This is exactly what could happen with the al-Qaeda operatives Obama is bringing to the U.S. for trial.
The failed prosecution of an alleged Somali pirate — and the fact that that failure could leave him living freely, and permanently, inside U.S. borders — is highlighting anew the risks of trying terror suspects in American courts.
Just a few weeks ago, Ali Mohamed Ali was facing the possibility of a mandatory life sentence in a 2008 shipjacking off the coast of Yemen — an incident much like the one dramatized in the film Captain Phillips. Now, the Somali native is in immigration detention in Virginia and seeking permanent asylum in the United States.
Ali, who was accused of piracy for acting as a translator and negotiator for a crew of pirates, was partially acquitted by a jury in November after a trial in Washington. Prosecutors initially vowed a retrial, but decided last month to drop the rest of the case against him.
That’s just the kind of situation that opponents of U.S. criminal trials for Al Qaeda suspects caught abroad have long feared: the government falls short at trial — and the courts eventually order an accused terror figure freed to live legally among Americans.
“It’s a trial, not a play. You don’t know how it’s going to end,” said Cully Stimson, a former military prosecutor and defense official now at the Heritage Foundation. “Justice has all sorts of twists and turns…It really has to be thought through at the highest level of government before we take action to bring someone here.”
One current federal terrorism prosecutor said the Ali case and the potential for his eventual release is another reason why foreign Al Qaeda suspects picked up overseas should not be brought to the United States, but should instead be detained at Guantanamo or some other facility.