrorist attacks overseas, particularly but necessarily, when the victims are Americans or U.S. airlines.
A handful of terrorists have been prosecuted in federal court for attacks on commercial airlines or their passengers. Most often they have been charged with several crimes. Prosecution for some crimes depends upon where they were committed; some on the nationality of the airline, of the victim, or of the offender; some on whether the crimes has been planned, attempted, or completed; some on the nature of the attack; and some without regard to any of these factors. For instance, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged so-called Christmas bomber, has been charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction; attempted murder within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States; attempt to destroy an aircraft within such jurisdiction; placing an endangering destructive device upon an aircraft there; and possession of a destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence.1 The offenses with which terrorists may be charged fall within one or more of several categories: crimes committed aboard an aircraft; crimes committed against an aircraft; crimes committed using dangerous instrumentalities, such as a bomb; crimes of terrorism; crimes committed by or against certain classes of individuals; and crimes for which accomplices may be liable. This is a brief description of those offenses, and an outline of the penalties to which they may be subject and of the jurisdictional circumstances under which offenses they may be federally prosecuted regardless of whether they are committed within the United States or overseas. Perhaps because of the range of existing criminal proscriptions, there have been no legislative proposals to enlarge upon them as of yet.2
Date of Report: January 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R41035
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Sunday, January 24, 2010