March 2, 2005 | National Review Online

Jihad Correspondence

Convicted terrorists should not be permitted to mail letters.

On Monday, NBC broke the story that three of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers have been corresponding with members of the Spanish jihad cell(s) tied to the March 11 Madrid attacks. The letters appear to be exhortations to more acts of terror. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was questioned about this at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday and indicated that an investigation is underway. The Justice Department investigators who are looking into this are very solid, and we can be confident that we’ll find out what went wrong.

In the near term, though, we have to be concerned that our intelligence officials (at least those of them who are involved in prison restrictions) have failed to learn a basic lesson that we should long ago have absorbed. Imprisoned jihadists, especially if they have been associated with a spectacular act of terrorism, achieve a status of immense esteem in the militant world.

In this country, when we reflect on the '93 WTC bombing, we tend to think of Mohammed Salameh (one of the letter-writing bombers) as the imbecile who went back to claim the deposit he had put down for the van that was used to transport the bomb — a laughably foolish move that was central to the chain of events that led to the identification and apprehension of Salameh and the other terrorists. But we need to understand: Just because that's how we perceive him does not mean that is how he is perceived among the militants. In that orb, he is a great hero of the jihad. He is associated with what, in its time, was the worst act of terrorism ever committed on American soil. Taking the long view of history, it was militant Islam's declaration of war against the United States — the war we are fighting today. If there is an Islamo-fascist hall of fame, Salameh is in it.

Ditto Mahmud Abouhalima and Nidal Ayyad, the other two scribes incarcerated at the so-called “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado. Of course, one can only speculate at this early stage of the investigation, but the following certainly seems plausible: Salameh, Abouhalima, and Ayyad were viewed by government officials as “operational” terrorists, not tactical planners. They were the foot soldiers who built and planted the bomb, not the big thinkers like bin Laden, or Khalid Sheik Mohammed, or Ramsey Yousef who figured out how to attack and what to hit; and not the authoritative Islamic figures like Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, empowered to give the go-ahead for terrorist acts. Since their main function was the sheer physical work of terror, it may well have been thought that, once they were incarcerated, they were no longer people to be concerned about.

If that happened, it means we're not paying attention. In 1990, Sayyid Nosair was a nobody, too — a mere foot soldier hoping to achieve notoriety in the incipient American jihad. Then he murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League. Overnight, Nosair became a star: a commanding figure who convinced potential militants, on the fence about joining the movement, that terrorism could succeed; who issued jihad recruitment tapes from his jail cell; and who conducted planning meetings for the WTC bombing from Attica Prison — to which terrorists, in the middle of constructing their bomb, would take hours of time out to troop up for just a few minutes of consultation with the glorious slayer of the infidel Kahane.

Nosair's story is not singular. Part of Sheik Abdel Rahman's cachet is his association with the murder of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (for which he was incarcerated for a time but acquitted — only later to brag about his involvement). Zarqawi served several years in a Jordanian prison. Becoming associated with daring terror plots and “doing time” (or, as the Islamists see it, being persecuted by the enemy) dramatically enhances a terrorist's status and influence. For a young, impressionable, potential suicide bomber, a letter from Salameh can hit home like a letter from Michael Jordan to a kid at a basketball camp. It's inspirational. And when one is dealing with terror, especially suicide terror, it is especially perilous to underestimate the value of inspiration. It is the trigger for action.

There is no good reason for convicted terrorists to be able to communicate with the outside world at all. They have forfeited that right by the singular inhumanity of their atrocities. And morality aside, communications are the only way they can still hurt us. Thus, as a practical matter, it should be a national-security imperative to preclude them from exchanging correspondence.

— Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.