U.S. and U.K. Struggle To Make Terror Cases Stick

The global war on terror isn't going so well on the judicial front. Last week a London jury failed to convict eight British Muslims of a suicide plot to smuggle sports drinks full of explosives aboard transatlantic flights—the initial catalyst for banning liquids and creams onboard ever since. That's only the latest in a series of police failures in Britain, ranging from an alleged plot to spread nerve gas on the London Underground (which resulted in only four convictions for passport offenses and disorderly conduct), to the fatal police shooting of a Brazilian whom police mistook for a suicide bomber, to the release of all 10 Muslims rounded up in an alleged plot to bomb a Manchester United game (they were ticketholding fans). Scotland Yard stats show those are no exceptions: of 1,165 persons arrested under Britain's Terrorism Act (enacted in 2000), more than half have been released without charges and only 41 convicted, with an additional 114 trials pending.

Still, authorities were shocked at the liquid-bombers verdict. The jury convicted only three of the defendants on a more general charge of conspiracy to commit murder, despite a trove of evidence turned up in searches of the suspects' homes. The evidence included martyrdom videos (which can be viewed on Newsweek .com) made by seven of the suspects, who explained them away as a harmless attempt to scare people. British authorities are seeking a retrial on the more serious charges related to the airline-bombing plot, but four of the plotters so far have been convicted only of "creating a public nuisance" by recording the suicide videos.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of bringing a successful prosecution before the terrorists have acted. This complicates the task for the police, who aim to arrest the would-be attackers before they cause havoc, especially if the perps are suicidal. "I don't worry about the difficulty of arresting and convicting people for things they didn't do yet," says Bob Ayers, a former intelligence officer who is now a fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. Still, juries clearly do worry about it, and that can lead to deadlocks and mistrials if prosecutors can only show intent, and not the crime committed.

The Americans are having a hard time making terror cases stick, too. From September 11, 2001, to March 2007, some 1,391 persons classified as "international terrorists" by the Justice Department were referred for prosecution, but only 213 were convicted, and a mere 32 got more than a year in jail, according to Syracuse University's TRAC research project. On both sides of the Atlantic, GWOT isn't winning in the courts.