It’s as if the material support statute didn’t have enough problems already. Now, thanks to recently enacted amendments to the USA Freedom Act, the maximum sentence for material support for terrorism has increased from 15 to 20 years. What was Congress thinking when it expanded this penalty?
In a blog posted May 29, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) asserts that this provision “deserves more attention.” And it does. This ever-widening net that is being cast by the U.S. government is counterproductive. Preventing or discouraging the delivery of humanitarian aid in conflict zones only serves to deepen the perceived grievances that drive populations to violent extremism. And because of its broad application, the material support statute is preventing valuable peacemaking work from taking place where it is needed most.
Ten years ago, EFF called for the repeal of Section 805 of the Patriot Act, which broadened the crime of material support to any foreign organization the Secretary of State has designated as a “terrorist organization.” At that time, EFF noted that many organizations deemed “terrorist” also advocate and provide humanitarian assistance to their populations, and pointed out that the Patriot Act makes it illegal to engage with “terrorists” in peacemaking work.
Sure enough, five years after those prescient words from EFF, the U.S. Supreme Court in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project upheld the application of the material support prohibition to include conflict prevention and resolution activities aimed at getting terrorist groups to lay down their arms, making it clear that good faith is no defense.
This law has been used to harass political activists and has made it difficult for many Muslim-Americans to know where they can make donations (as part of zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam), among other problems. As the EFF’s recent blog states, “[T]he way the government has used the material support statute since 2001 demonstrates exactly why the statute should be changed, not reinforced.”