TN terrorism charges are rarely upheld

11:10 AM, Oct 1, 2012   |    comments
Amal Abdullahi. The Tennessean
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By Brian Haas and Bob Smietana | The Tennessean

Amal Abdullahi is the first person in Davidson County to be arrested under the state's anti-terrorism laws. But the charges have rarely been upheld when applied in other cases elsewhere in Tennessee.

Abdullahi, 29, was arrested Sept. 6, on the charge after a co-worker at CEVA Logistics accused her of saying that America was full of unbelievers who should die and that she should pick up a gun and shoot everyone. She's one of only nine people The Tennessean has been able to identify in the state as having been arrested on terrorism-related charges since the laws went into effect in 2002.

All but one of the defendants whose cases came to a conclusion had their charges dismissed or were convicted on lesser charges.

State Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who supported the state's 2002 terrorism laws, says there could be a lot of reasons that terrorism charges are often reduced or dropped.

"There could be extenuating circumstances; the individual could be mentally ill. They could have made it (the threat) in the heat of some emotional distress and really not meant it. I think one would probably have to look at the intent of the individual, did they really mean that," McNally said. "And I think that'd be something that the district attorney general would take into account, whether the individual could actually do it or not."

Tennessee law makes it a felony to commit any crime intended to "intimidate or coerce" civilians or the government or to disrupt government, punishable by up to 25 years in prison for a first offense.

Metro police say the charges were appropriate against Abdullahi because of the "totality" of her statements to her co-worker.

"The co-worker, as you know, has alleged that she referenced her faith, that all unbelievers should die, and that she should pick up a gun and shoot people," said Don Aaron, spokesman for Metro Police. "The totality of what was alleged to have been said was reviewed by our Specialized Investigations Division detectives and presented to a judicial commissioner who granted the warrant for attempted terrorism."

'Excellent history'

Abdullahi is free on $50,000 bond after family was able to post her bail. She is expected to be in court Oct. 10 and has retained Nashville attorney David Raybin.

"Due to the gravity of the charges against her, I feel that it's inappropriate for us to discuss the specifics of the charge, other than to deny the allegations," Raybin said. "She is certainly a devout Muslim and respects her religion and respects other people's religions."

Raybin did, however, provide information about Abdullahi's background and her life in Nashville. He said that she was born in Somalia and came to the United States in 2003 as a refugee with a green card. He said that she has continually worked since then, mostly in the service and manufacturing industries.

"She has been employed continuously since 2003 in the Nashville area working for various companies," Raybin said. "She has an excellent work record and an excellent history in the community."

Most recently, Abdullahi was working three 12-hour shifts a week for CEVA, building computer components for Dell on an assembly line.

According to Metro police, Abdullahi told a CEVA co-worker on Sept. 1 that she was ready to die for Allah and that America was full of nonbelievers who should die. Police said she also told the co-worker that nobody pays any attention to her and "she should pick up a gun and shoot all these people."

The incident wasn't reported to police until Sept. 6, and CEVA could not be reached for comment on the delay.

Waiting for details

Raybin said that Abdullahi's mother, two sisters and a brother live in the Nashville area, as do members of an extended family. He said that she has no criminal record and is a "well-respected member of the community."

Her relatives declined to comment for this story, at Raybin's behest.

Local Muslim leaders have consistently condemned any terrorist actions done in the name of Islam and said that anyone guilty of a crime should be punished. That message was repeated when news of Abdullahi's arrest broke in early September.

"Islam condemns violence of all forms and condones peaceful coexistence and love for our neighbors," said Amir Arain, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Nashville.

Because so few details of the case are available, local Muslims are taking a wait-and-see approach. Several Muslim leaders contacted for this story declined to comment, saying they were waiting for more information about the arrest to emerge as the legal process goes forward.

McNally said that, based on what he has read, the charges against Abdullahi seem to fit with legislators' intentions in creating the laws a decade ago.

"Not knowing the entire case, it'd be difficult," he said. "But if an individual did make that statement, then I believe it probably falls under the purview of the bill.''

Past applications of the law have largely been met with dismissals or guilty pleas to lesser charges.

In 2008 a Middle Tennessee State University student was arrested on a terrorism charge after, police said, he set fire to his dorm and threatened "large-scale devastation" on the campus. He pleaded guilty instead to charges of setting fire to personal property and filing a false report.

Two years later on Halloween, a man in Chattanooga was arrested on a terrorism charge after he called 911 to say there was an active shooter and several people wounded. He pleaded down to a charge of making a false report.

Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or bhaas@tennessean.com.

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