July 29th, 2011
08:49 PM ET

The threat of Islamic extremists in the U.S. military

The arrest of Army infantryman Nasser Jason Abdo for his alleged plot to attack Fort Hood personnel instantly brought back the pain, shock and grief of the massacre on that base in November 2009 that left 13 people dead. In an eerie echo of that past attack, Abdo even reportedly purchased weapons and bomb-making material at the same gun store used by accused Fort Hood shooter Major Malik Nadal Hasan. News of this latest plot has reinvigorated a shock wave that continues to reverberate throughout the ranks of the U.S. military.

Why would an American Muslim soldier choose to plan a deadly attack against his fellow soldiers? Was there anything in his background or behavior that would have provided indications of his deadly intentions? And what does this latest arrest mean for the military in addressing issues of violent extremists in its ranks? For the government and its military leadership, a precarious balancing act of addressing security concerns while avoiding witch-hunts and combating discrimination continues to play out.

For the Pentagon, general concerns exist over the so-called “insider threat”, or double agents who may infiltrate the military for nefarious purposes. Screening procedures exist designed to preclude enlistment by individuals with terrorist ties of some kind, but once someone is in the military what happens then?

U.S. authorities had previously investigated Hasan in December 2008 due to his e-mail exchanges with al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki. In those communications Hasan appeared to be seeking spiritual guidance for a possible attack, asking about killing U.S. soldiers and if that would be justified. Tragically, this exchange didn’t lead to authorities taking action against Hasan until it was too late. In my opinion, a combination of an over-sensitivity to Hasan’s background and a failure on the part of authorities to share vital information allowed him to slip through the cracks.

While the number of cases of violent Islamists among active or former military remains extremely small at around a dozen serious cases, they’ve left a legacy of suspicion and fear of American Muslims in the military.

In 2003, Army Sergeant Hasan Akbar killed two soldiers at a military base in Kuwait and Nidal Hasan specifically referenced his case with al-Awlaki as to whether Akbar would be considered a martyr. Former U.S. Army Sergeant Ali Mohammed became a top operative for Osama bin-Laden. Navy petty officer Hassan Abujihad brazenly emailed classified military information to jihadists for possible attacks while serving on a U.S. destroyer.

One of the most notorious examples remains that of Egyptian born Ali Abdul Saoud Mohammed. He served in the Egyptian Special Forces, got ejected for his extremist views, and came to the U.S where he became a naturalized citizen. A protégé of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, he worked as a CIA and FBI informant where he was seen as an asset for his extremist links. He later trained and served with U.S. Army Special Forces units; including as an instructor at the Special Operations Warfare School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

While he was training members of the U.S. military, he was also training members of al Qaeda and acting as a so-called double agent by traveling overseas to fight with and instruct jihadists. Mohammed was closely connected to the cell that conducted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, providing them with military training and classified military documents. Finally, he was arrested for his key role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings in East Africa.

More recently in October 2008, would-be jihadist Abdel Hameed Shehadeh attempted to join the U.S. Army after failing to link up with militants overseas. His intention was to receive military training and deploy to Iraq where he would then fight against U.S. soldiers.

It is precisely cases like this that are driving the U.S. military to identify individuals with violent extremist bents. However, of great concern to the military is that policies not be implemented which could devolve into a widespread view of all serving Muslims as a security threat. Official statistics put the number of Muslims in the armed forces at around 3,500 with other estimates ranging up to 12,000, representing a very small but vital portion of the military services. Many individuals for whatever reason may not disclose their religious preference and given various levels of religious practice may not be something they identify as.

Since completing their own internal review the Army has instituted a number of programs and reforms dealing with terrorism matters including the “Threat Awareness and Reporting Program” and the iWatch program which is “a 21st Century version of the neighborhood watch program and integrates terrorism prevention and suspicious activity reporting.” Much of the training deals with extremism of all kinds focusing on behavioral indicators that may be terrorism related. However, the Pentagon report released in response to the Fort Hood attack was derided by a number of lawmakers due its avoidance of any mention of Islam or Islamist ideology.

The U.S. Senate did its own investigation and released a report in February this year entitled, “A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons from the U.S. Government's Failure to Prevent the Fort Hood Attack.” Many signs of Nidal Hasan’s extremist views were evident to individuals he served with and investigators, but his career never suffered because of it and no direct action was taken to remove him from the military. The Senate report directly took on Muslim radicalization stating, “DOD needs to revise its personnel policies to ensure that they address radicalization to violent Islamist extremism clearly and provide its personnel with sufficient training concerning violent Islamist extremism and how it differs from the peaceful practice of Islam.”

For the military this means taking concerns over radicalized individuals seriously without perpetuating stereotypes among fellow service members that all Muslims represent a threat. The military formulated its initial policies dealing with extremism in the 1980s and 1990s due to the significant presence of neo-Nazi, racist and extremist militia members in the ranks.

It can also formulate policies dealing with violent Islamists, but religious and cultural matters make this particularly sensitive as hostility towards American Muslims has grown in the post 9/11 world. Political correctness cannot be used to avoid dealing with individuals who may have extremist leanings but at the same time, strong policies and actions dealing with discrimination and harassment against Muslims in the military need to be unflinchingly carried out.

Seth Nye is a former Navy Intelligence Officer who served in Afghanistan and was an Intelligence Analyst and Team Leader with the NYPD's Counterterrorism Bureau and Intelligence Division. He has taught on terrorism matters at the FBI Academy, Joint Special Operations University and for law enforcement units nationally. He is also an Adjunct Professor at NYU where he teaches graduate courses on terrorism and insurgencies.

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