Sabirhan Hasanoff, a New York City accountant and dual citizen of the United States and Australia, was recently sentenced to eighteen years in prison by the Southern District of New York for aiding al-Qaeda. Like Walter White, Mr. Hasanoff appeared to be hiding in plain sight – he previously worked at top-shelf accounting firms such as KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and is a graduate of Baruch College. During his illicit conspiracy, Mr. Hasanoff scoped out the New York Stock Exchange as a potential terrorist site, and sent a one-page report to an Islamic extremist in Yemen. In addition, Mr. Hasanoff made regular cash donations to people he thought were affiliated with al-Qaeda and acquired items for the organization, such as a device that could be used to remotely detonate explosives. He even put his accounting skills to work – al Qaeda paid Mr. Hasanoff $50,000 to transfer funds and perform other tasks for the foreign terrorist network. As part of his sentence, Mr. Hasanoff is required to forfeit $70,000.
The main statutes Mr. Hassanoff violated are 18 U.S.C. §§ 2339A and 2339B, which prohibit anyone from providing “material support or resources” to terrorists, or concealing or disguising “material support.” Section 2339(A)(b) states:
“material support or resources means any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safehouses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel (1 or more individuals who may be or include oneself), and transportation, except medicine or religious materials.”
Mr. Hassanoff’s report on the feasibility of an attack on the New York Stock Exchange violates the “expert advice or assistance” provision, and his procurement of detonation devices clearly falls under support through tangible property.
Mr. Hassanoff knew he was furthering terrorism. However, even if we assume he did not have mens rea, he would still have no leg to stand on under the law. In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 130 S.Ct. 2705 (2010), the Supreme Court held that even providing “ostensibly peaceful aid” to terrorist groups is illegal, because, “foreign organizations that engage in terrorist activity are so tainted by their criminal conduct that any contribution to such an organization facilitates that conduct.” Id. at 2724 (emphasis in original). The Court found support for this proposition by noting that Congress specifically removed a statutory exception in § 2339A(a) that excluded humanitarian assistance from the categories of prohibited material support. Id. at 2725. Thus, even if Mr. Hassanoff gave material support to al Qaeda without the intention of furthering terrorism, the legal result would be the same. This makes perfect sense when you consider the deceitful actions that terrorist networks often utilize. As the Supreme Court noted in Holder, “terrorist groups systematically conceal their activities behind charitable, social, and political fronts.” See id at 2725 (“[m]uddying the waters between its political activism, good works, and terrorist attacks, Hamas is able to use its overt political and charitable organizations as a financial and logistical support network for its terrorist operations”). Whether aid is meant to further terrorist activities or not, material supporters can be found liable regardless, because terrorist organizations cannot be trusted to differentiate between aid for terrorism and aid for other activities. See id quoting Mckune Affidavit, App. 134 (“foreign terrorist organizations do not maintain legitimate financial firewalls between those funds raised for civil, nonviolent activities, and those ultimately used to support violent, terrorist operations…[t]hus, funds raised ostensibly for charitable purposes have in the past been redirected by some terrorist groups to fund the purchase of arms and explosives”).
Do you think firms like KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers have a legal duty to thoroughly vet their employees for possible terrorist affiliations? If so, do you think they should be held vicariously liable for failing to detect this type of criminal behavior? Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project?
Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 130 S.Ct. 2705 (2010).