Skip to main content

Prof. Robinson and Criminal Law Research Group use foreign prosecutions to stop terrorists

November 03, 2014

Penn Law’s Criminal Law Research Group, led by Professor Paul H. Robinson, is working with the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command-Pacific (SOCPAC) to determine how foreign criminal law can be used to interdict foreign terrorist fighters.

One of the main challenges to combating the ongoing threat of the Islamic State is figuring out how to stop the movement of terrorists, but a new project by Penn Law’s Criminal Law Research Group (CLRG), led by Professor Paul H. Robinson, is working with the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command-Pacific (SOCPAC) to determine how foreign criminal law can be used to interdict foreign terrorist fighters. In late October, Robinson spent three days in meetings with SOCPAC at its headquarters in Honolulu.

The project will examine several countries which foreign terrorist fighters either originate from or transit through. By researching these countries’ laws and legal systems, the project will be able to determine — in conjunction with the military and other agencies — ways in which fighters may be legally interdicted on their way to join ISIS or coming home from fighting for or supporting ISIS. Both the U.S. State Department and the FBI have liaisons to the project.

Because the FBI and Department of Justice have jurisdiction over Americans traveling abroad, and because the U.S. is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, the project will focus its efforts on foreign fighters and foreign legal systems. Looking at where prosecutorial powers lay in each country, the CLRG will decide how different agencies might best overlap to interdict foreign fighters.

“I think the project is particularly important in part because it is a pilot project of sorts in how to respond to a new phenomenon brought on by the technological advances of our modern world,” said Robinson. “Never before has it been so easy for extremists to radicalize followers around the globe with all forms of propaganda, enough to induce them to want to come from all directions to join in the announced holy battle. Combine that with the ease of international travel, and one gets the current phenomenon of foreign fighters leaving from and transiting many countries on their way to the battlefield.”

Part of the project may include examining what other laws foreign terrorist fighters can be prosecuted under in each country, such as drug or weapons offenses. Evidence of terrorism is often very difficult to gather, so pursuing other types of prosecutions may be an effective tactic in stopping foreign fighters.

“It is no surprise that we have no standard way of reacting to this, given that it has never happened before on this scale,” Robinson added. “But surely it will happen again and again in the future, with radical groups beyond Islamic State. The response that eventually proves effective in this interdiction of foreign terrorist fighters may well become a standard part of modern warfare.”

In addition to leading the CLRG project, Robinson will also be teaching a course, “Using Law to Interdict Foreign Terrorist Fighters Traveling to Join the Islamic State,” at Penn Law in Spring 2015. The course is currently seeking students, and those who join will work with the CLRG to undertake research in how to facilitate the prosecution of foreign terrorist fighters.

Robinson, the Colin S. Diver Professor of Law, is one of the world’s leading criminal law scholars. In addition to being the author or editor of 14 books, he is a former federal prosecutor and counsel for the U.S. Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures. Recently, the Maldives, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, adopted a penal code written by Robinson and his students.

The Criminal Law Research Group does justice-related drafting and policy work for governments, government agencies, and NGOs. The group’s recent projects include doing studies of offense grading for Pennsylvania and New Jersey, helping the state of Kansas revise its criminal code, and compiling a database of all 52 American criminal codes.