Understanding Your Rights

Material Support to Terrorists: What You Should Know About The Limits on Your Rights

The United States is one of the few countries in the world where you are generally free to support whatever cause you want—even if the government would rather you didn't. However, there are limits even U.S. residents can cross, especially when it comes to the support of terrorism. Being charged with providing material support to terrorists is becoming a crime that's being prosecuted with increasing fervor throughout the United States. Learn more about exactly what this crime involves—because even passive involvement with certain causes can land you behind bars.

The U.S. Patriot Act Made Material Support of Certain Groups a Crime

Stopping the pipeline of money, supplies, information, weapons, and even people into groups that are identified as terrorist organizations has become a huge part of the U.S. government's counterterrorism efforts. Once a group has been designated an FTO, or foreign terrorist organization, by the U.S.Secretary of State, it becomes illegal for a U.S. citizen to lend any material support to that group.

Government operatives, including those who work for the National Security Agency (NSA), are entitled to look for such activity among U.S. residents and citizens due to the U.S. Patriot Act. The Patriot Act is also what codifies certain types of support as "material" for the purposes of prosecution:

  • training
  • expert advice or assistance
  • service
  • personnel

Many young and idealistic people get caught up in the rhetoric of some of these organizations and believe that they are doing a good thing when they send money to feed "freedom fighters" in these organizations, not realizing that they could also be helping the group purchase weapons as well. Others simply become radicalized and fully commit to serving the terrorist organization—usually by attempting to join it.

For example, a Philadelphia woman named Keonna Thomas pledged her allegiance to the Islamic State, married a member of the organization over Skype, and bought tickets to head to Turkey with the goal of becoming a suicide bomber. A Wisconsin man pled guilty to similar charges and now faces up to 15 years in federal prison.

Even Talking About Aiding a Terrorist Group Can Be a Crime

The laws get a little murkier when it comes to actions that aren't quite as clear, but people are being prosecuted for the conspiracy to lend material support to a terrorist organization simply by discussing the issue with others, either in person or online. For example, two women from Queens, New York, were arrested for actions that included things like sending letters of support to a member of al-Qaida and publishing inflammatory material in jihadist magazines. They also met together to discuss how they could make remote explosives, what science they needed to learn behind bomb-building and other terrorist-related actions. They face life in prison, if convicted, even though there is no evidence that any of their plans ever came to fruition.

You can also get into trouble simply for supporting someone else's efforts to join a terrorist group. For example, a California man who let his friend use his debit card and Pell grant funds to buy a one-way ticket that would take him to the Islamic State was just sentenced to 30 years in prison for the acts.

Contact an Attorney If You Have Any Questions or Are Arrested

It's important to realize that your civil liberties and right of association, which are generally treasured freedoms in the U.S., do have some limitations on them where terrorist groups are concerned. If you have any question about whether something you are doing is illegal or not, contact a criminal defense attorney right away. If you're arrested on any federal or state charges, contact an attorney like Robert Speer, The Magic Lawyer to discuss your case—before you discuss anything further with prosecutors or police.