The Blog

The Problem of the Lone-Wolf Terrorist

Why Mohammed Taheri-azar cannot be prosecuted for a terrorist offense, and why it matters.

11:00 PM, Mar 15, 2006 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
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WHEN A JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE LAREDO surged onto the campus hub known as the Pit around noon on March 3, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students suddenly had far more to think about than the upcoming basketball game against Duke University. The driver, Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, had been planning this moment for two months. His checklist: rent a four-wheel drive vehicle so he could "run things over and keep going," pick a time and place to inflict maximum damage (lunchtime at the teeming Pit), prepare two cans of pepper spray and a five-inch folding knife in case he got trapped, and finally, run over UNC students.

The Iranian-born Taheri-azar managed to hit nine people with his SUV. Fortunately, he didn't succeed in seriously injuring any of them. After fleeing the scene, Taheri-azar made the peculiar decision to call 911, tell the dispatcher his precise location, and wait for police to arrest him. He told the 911 dispatcher that his actions were designed to "punish the government of the United States for [its] actions around the world," and further intimated to police that the United States was "killing his people across the sea." Taheri-azar continued to elaborate on his apparent Islamist motivations during his arraignment the following Monday, telling the judge that he was "thankful you are going to hear this trial to learn more about the will of Allah, the creator." Yet Taheri-azar does not face terrorism-related charges.

To be sure, this is not a clear-cut case of terrorism. Despite Taheri-azar's own words, there are some questions about his motivations. For a start, it seems strange that a dedicated jihadist would call 911 to turn himself in. And Taheri-azar's background doesn't fit the standard jihadist profile. He was reportedly kicked out of his fraternity for being "a recluse and antisocial," and one of his erstwhile fraternity brothers described him as a heavy drinker who was "almost always high."

REGARDLESS OF TAHERI-AZAR'S TRUE MOTIVE, this case points to a real legal problem: Even if his statements trumpeting jihadist motivations are true, authorities can neither charge him with a terrorist offense, nor seek a sentencing enhancement based on his terrorist motives. This points to a significant blind spot in dealing with terrorism in the United States.

Taheri-azar is being prosecuted in state court, and North Carolina doesn't have an applicable terrorism offense that can be brought to bear against him. The state only has two statutory provisions dealing with terrorist incidents. One bans weapons of mass destruction, while the other amends the murder offense. The amendment to the murder offense doesn't apply here--not only because Taheri-azar didn't murder anybody, but also because it only applies when the murder was performed with a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon.

The federal sentencing guidelines do contain a sentencing enhancement in §3A1.4 for offenses intended to promote a federal crime of terrorism. In turn, 18 U.S.C. § 2232b(g)(5) sensibly defines the predicate intention for a federal crime of terrorism as actions "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct." While this provision may seem at first glance to apply to Taheri-azar, it doesn't provide federal courts with independent jurisdiction. Rather, the terrorist intentions must be coupled with an independent federal crime.

Quite simply, prosecutors would have trouble getting Taheri-azar into federal court because it appears that he committed no federal crime. The prosecution could argue that there was a federal civil rights violation because this was carried out on the basis of religion. But Taheri-azar didn't target his victims on the basis of their religion. He may have been motivated by religion, but federal civil rights laws really only come into play when the victim is targeted because of his religion. And Taheri-azar's SUV didn't discriminate between Muslim, Jew, Christian and Hindu. Federal hate crime laws seem inapplicable for the same reason.