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.

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Filed under: Islam • Opinion