WASHINGTON — A key to the government's successful prosecution of Jose Padilla was a broad and simple phrase added to an anti-terrorism law in 1996 that made it a crime to "provide material support" to a terrorist group.
Since 2001, prosecutors have used that provision to win convictions or guilty pleas in more than a dozen terrorism cases without having to show that the accused committed violent acts against Americans or did anything illegal in the United States.
In Padilla's case, the government produced evidence that the Brooklyn-born Muslim convert traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2000 and registered to attend an Al Qaeda training camp. That alone could be enough to send him to prison for 15 years to life.
After the verdict, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales described Padilla as "an American who provided material support to terrorists and trained for violent jihad."
The case did not mention earlier allegations that Padilla had plotted to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the U.S.
In the "Lackawanna Six" case, six Muslim men living in Lackawanna, N.Y., near Buffalo, pleaded guilty in 2003 to similar charges for attending an Al Qaeda training camp before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Prosecutors say the "material support" law gives them a legal weapon against Al Qaeda operatives who could be part of "sleeper cells" in the United States. Just as with mobsters or drug dealers, prosecutors can win convictions by showing the defendant had joined an illegal enterprise. A conspiracy charge does not require proof of, for example, selling drugs or committing a violent act.
"If a group of mob guys sit around and agree Joe Smith should be murdered, they are all part of the murder plot," said Barry Gross, a former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia. "This is like that. [Padilla] trained with an organization that wants to destroy the United States and kill innocent people."
Defense lawyers, on the other hand, say the "material support" provision goes too far and allows convictions even against those who regretted having gone abroad for training.
"The statute is so broad that virtually anything can be considered 'material support,' " said Donald Rehkopf, a lawyer in Rochester, N.Y., who filed a legal brief on Padilla's behalf. Administration officials "have been very aggressive in using this provision, and it is very difficult to defend against."
Two of the men in the Lackawanna Six case fled the Al Qaeda training camp at the first opportunity, he said, yet they were prosecuted as though they were determined terrorists.
Other prosecutions have relied on evidence that money was given to U.S.-based charities, which in turn funneled some of it to groups abroad that engaged in terrorism.
"I had a client who sent $1,000 to a man's wife in Syria to support his wife and kids, and he was threatened with a 'material support' charge," Rehkopf said. "There's no question it gives prosecutors a lot of leverage."