By Barry Rubin
There is a very important—one might say, life-and-death—distinction that should be made in considering U.S. counterterrorism policy. Certainly, U.S. forces have had many successes in stopping intended terrorist attacks against the United States. Yet there have also been a number of failures in the war against terrorism or al-Qaida or whatever you want to call it. How to distinguish what made the difference?
Successes in the post-September 11 era have come when the techniques of police work or intelligence-gathering were used against full-time terrorists (or the authorities got a lucky tip-off). When it comes to organizations planning attacks this works very well. But when the threat involves individuals or small groups being radicalized and perhaps joining or supporting terrorist groups the record is much worse.
The weakness is in analysis, profiling, decision-making, and understanding the nature of the enemy ideology. As a result, there have been a number of smaller attacks, including some not counted at all by a government that wants to keep its batting average high, and some near-misses averted more due to luck than to skill.
In addition a huge amount of money has been wasted and effort misdirected, as many are coming to see regarding the current methods of airport security.
In understanding these vital issues one can read no better work than Patrick Poole’s, “Failures of the U.S. Government on the Domestic Islamist Threat.” He provides ten case studies, each of which is hair-raising and none of which, arguably, has led to major corrective action. At the root of each one is a failure or refusal to comprehend revolutionary Islamism or the bureaucratic fear of taking on the enemy. Moreover, some cases show how the other side has even gained political influence in America.
Consider Abdulrahman Alamoudi, who Poole rightly calls, “The most prominent Islamic activist leader in America at the time, he had infiltrated the highest levels of political power.” He was the Muslim leader most frequently in the Clinton White House, asked:
“by the Defense Department to establish the military’s Muslim chaplain corps, and appointed by the State Department to serve as a civilian ambassador, taking six taxpayer-funded trips to the Middle East….. Just days after the 9/11 attacks, he appeared with President Bush and other Muslim leaders at a press conference at the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. despite his public comments a year earlier at a rally just steps from the White House identifying himself as a supporter of the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist organizations.”
But “in July 2005 the Treasury Department revealed that Alamoudi had been: “one of Al-Qaeda’s top fundraisers.”
Go back and reread the last two paragraphs. Shouldn’t this experience create great skepticism about proclaiming Muslim leaders as moderate without critically examining their record? Instead, the opposite has happened.
Then there was Ali Mohamed, a man who trained American soldiers on Arab culture and worked in the U.S. army’s training program for intelligence officers in the Middle East while simultaneously teaching Islamist militants in the United States—including the cell that carried out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing—how to shoot and blow things up. Later, he became al-Qaida’s chief military expert.
How might the army have known to distrust this man? Well, he had been expelled from the Egyptian army because of his terrorist sympathies and Egypt warned the United States about him.
We’ve heard a lot lately about al-Qaida’s new star, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been behind many of the recent terrorist attacks on America. But did you know, as Poole writes:
“Despite being subject to a FBI investigation initiated in 1999, and having been interviewed by the FBI at least four times after 9/11 for his contacts with two of the hijackers, Al-Awlaki was leading prayers for congressional Muslim staffers inside the U.S. Capitol…. al-Awlaki was also feted at a luncheon inside the still-smoldering Pentagon following the 9/11 attacks….”
Then there’s still “Anwar Hajjaj, a local Islamic cleric who still leads prayers for the Congressional Muslim Staff Association. Hajjaj headed the Taibah International Aid Association, which was designated a global terrorist organization by the Treasury Department in May 2004.”
Or what about lobbyist Faisal Gill, “a former aide to Al-Qaeda fundraiser
Abdurahman Alamoudi” appointed to a senior post in the Department of Homeland Security. Gill “had omitted his previous employment as director of government relations for Alamoudi’s American Muslim Council on the Standard Form 86 required for Gill’s security clearance. Gill had been at the forefront of AMC’s political efforts to end the use of secret evidence in terrorism deportation proceedings. In his position in the Homeland Security Intelligence division, he had access to a wide range of top-secret information, including vulnerabilities of national critical infrastructure.”
He was investigated and cleared at the time, despite the fact that he had lied.
Hesham Islam has been an especially powerful figure, senior advisor for international affairs for Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and the Pentagon’s point-man for Muslim outreach. When one officer wrote a good study of revolutionary Islamist ideology, Islam campaigned to get him fired Other officials told me that Islam tried to push them out also.
Islam’s autobiography on a Defense Department site contained clear contradictions and omissions while his own academic work was rather shockingly radical. His father had worked for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, while Islam claimed that he had survived a ship sinking that apparently never happened
This study doesn’t include many other cases, most notably that of Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood terrorist, where the army’s negligence was responsible for the tragedy. At the time, I called Hassan the first terrorist to give an academic lecture with Power Point—to an army audience—explaining his intention to commit a terrorist attack. Since then, things haven’t improved, including the army’s report that didn’t even dare to talk about jihad.
This is the kind of thing that’s been happening. Let’s be clear. There should be no witch-hunt of people because they are Muslim, yet there should be the same kind of scrutiny that applies to anyone else. The truth is that bureaucrats are afraid to follow clear leads and point out obvious problems lest their careers be injured by accusations of Islamophobia.
During the 1930s, it was regarded as impolite to look into whether there were Soviet agents in the U.S. government. Despite the lies and exaggerations of certain people later, there was a very serious Communist infiltration that damaged U.S. interests.
There is clearly a parallel effort—no matter how uncoordinated and individual in nature—today. Read Poole’s study, watch his lecture about it and then demand better media coverage and government response to this problem.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).