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USA v. Hammoud et al: A Lesson on Auditing Group Cases

USA v. Hammoud et al: A Lesson on Auditing Group Cases

Sara Godfrey

On February 25, 2003, Mohamad Youssef Hammoud was sentenced to 1,860 months in prison, constituting the first conviction under a 1996 federal law prohibiting aid to designated terrorist groups. 1 Facing in prison 155 years on charges including, Trafficking Contraband Cigarettes (18:2342.f ), Providing Material Support to Terrorists (18:2339a.f ), and RICO anti-racketeering laws (18:1962) Hammoud was eventually resentenced to a term of 30 years after a nearly decade long appeals process. 

Dubbed by law enforcement as “Operation Smokescreen,” Mohamad Hammoud was indicted for his role as the leader of a clandestine Hezbollah cell operating out of Charlotte, North Carolina. The cell was alleged to be running a multi-million dollar cigarette smuggling ring, utilizing North Carolina’s relatively low cigarette state tax to illegally transport and resell them in Michigan, where the tax was seven times higher. Using their profits, the cell sent over 2 million dollars of funds to Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party and militant group that the U.S. designated a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in 1997. 2

The United States v. Hammoud et al. consisted of a total of 25 defendants, ranging drastically in their involvement in the scheme, links to Hezbollah, and charges. 3 Therefore, when auditing this case, I faced the challenge of confirming that each defendant was individually coded appropriately. 

In the early years of tPP, as the project developed and our coding procedures were defined, there was a tendency to code large group cases as if all defendants involved had the same affiliation, tactics and charges. Upon first thought, this may be logical to some coders. For example, in The United States v. Hammoud et al. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) identified all defendants as participants in a “Hezbollah terrorist fund-raising cell in Charlotte.” 4 Based on this language it seems logical to assert that all 25 co-defendants were Hezbollah affiliates.

However, as our team has come to rely more heavily on primary sources, coding a group case as if all defendants are identical in their ideological motivations and group affiliations is problematic. In my role as an auditor, I not only focus on confirming that the currently assigned values are correct, but questioning the overall story that our data is telling. 

First, I must emphasize that problems such as the ones I confronted in this group case largely arise from the origins of the project. When the Prosecution Project first began, those working on the project had no idea how large and influential tPP would become. Therefore, as our auditors work through cleaning our data, it is not uncommon that we run into incorrectly coded cases, as in the early years of the project our codebook was far less defined, and our team-based coding procedure had yet to be established (pre-coding, partnered coding, checking, and auditing). 

Before my audit, the story our data told was as follows: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a 25 person Hezbollah cell was operating out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Each defendant was directly affiliated to Hezbollah, and willingly participating in a cigarette smuggling scheme due to their “Salafi/ Jihadi/ Islamist” ideological affiliation. 5 Each defendant had an obvious sociopolitical aim in providing material support to Hezbollah.

However, as I read through the indictments, and began individualizing each defendants charges, I found that only 14 of the 25 defendants had been charged with Providing Material Support to Terrorists (18:2339a.f ) or RICO anti-racketeering laws (18:1962) – the two charges in the indictment that asserted a defendant’s links to Hezbollah. 

Image 1: Count 71 of the Second Superseding Indictment: The Racketeering Conspiracy (RICO violations) linking 10 of the 25 defendants to Hezbollah.

Image 2: Count 72 of the Second Superseding Indictment: Providing Material Support to Terrorists. Notice this charge only lists the four major defendants of the case. 

The other 11 defendants were charged with various fraud-related immigration violations including Illegal Entry, Concealment of Facts (8:1325.f ), Fraud and Misuse of Visas/permits (18:1546.f), and Bringing in and Harboring Aliens (8:1324.f). These defendants’ role in the “Hezbollah terrorist fund-raising cell in Charlotte” was due to immigration and marital fraud, allowing the illegal entry and residence of the leaders of the cell. 6

For example, defendant Terri Jeanne Pish was charged in relation to her fraudulent marriage with Samir Mohamad Ali Debk, a leader of the clandestine Hezbollah cell. Her charges do not mention any affiliation with Hezbollah or assert that her actions had an obvious socio-political aim. Further, while the defendant was aware of the fraudulent marriage, whether or not they knew such actions were used to facilitate the cigarette smuggling ring and the funding of a terrorist organization is unclear.

Image 3: Terri Jeanne Pish’s charges relating to marriage and visa fraud. Notice no mention of the defendant’s involvement or affiliation to Hezbollah. 

The story our data was telling before this case audit was that defendant Terri Jeanne Pish, a Hezbollah affiliate, ideologically motivated by her Salafi/ Jihadi/ Islamist views, engaged in a cigarette smuggling ring to provide funds to Hezbollah. The defendant was charged with providing material support, and sentenced to two years probation.

This story immediately sticks out. How could a US citizen actively engaging with a designated foreign terrorist organization be sentenced to only two years probation?  

As I cleaned this data, individually reviewing each defendant’s charges and involvement, I found Terri’s actual story to be much different. Terri Pish, a 31-year-old-women, fraudulently married Mohamad Ali Debk for the purpose of gaining him a visa. Whether or not Ms. Pish knew her “husband” was engaging in terrorist activities is unknown. Further, none of her charges link her to Hezbollah or assert that her fraudulent marriage had anything to do with the Hezbollah cell.

Image 4: Terri Jeanne Pish’s and Samir Mohamad Ali Debk’s fraudulent marriage certificate

Since there are no charges or speech linking the individual defendant to Hezbollah, Terri Pish’s criminal method should not be coded as providing material support, but rather coded as “criminal violation not linked or politically motivated.” Additionally, there is no basis to assert that she was motivated by any extremist views or a Hezbollah affiliate, meaning Terri should be coded as “No affliation/ not a factor” rather than “Salafi/ Jihadi/ Islamist” for our “Ideaolgical affiliation” variable.  

However, Terri did act in support of organized political violence (tPP reason for inclusion #2). Even though her crime was “non-ideological” her actions were relied on by the members of the cigarette smuggling cell to fund and support an FTO. Additionally, since the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) broadly identified defendants charged under The United States vs. Hammoud et al. as participants in a “Hezbollah terrorist fund-raising cell in Charlotte” all defendants are included under state speech on the basis of group labeling by federal government officials (reason for inclusion #3). 

After a very lengthy audit process, I found 11 of the 25 defendants to have similar ‘stories’ as Terri Pish. Their actions were not ideologically motivated and each had no court documents or charges asserting their links to Hezbollah. These 11 defendants were all only charged with criminal violations relating to fraud and visa misuse, a crime that seems petty compared to their co-defendants with charges relating to providing material support to a terrorist organization. 

While this audit process took me a series of hour-long sessions, it acts as a testimony to the crucial role of the Prosecution Projects case auditors. tPP auditors act as the last line of defense to review cases, clean data, and assure that the conclusions one may make based on our data are accurate.

Footnotes

  1. This refers to criminal charge 18:2339 Providing Material Support to Terrorists
  2. Hezbollah | Meaning, History, & Ideology | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hezbollah
  3. Docket for United States v. Hammoud, 2:03-cr-80992—CourtListener.com. (n.d.). CourtListener. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/15928330/united-states-v-hammoud/
  4. Mohamad Youssef Hammoud sentenced to 30 years in terrorism financing case. (2011, January 27). U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/mohamad-youssef-hammoud-sentenced-30-years-terrorism-financing-case
  5. Salafi/ Jihadi/ Islamist is a value for our “Ideaologoical affiliation” variable. The value in our codebook is defined as encompassing “individuals who desire social-political change based in an interpretation of Islam as a political-religious framework.”
  6. Quotes refer to ICE language, qualifying all defendants to be included under “State speech” tPP’s reason for inclusion #3

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