On January 7, 2010, in the wake of the Fort Hood massacre and the attempted Christmas Day passenger jet bombing, President Barack Obama appeared finally to start taking U.S. counterterrorism strategy seriously. “We are at war,” he declared in a White House speech, “against al-Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.”
This was a complete about-face from Obama’s position ten months earlier. Shortly after he took office, he ditched the “war on terror” term as too emblematic of previous Bush administration policies. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano elaborated in Germany’s Spiegel where she preferred to speak of “man-caused disasters,” not terrorist attacks, and pledged to abandon the “politics of fear.” The strategy included a January 2009 executive order to close Guantanamo Bay, and create a high-value interrogation unit (HIG) within Homeland Security to interview terrorists.
Such contradictory positions in so short a time raise serious doubts about the potential effectiveness with which his administration’s proposed new security measures can address apparently long-entrenched shortcomings.
The Fort Hood Massacre
Within minutes during the afternoon of November 5, Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan calmly and deliberately shot and killed 13 people and wounded 38 at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. Hasan shouted “Allahu Akbar!” and fired his high-power FN Herstal 5.7 tactical pistol, known as “the cop killer,” towards everyone nearby.
The president acknowledged the “tragic shooting” at an American army base on U.S. soil in a bizarre statement criticized even overseas. Later, he warned Americans against “jumping to conclusions” on Hasan’s motives. “We cannot fully know what leads a man to do such a thing,” Obama said. At the November 10 Fort Hood memorial service, he said, “No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts….” A loving God would meet the killer “with justice – in this world and the next.” But with each remark, the president missed the point.
As a jihadist, Nidal Hasan follows the same orthodox Islamic principles as expressed by the highest-ranking contemporary Muslim scholars in a July 2005 communiqué of 170 clerics from 40 Islamic nations – and Islamic jurisprudence from every school of Islamic thought for over a millennium. He also adheres to the equally orthodox views of Yemeni cleric and top al-Qaeda recruiter, Anwar al-Awlaki, whom U.S. and international investigators have linked to nearly a dozen recent terrorist cases. In this thinking, he views all his victims merely as infidels, regardless of other factors besides faith.
Some 164 jihad-related verses in the Quran involve violent war against infidels. According to Thomas Patrick Hughes’ 19th-century Dictionary of Islam, the doctrine of jihad rests on those Quranic verses, the traditions of Muhammad (a.k.a., Hadith), and the writings of the founding, eponymous clerics of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi, Maliki, Sha’afi and Hanbali schools. While technically “a striving,” jihad primarily means striving for “religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad.” Established as a “divine institution,” jihad is a religious duty incumbent upon all Muslims, “enjoined especially for the purpose of advancing Islam and of repelling evil from Muslims,” according to Hughes. Jihad, then, is not chiefly the “inner search” (confusingly named “greater jihad”) that Muslim clerics contend in frequent public condolences and denials. Indeed, one well-known principle of jihad is to confuse all “enemies of Islam.”
In his troubling assessment of current military readiness at a January 15, 2010 Pentagon press conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was entirely clear. The U.S. military is insufficiently prepared to prevent future domestic attacks, he admitted. Existing defense programs do not properly focus “on internal threats such as workplace violence and self-radicalization,” he said. One central issue is the lack of “a clear understanding of what motivates a person to become radicalized and commit violent acts.” Know thy enemy, or suffer a defeat for every victory, wrote Sun Tsu in his ancient book, The Art of War.
Unlike Gates, however, the 86-page military review is imprecise. It raises important issues on the terrorist threat facing America, yet entirely skirts necessary discussion of the primarily Islamic causes. Failing to identify the chief culprit is not for want of a large body of contemporary scholarship on jihad doctrine. Since 1975, Swiss scholar Bat Ye’or has written volumes on jihad doctrine and the degradations imposed on conquered non-Muslim peoples – i.e., dhimmi societies subjugated under orthodox Islam.
More recently, autodidact and Brown University medical professor Andrew G. Bostom edited two enormous volumes of jihad documentation that are also essential to understand the issue. The scholarly tomes include key sacred passages, jihad jurisprudence, and historical accounts of campaigns both by Muslim and conquered writers, many translated to English for the first time. Others like Professor Walid Phares have recommended examining Islamic political doctrine but to no avail. Alas, the government’s dominant academic and cultural advisers oppose this as “meddling with a religion.” They espouse counterproductive fears “of theological entanglement.”
A Fault of American Culture
Meanwhile, political correctness gained ground among elected U.S. leaders, policymakers, military commanders, and virtually every other avenue of U.S. life – business, education, media, civilian and religious institutions. Lulled into believing that all peoples and faiths practice equal beneficence, Americans encouraged relativist thinking especially after the millennium turned. This enabled domestic and foreign influences and enemy agents to dictate terminology used in the U.S. to define enemy thinking. Blinded official analysts cannot recognize or name the causes, even when terrorists strike.
The army’s failure to isolate and debrief psychiatrist Nidal Hasan before he struck Fort Hood probably best exemplifies this phenomenon. Hasan exchanged frequent emails with recognized jihadist ideologues. He acted in undeniable sympathy with orthodox Islamic principles. Yet even after his deadly rampage, Obama asked Congress to delay hearings until Defense Department and federal law enforcement officials finished their investigation.
Hasan’s June 2007 Walter Reed Hospital presentation, intended to complete his medical residency training, reflected his jihad ideology. He lectured dozens of superiors and mental health workers on violent jihad and copiously quoted verses from the Quran. On private business cards, Hasan included the acronyms SoA. – “soldier of Allah” – and SWT, for Subhanahu wa ta’ala. The latter roughly means “Glory to God,” and also “Allah is pure….”
Citizens vs. Enemy Combatants
As a serviceman born in the U.S. to Palestinian Muslim immigrants, Hasan will be tried on multiple murder counts in a U.S. military court. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, by contrast, is clearly an enemy combatant. The Nigerian trained with al-Qaeda in Yemen and on December 25 he tried to detonate a Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) plastique bomb in his underwear minutes before flight 253 landed in Detroit. Abdulmutallab would have killed at least 290 civilians if not for the courageous passengers that tackled him and extinguished the fire.
But here again, the Obama administration neglected to acknowledge reality. In a shocking CNN interview on December 26, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed, “the system worked.” She repudiated security failures – and the significance of Islamic factors. Two days later, the president referred to Abdulmutallab as an “isolated extremist.” He promised to “find all who were involved and hold them accountable.” Yet Obama studiously avoided mentioning the perpetrator’s jihad doctrine. A jihadist like Hasan, Abdulmutallab is also an Al-Awlaki disciple and he considered his 290 potential victims as infidels deserving death.
As events unfolded, a more disjointed string of official actions could hardly be imagined. On December 25, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) had a “small mountain of not-yet-correlated information” on Abdulmutallab. Yet with permission from counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, on December 26 NCTC director Michael Leiter left Washington D.C. for a previously scheduled vacation.
Brennan told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in early January that the Justice Department – and implicitly, Attorney General Holder – decided to try Abdulmutallab as a U.S. felon. But according to federal officials at a January 20 Congressional hearing, FBI agents in Detroit decided to confer the rights of American citizenship upon Abdulmutallab without consulting superiors. FBI director Robert Mueller defended his agents. Regardless, Brennan insisted that gathering intelligence on further attacks would progress unimpeded.
National intelligence chief Dennis C. Blair disapproved, however. “Duh! We didn’t put it” together, he admitted. The president in January 2009 had ordered Secretary Napolitano to launch the HIG terrorist-interviewing unit. To Blair, Abdulmutallab obviously looked high-value. But later, Blair obliquely confessed, Homeland Security’s HIG unit was still not fully operational.
Everyone is an American
The decision to try Abdulmutallab as a felon rather than an international criminal should have surprised no one. After all, on November 13, 2009, U.S. Attorney General Holder seemed to confer Constitutional rights on enemy combatants when he announced that terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay would be prosecuted in New York federal courts instead of military tribunals.
Holder made these decisions based on faulty data. In a February 2010 letter to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Holder claimed that “without a single exception,” since September 11, 2001, the federal government and two presidential administration policies were to “arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended” within the United States. He should have known better. President George W. Bush had ordered the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney General to surrender “known agents of al-Qaeda,” Jose Padilla and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, to the Defense Department as enemy combatants in June 2002 and June 2003, respectively.
President Bush was perhaps mindful of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s example. In June 1942, four German saboteurs landed on Long Island and four near Jacksonville, Florida. They were all born in Germany but had lived in the U.S. for significant periods. They carried $175,200 in U.S. currency and enough materiel to sabotage U.S. defense production for two years. Arrested within two weeks, they had spent less than $900 and inflicted neither terror nor industrial damage. Nevertheless, FDR ordered them to be tried by the military. Pronounced guilty, six received death sentences and were executed, one imprisoned for life and one imprisoned for 30 years.
Obama, too, should follow FDR’s example. Foreign-born terrorists are just as culpable as those German saboteurs. Their cases beg for trial as enemy combatants in military courts. To the enemy, alternatively trying them in U.S. civilian courts – whether captured domestically or overseas – emphasizes U.S. weakness and telegraphs incomprehension of their jihad doctrine.
Holder’s Conflict of Interest
In his missive to Senator McConnell, Holder formally acknowledged that it was his decision to try Abdulmutallab for U.S. felonies. Holder should not have done so, given his apparent conflict of interest regarding enemy combatants.
Before assuming the Attorney General’s office, Holder was a longtime partner at Washington’s high-power Covington & Burling law firm, which represents 16 Guantanamo Bay detainees. Covington cases include “habeas corpus proceedings,” requests to review “enemy combatant classification” and amicus briefs for admitted terrorists in several cases filed against the U.S. government.
Holder also received nearly $2.5 million in separation, deferred compensation and equity payments from Covington. The firm also repaid “up to $1 million from its capital account” on Holder’s behalf.
Holder may not have personal interests vested – even indirectly – in the outcomes of federal cases against Guantanamo Bay detainees or Covington lawsuits for admitted terrorists. But the large sums paid by his former firm suggest an embedded conflict of interest and raise serious doubts regarding Holder’s objectivity in recent decisions on Guantanamo Bay detainees and Abdulmutallab. One also wonders whether Holder influenced the Defense Department’s decision to read “Miranda rights” to new Afghan detainees. That too arguably renders the U.S. less secure because it ties the military’s hands and demonstrates weakness.
Americans should worry. Generals need the capacity to win – without interference from their sovereign, Sun Tsu wrote. On national security, the role President Obama plays is more of a sovereign than a commander-in-chief.
Alyssa A. Lappen, a former senior editor at Institutional Investor magazine and former associate editor at Forbes, is a U.S.-based investigative journalist.