By BENJAMIN WEISER
In New York, rounding up “the usual suspects” in terrorism cases nowadays may well refer to the defense lawyers.
As Islamic terrorists from around the world are brought to Federal District Court in Manhattan or Brooklyn to face prosecution, an extraordinary outgrowth has been a deepening pool of lawyers qualified to represent them. It is a peculiar niche of defense work, requiring skills not always taught in law school.
These lawyers often must obtain government security clearances, and become adept at navigating the laws involving classified information and foreign intelligence searches. They often travel overseas to interview witnesses and a client’s family members. “Not only do you have the substantive law and the procedural law, but you have the whole cultural orientation,” said Anthony L. Ricco, who has represented a series of terrorism defendants over the past two decades.
These lawyers do not need to advertise in subways and buses; they are typically appointed by judges from a group of seasoned lawyers who have agreed to take on criminal assignments and in some cases have ended up handling a variety of terrorism matters over the years. It was no surprise then that last month, three new terrorism defendants who appeared in the city’s federal courts within 11 days all received lawyers who had extensive experience in handling such cases.
Andrew G. Patel’s past clients have included El-Sayyid Nosair, the Egyptian convicted in 1995 of seditious conspiracy and of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane, and Jose Padilla, who was held as an enemy combatant and was later convicted of terrorism conspiracy in civilian court in 2007.
“The learning curve for many of us is much shorter,” Mr. Patel said.
Mr. Patel was appointed last month to defend Adel Abdul Bary, an Egyptian extradited from Britain on charges of conspiring in Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa, attacks that killed more than 200 people.
Mostafa Kamel Mostafa, an Islamic preacher who was extradited last month in another case, was assigned to Jeremy Schneider, a lawyer whose clients have included a Tanzanian man in the embassy bombings conspiracy and a defendant in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, whose appeal he handled.
And a Bangladeshi man charged last month with plotting to bomb the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was assigned to the federal public defender’s office, which had also represented Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani immigrant who tried to set off a bomb in Times Square in 2010, and Mansour J. Arbabsiar, the Iranian-American who pleaded guilty in a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
“By any metric you use,” said Ronald L. Kuby, the lawyer for a Queens imam who became ensnared in the investigation of a subway bomb plot, “New York is home of the terror bar.”
In Brooklyn, for example, to be prepared as new cases arrive, the federal court recently finalized a “terrorism panel” of three dozen lawyers specially recruited to handle such assignments.
Not every lawyer wants to handle terrorism defense — some declined to join the Brooklyn terrorism panel, for example. But others said they were drawn to such matters because they were so different from the run-of-the-mill gun possession cases.
“Any criminal defense lawyer who enjoys the profession, who enjoys the calling, will gravitate toward these kinds of cases simply because they are the most challenging,” said David A. Ruhnke, an expert on the death penalty who has represented several terrorism defendants.
Zoë J. Dolan, who represents on appeal a man convicted last year in a bomb plot at Kennedy Airport, also brings another skill: she spent two years living in the Middle East and is proficient in Arabic. Generally speaking, she said, “there’s nothing quite like being able to speak Arabic with a client in establishing the attorney-client relationship.”
Ms. Dolan has joined Mr. Patel in defending Mr. Bary, the Egyptian extradited from Britain.
Because of the complexity of such cases, these lawyers often rely on one another for advice.
Peter E. Quijano, who in 2009 was appointed to represent Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantánamo detainee tried in the civilian system, said he consulted with Mr. Ricco, Edward D. Wilford and Joshua L. Dratel, who had all been involved in the embassy bombings case, in which Mr. Ghailani was also charged.
Mr. Dratel, who has also represented a Guantánamo detainee in the military commission system, was appointed recently to join Mr. Schneider in defending Mr. Mostafa, the Islamic preacher also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri.
Mr. Schneider, Mr. Patel, Ms. Dolan, Mr. Dratel and the federal defender’s office all declined to comment on their new cases.
It is perhaps a testament to the lawyers’ depth of terrorism-case experience that prosecutors asked Mr. Schneider whether his representation of a prior client might pose a conflict with his defense of Mr. Mostafa. After a review by the lawyers, the judge, Katherine B. Forrest of Federal District Court in Manhattan, found no such conflict.
The terrorism panel of 36 lawyers created by Brooklyn’s federal court is in addition to a separate list of 46 lawyers for capital cases, Magistrate Judge Cheryl L. Pollak, who made recruiting calls herself, said recently.
Although there was an overlap between the lists, the judge said, 12 lawyers willing to take death penalty cases declined to be on the terrorism panel. Still, she added, many lawyers were eager to join both panels, and she said she was “surprised at the number of people who had already had that kind of experience, which obviously was what we were looking for.”
One lawyer who received such a call and joined the panel was Katya Jestin, a former federal mafia prosecutor in Brooklyn who now practices at the law firm Jenner & Block. Ms. Jestin has not yet received a terrorism matter in Brooklyn, but she said that several years ago, the Center for Constitutional Rights asked her to help represent Majid Khan, a so-called high-value detainee at Guantánamo.
Ms. Jestin was motivated to join Mr. Khan’s defense team, she said, by public reports he had been tortured while in C.I.A. custody overseas and by the general lack of judicial process afforded to Guantánamo detainees.
“I think for me it’s having just a deep belief in the legitimacy of our federal system and the rule of law,” she said. “His prior lack of process — I find that so offensive as an American.”
Justine A. Harris and Deborah A. Colson, two former Brooklyn federal defenders who opened a private practice in 2010, said they decided early on that along with white-collar work, they wanted to pick up terrorism cases. “That was something that interested us both,” Ms. Colson said.
Ms. Harris had once handled a terrorism case as a federal defender, while Ms. Colson had worked previously for Human Rights First, an advocacy group; she had traveled to Guantánamo three times as an observer and assisted on an influential report that endorsed civilian justice for terrorism cases. In 2010, they were appointed to represent Mohammed Wali Zazi, who was charged with obstructing justice in the investigation of the subway bomb plot.
So when Ms. Colson got a call more recently from Judge Pollak asking whether she and Ms. Harris would be willing to join the terrorism panel, she said yes.
Ms. Harris said a defense lawyer’s goal was always to hold the government accountable. “But it feels like in these cases,” she said, “the stakes are the greatest, not only for the individual but for the system as a whole.”
A version of this article appeared in print on November 26, 2012, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Terrorism Law Is a Niche for a Deepening Pool of Defenders in New York.