WASHINGTON -- Criminal prosecutions of terrorism, while rarely nabbing the masterminds, can at least distract and sometimes deter future attacks, experts said Tuesday.
Building a case against defendants like those convicted of the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa -- allegedly part of the network of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden -- typically takes years, and often faces major obstacles in evidence-gathering.
Nevertheless, by sending a message that perpetrators can eventually be brought to justice, such prosecutions "can work ... and are one of several important tools that we have to use together against terrorism," said Paul R. Pillar, a CIA official who is former deputy chief of the agency's counter-terrorism unit.
Pillar said that though prosecutors may have difficulty in bringing a bin Laden to trial, "every one you take out of business is valuable," especially since even lesser terrorists have often committed a number of criminal acts.
The threat of U.S. prosecution is "at the least, a distraction" if not a deterrent, said Pillar, who is the author of a new book, "Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy." It is also "a demonstration of U.S. seriousness in going after terrorism," he said.
It builds pressure on other countries who might ignore alleged wrongdoing to bring criminal cases against suspects. And it signals that the United States may also prosecute if it believes other countries have not been vigorous in their efforts. On several occasions, U.S. authorities have launched follow-up prosecutions when they believed that other countries have let defendants off too easy, he said.
As slow and ineffective as it can seem, the prosecutorial approach sends the right signal around the world because it "really does promote our values," said Frank Ciffullo, director of the Terrorism Task Force at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
The embassy bombing case may be long remembered in the annals of such prosecutions. It is the largest overseas prosecution ever brought by the federal government, officials said, describing it as the first stage in a continuing prosecutorial assault on bin Laden's far-flung network.
Terrorism experts say that all the weapons against terrorism have some drawbacks, which is one reason that senior U.S. policymakers have usually had vigorous behind-the-scenes debates about which to use following terrorist attacks.
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