Why did Calif. state Sen. Leland Yee escape terrorism charges?
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Shocking enough are the allegations that a long-perceived unassuming state senator tried brokering an international arms deal with military-style rifles and rocket launchers, but Leland Yee may have narrowly escaped an even more ominous label: terrorist sympathizer.
Yee, whose arrest after an FBI undercover sting shook the California political world last week, would likely have been charged with aiding terrorists if not for a bureaucratic label missing from the militant Filipino group that he allegedly sourced for an international arms deal, counterterrorism experts told the Contra Costa Times.
His ties to the notorious group, whose leader has said he personally met with Osama bin Laden, are spelled out in a 137-page affidavit. It accuses Yee and two associates of conspiring with an undercover FBI agent posing as a Mafia gangster to purchase up to $2.5 million in weapons from a source with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines.
The group is not among the 56 Foreign Terrorist Organizations designated by the U.S. State Department, although its three-decade reign of terror, including bombings, kidnappings and killing of civilians, mirror other designated groups.
Groups identified as terrorist organizations cannot legally receive financial support, services, training or any assistance from U.S. residents, among other restrictions. The State Department designates groups every two years based on a combination of factors, including intelligence, input from the U.S. Embassy in the host country and the stated goals of the organizations.
“If (the Filipino group) were a designated terrorist group (Yee) would be subject to prosecution,” said Michael Kraft, former senior adviser for the State Department Counterterrorism office and co-author of 1996 legislation creating laws against supporting terrorist groups. Yee could have still been charged with material support to an undesignated group if the FBI found Yee intended to help the terrorists or if the money went to a specific act of terrorism, but the sting never went that far.
A spokeswoman with the law firm of Yee’s new attorney Jim Lassart said he had no comment. The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment Friday, but announced the indictment of Yee and 28 other defendants arrested following a five-year FBI investigation. Yee was charged with corruption, wire fraud and conspiracy to traffic arms. A terrorism charge would carry a 15-year sentence, or life if a death could be linked to the aid, while Yee faces a five-year sentence for gun trafficking.
Coincidentally, on March 27 — the day after Yee’s arrest — the Philippines government signed a peace accord with the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest separatist group.
The group — which has reportedly had ties with al-Qaida and two other designated terrorist groups in the Philippines — may have only been kept off the State Department list so as not to disturb those peace talks, said Joseph Felter, a senior research fellow with Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
“In the United States, ever since post-9/11, many folks have wanted to put (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) as a designated terrorist group,” said Felter, who has worked with the Philippines military on security issues. Kathi Austin, executive director of Conflict Awareness Project and an internationally recognized arms trafficking expert, said it’s clear to her that the feds were chasing possible terrorism charges, continually asking Yee to talk about the Filipino group. And Yee, according to the affidavit, did not disappoint.
At a March 5 meeting with the undercover agent, Yee explained how Mindanao, a southern island of the Philippines, was largely populated by Muslim rebel groups, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which had many factions. The state senator told the agent Muslims in Mindanao had access to a lot of money and were financed by Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi before his death, according to the complaint.
A week later, the agent asked Yee about the proposed peace treaty and Yee said the Philippines government was secretly funding some of the groups in an effort to distract people from government corruption. Yee said factions within the terrorist group didn’t agree with the treaty and that those elements had no problem “kidnapping individuals, killing individuals and extorting them for ransom,” according to the complaint.
Yee told the agent he took an “agnostic” stance on the weapons deal: “People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don’t care. People need certain things.”
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been linked to 30 years of brutality, including the Maguindanao massacre in November 2009, when armed men kidnapped and killed 58 people, including a politician, his wife, two sisters, journalists, lawyers and aides.
On the four-year anniversary, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines-USA Chapter held a commemoration in Carson, Calif., to honor the 32 journalists killed and a Yee aide read a statement on the state senator’s behalf: “Let us never forget the ultimate sacrifice that these journalists made for the public good.”
Just a few months later, he allegedly would broker a deal with the terrorist group linked to that attack.
But the Moro Islamic Liberation Front remains off the terror list. And because of that, and the evidence in the complaint, “there’s really no chance of a terrorism-related charge,” said Gregory McNeal, an associate law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law and expert in national security law. It’s not enough that prosecutors prove Yee knew his support would benefit terrorism; they would need to prove Yee intended for the gun money to further the terrorists’ goals, he said.
“ … Intent requires him to act with the goal or conscious object to bring about the terrorist end,” McNeal wrote in an email. “So to prove that, you would need evidence along the lines of ‘I’m really hoping we can buy these weapons so they can use the money to successfully attack the government.’ ”