Over the past year, there's been a rash of "domestic terrorist" plots and schemes uncovered in the US. It prompts the question: What's the difference between a "terrorist" and a "traitor?"

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You've probably heard or read about at least a few of these people over the past several months. Have you ever asked yourself what you'd call their criminal activities? In other words, if you were the prosecutor in charge of putting them on trial, what crime would you accuse them of committing?

Colleen LaRose, aka "Jihad Jane," is a 46-year-old woman from Pennsylvania. She's been charged by the federal government with trying to recruit Islamic fighters, and plotting to kill a Swedish cartoonist who once made fun of the Prophet Mohammed, and plotting other murders in Europe and Asia. She recently pleaded not guilty to charges of terrorism.

Najibullah Zazi is a 25-year old resident of Colorado and a legal permanent resident (LPR) of the US. In February 2010 he pleaded guilty to several federal criminal charges stemming from his plot to bomb the New York subway system with homemade explosives.

Daniel Boyd, a US citizen from North Carolina, a father, and a drywall contractor, faces federal charges stemming from plotting "violent jihad" through a series of terror attacks abroad. Two of his sons and several others are also accused of the plot.

Nadal Hasan is also a US citizen and a Major in the US Army. In November 2009, he opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, where he was stationed. He killed 13 people and injured 43 others. He's awaiting trial on murder charges. Hasan's ties to Islam and opposition to US military action in Afghanistan are cited as his motives for the killings.

Treason or Terrorism?

From a practical standpoint there's not much difference between the crimes of terrorism and treason. For the most part, the two crimes share the same goal: To destroy the US and kill US citizens. Cases like Jihad Jane's are a bit different - as of yet, there's indication she targeted US citizens. So, what's the difference?

Treason is when someone wages war against the US, aligns himself with enemies of the US, or gives aid and comfort to those enemies. A person convicted of treason (he's called a "traitor") faces the death sentence, or at least five years in prison and at least a $10,000 fine.

Under the US Constitution, no one can be convicted of treason unless there's either:

  • Testimony of two witnesses who saw the person accused of the crime perform an "overt act" of treason. Making a bomb is a good example of an "overt act," or
  • A confession by the accused in court

Terrorism, in general, is using or threatening to use violence against civilians - ordinary citizens - in order to further some religious or political goal. There is:

  • International terrorism, which is directed at non-US citizens, and
  • Domestic terrorism, which under the US Patriot Act, is when someone inside the US does some act that endangers human life, in violation of federal or state law, that's intended to intimidate US citizens, influence the US government by intimidation, or affect the government's actions by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping

A person convicted of terrorism faces the death sentence, or a prison term of up to life with no parole, and a fine.

From these definitions, you can see that people in our examples could all be "traitors." They arguably waged war against the US, or at least aligned themselves with radical religious sects who are enemies of the US, or gave aid and comfort to them. Even Jihad Jane's and Daniel Boyd's plots may be construed as "aid and comfort."

The problem is the proof required. Witnesses for treason trials may be hard to come by, and in-court confessions are very rare in any criminal case, much less one involving treason. Perhaps that's why there've been less than 40 treason trials in US history, and only a handful of convictions.

Terrorism, on the other hand, requires only the same level of proof as practically any other crime: Proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. Clearly, Zazi's and Hasan's conduct fit within the definition of domestic terrorism. Zazi pleaded guilty, presumably because he believed there was enough evidence to convict him. We should know Hasan's fate sometime in 2010 or early 2011.

Either way you look at it, there are people out there who want to hurt or kill other people, and particularly US citizens. Stay alert. If you see or hear about something suspicious, don't hesitate to contact the police. The life you save may be yours, your child's, or your neighbor's.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Can I get into trouble if I report what I honestly believe is terrorist activities but the person is, in fact, innocent?
  • What are some defenses to a charge of terrorism or treason?
  • If someone like Colleen LaRose is convicted in the US, could she be put on trial overseas after she serves her US sentence?

Tagged as: Government, domestic terrorist, government lawyer