Do the Hutaree Militia Members Pose a Terrorist Threat?

On Monday, while Americans were fixated on the hunt for and subsequent arrest of Faisal Shahzad for his alleged role in the Times Square bomb plot, an equally important terrorism-related story that was breaking in Detroit went relatively unnoticed.

A federal judge ordered the release of all nine members of the Hutaree Christian militia group currently behind bars on charges of conspiracy to commit sedition and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.

According to prosecutors, the Hutaree, among other things, intended to kill a police officer and then to detonate improvised explosive devices at the officer's funeral in hopes of slaying scores of police officers in attendance. Authorities contend that the objective of the group was to use this incident to instill an uprising against the government.

In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts acknowledged that the government "need not wait until people are killed before it arrests conspirators." But in her 36-page ruling, she also held: "Discussions about killing local law enforcement officers -- and even discussions about killing members of the judicial branch of government -- do not translate to conspiring to overthrow, or levy war against, the United States government."

Roberts might have done the U.S. Attorney's office a favor by identifying the weaknesses underlying its sedition claims. However, she might also have overstretched her logic a bit. While "discussions about killing local law enforcement officers [and] members of the judicial branch of government" might not constitute sedition, they are arguably intended to affect the conduct of government by violence.

Maybe words don't hurt the way sticks and stones do, but when proclamations of murder are coupled with lethal capabilities, a recipe for criminal activity is created. Furthermore, when the crime is intended to affect government through violence, that's terrorism.

As defined in 18 U.S.C. § 2331, "domestic terrorism" involves deeds that:

  • (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
  • (B) appear to be intended - (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
  • (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

In reviewing the evidence as to whether or not to release criminal defendants on bail, judges are required, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3142(g), to consider "the nature and circumstances of the offense charged, including whether the offense is a crime of violence, ... a Federal crime of terrorism, or involves a ... firearm, explosive, or destructive device." According to the indictment, the Hutaree case involves all of the above.

The Hutaree suspects were reportedly in possession of hundreds of firearms, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and bomb-making material. Moreover, these means of violence were intended to be used to "affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction [and] assassination" -- by the militia members' own admissions caught on tape, according to prosecutors.

In a follow-up order issued late in the day on Monday, Roberts agreed to delay the release of the nine suspects until Wednesday afternoon so that the government could file subsequent pleadings challenging her ruling.

If the government is wrong about the intentions and capabilities of the Hutaree, it needs to re-think its prosecution. If the government is correct, however, Roberts in essence risks freeing suspected terrorists.

Given the tremendous public interest at stake in this case, allowing prosecutors a few extra days to further their concerns hardly seems unreasonable.