Texas Juvenile Jihadi Shows Why We Need State-Level Terrorism Statutes

Far too often during the Obama administration, attacks that had all the hallmarks of Islamist terrorism were never charged or labeled as terror attacks. Some of the many examples: The 2009 fatal shooting attack by Tennessee Islamic convert Carlos Bledsoe on a military recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas; the 2014 fatal decapitation attack by Oklahoma’s Alton Nolen at Vaughn Foods in Moore, Oklahoma; and the 2017 head-shot execution of a Denver transit security officer by Texas resident Joshua Cummings. Those and many other Islamist-inspired attacks were left to local authorities to charge under various state laws, such as murder.

Correct or not, critics often attributed Obama-era decisions not to charge extremism-motivated cases under federal terrorism statutes to a desire to downplay the Islamist threat -- and maybe also to reduce the number of terrorism attacks accrued under the Democratic Party’s watch. In other cases, legal rationales actually underlay decisions.

The backup solution for either eventuality -- be it politically motivated threat denial or prosecutorial needle-threading -- is for all U.S. states to carry their own terrorism statutes. That now especially goes for Texas.

The Lone Star State was not among the 33 states that passed statutes right after 9/11 with which prosecutors could charge and penalize terrorists. Few states have actually used them. But a new literal case in point -- that of a juvenile jihadi rolled up in May -- shows why Texas and the other states should finally acquire state-level terrorism statutes at the first opportunity.

The case involves West Plano High School senior Matin Azizi-Yarand, 17 years old when Frisco, Texas, police arrested him with FBI agents staged carefully in tow. During the first months of 2018, the FBI ensnared Yarand in an undercover sting wherein he allegedly thought he was plotting with other ISIS-infatuated operatives to use firearms to slaughter shoppers at a high-end North Texas shopping mall. He allegedly fantasized about disarming a police officer and then burning him to death during the envisioned melee.

The problem is that people under 18 can’t be charged as adults under federal law. So the feds turned the case over to Texas, where 17-year-olds can be charged for serious crimes as adults. Azizi-Yarand is currently charged for criminal solicitation and making terroristic threats, which could land him in prison for decades; the Collin County district attorney is prosecuting. But while this hand-off may have made good legal sense, the Azizi-Yarand case still seems a missed opportunity for Texas and the nation. It’s another terror case that won’t be counted toward any assessment of national threat, or studied intensively later, even if justice eventually is served on the teen.

Tallying terrorism cases deeply matters on several public interest fronts not very often mentioned. For one, an argument can be made that national media coverage that goes with federal terrorism prosecution charges at each stage can act as a deterrent to others and spur suspicious activity reporting from the public. The importance of these results cannot be understated; it’s why the U.S. Department of Justice’s media arm churns out press releases at every turn of the screw in federal terrorism cases. Conversely, state charges without the term “terrorism” anywhere near them may get some sporadic shallow local media coverage, and often none at all, are quickly forgotten, and certainly are not added to any lists of incidents that academics and homeland security practitioners may study for lessons learned or patterns.

After killing two soldiers at the Little Rock recruiting station, Bledsoe wrote Arkansas prosecutors demanding to be prosecuted as the Islamist terrorist he insisted he was, having radicalized in Yemen two years earlier and trained with al-Qaeda. The lead Pulaski County prosecutor pressing a regular murder rap against Bledsoe was quoted dismissing the claim: “If you strip away what he says, self-serving or not … it’s like a lot of other killings we have.”

Acknowledgement that religion-motivated terrorism occurred -- and why -- can open the throttle on federal investigations that can identify co-conspirators, foreign connections, and intelligence failures about people like Bledsoe from which homeland security authorities can learn. That kind of introspection can perhaps reduce the chances of future law enforcement intelligence failures, not that this particular Texas case was one of them. Furthermore, terrorism acknowledgement and media attention based on that acknowledgement encourages the nation to emotionally comfort the survivors and help them close the emotionally important loop of knowing why their loved ones died.

In recent years, two states chose to finally use their own terrorism statutes to ameliorate a desire by some to have attacks called out for what they were. New Jersey used its statute to charge Washington state resident Muhammad Ali Brown for one of four murders he committed in the name of Islamic jihad -- that of New Jersey native son Brendan Tevlin, a college student shot in the chest apparently at random. For whatever reason, the feds in Washington state never treated the Brown killings as terrorism. Yet Brown had stated that he did them as retaliation for American military forces killing Muslims in conflict zones, had a prior terrorism conviction in Oregon, kept journals lauding ISIS, and was on the terrorism watch list.

So aggrieved were they at this federal negligence on behalf of Brendan Tevlin, their one local victim, that New Jersey state prosecutors invoked the terrorism statute. It’s unclear to what extent prosecutors might have viewed this as a stick in the eye of Obama’s Justice Department.

An Essex County prosecutor described the killings as “part of an overarching plan to kill Americans” in retaliation for what Brown contended were “millions of lives” the U.S. had taken in the Middle East. Brendan's parents were grateful for the state terrorism charge nod to the cause of their child’s death. His mother was quoted saying: "It is our belief that Brendan was senselessly executed for no reason other than he was an American, and this outrageous fact will be proven at trial."

Arizona was another state that triggered its 9/11-era terrorism statute for the first time, in the 2016 case of Mahim Atif Khan. The 18-year-old was the target of an elaborate federal sting that found he was plotting to bomb an Air Force recruiting station in Tucson with a pressure cooker device. He had also reached out to ISIS for help securing firearms and bomb-making instructions. It’s not entirely clear why the feds chose not to prosecute what appeared to be a strong case. Khan received an eight-year state prison sentence on the state terrorism conviction, so it will join the ranks of jihadist terrorism incidents anyway thanks to the Arizona statute.

It seems doubtful the Azizi-Yarand case in Texas will be remembered for anything or anyone beyond Collin County, Texas, even though he is likely to get what he fully deserves if the charges are proved. Without at least the option to charge Azizi-Yarand under a Texas terrorism statute, few of the homeland security-enhancing benefits that can be accrued likely will be accrued.

One of those benefits -- should Texas or any of the remaining outlier states enact its own statute -- can be held in reserve for some future day when a different White House administration is in place that views Islamist terrorism as an overblown threat. Texas could act on its own when that future Department of Justice proves just as disinclined to prosecute for terrorism as was the last one.

The 86th Texas legislature convenes in January 2019. Someone should propose a law, and it should be enacted, signed and put away for times like now, when one was needed.

(Background on state terrorism statutes can be found here.)

Follow Todd Bensman on Twitter: @BensmanTodd