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Are We Serious?

They're at war, we're catching crooks.

Jun 9, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 37 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Willful Blindness

A Memoir of the Jihad

by Andrew C. McCarthy

Encounter, 250 pp., $25.95

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, America has tried to understand how she could have been so blind. Countless books, articles, documentaries--in addition to the 9/11 Commission's high-profile investigation during a hotly contested presidential election year--have all attempted to answer one central question: How could a small band of al Qaeda terrorists execute the greatest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor?

For Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, the answer begins with a series of fateful events in the early 1990s. And in his exceptional new book, he documents a series of missteps that led America to consistently misjudge both the scale and the nature of the terrorist threat. McCarthy exposes a fundamental flaw in the government's counterterrorism strategy prior to September 11. While our enemies were waging a war, we were prosecuting them as mere criminals. Much of the burden of dealing with an imminent national security threat was, therefore, placed on the criminal justice system. But as McCarthy demonstrates in meticulous fashion, the courts are a poor substitute for the real battlefield, so much so that our terrorist enemies were consistently able to outflank us.

McCarthy's story is centered on the trial of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman ("The Blind Sheikh") and 11 of his followers. McCarthy led the prosecution of this dirty dozen in 1995. In landmark convictions, Rahman and his cohort were found guilty of participating in a broad conspiracy to attack Americans, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot to destroy landmarks in the New York area just months later.

It is no exaggeration to say that the convictions stand out as a singular achievement in counterterrorism history. At the time, the law was so ill-equipped to handle such a case that McCarthy and his team had to charge the sheikh with violating a Civil War-era statute prohibiting seditious conspiracy! The sheikh slyly avoided discussing precise tactics, preferring instead to lend his voice to theological justifications for violence. His blessing was crucial for the terrorists to move forward, but America's laws were not written with someone like Rahman, or his type of violence, in mind.

In McCarthy's words, "The legal system circa 1993 was woefully unprepared for radical Islam." Therefore, pinning these events on Rahman--who clearly, at the very least, inspired them--was no small feat.

McCarthy, however, does not rest on his laurels. In fact, one senses that if it were up to him, the trial of Rahman and his cohort would never have happened. The terror network centered on Rahman should have been years earlier--or, better yet, never allowed to develop on American soil in the first place. And in the aftermath of the events of 1993, the criminal justice system should not have been our frontline defense.

As McCarthy writes, "In the eight years between the World Trade Center's bombing and its destruction, the high-profile court cases that constituted the Clinton administration's counter-terrorism strategy resulted in the convictions of exactly twenty-nine terrorists." By way of contrast, consider that the former National Security Council official Richard Clarke has stated that "perhaps over 10,000 terrorists" were trained "at the camps in Afghanistan" alone. Clearly, America was not on a war footing.

From McCarthy's perspective, the missteps began in 1989 when the FBI prematurely abandoned its investigation into a group of jihadists conducting firearm drills in Calverton, Long Island. One of those jihadists, El Sayyid Nosair, went on to murder an extremist Jewish leader named Rabbi Meir Kahane on November 5, 1990. Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, Nosair was acquitted of Kahane's murder and convicted of only lesser charges.

This miscarriage of justice, McCarthy explains, was further compounded by an incompetent investigation. Nosair left behind a treasure trove of information, including handwritten notes, connecting him to a broader terror network then operating in New York and New Jersey. But authorities failed to analyze much of it. Instead, Nosair was branded a "lone gunman" and the 40-plus boxes of evidence seized with Nosair were ignored, thereby allowing his fellow conspirators to initially escape scrutiny.

Nosair was no lone wolf, as McCarthy makes clear, but one of Sheikh Rahman's gaggle of followers. And together they had more grandiose designs. For example, in one of his initially overlooked notebooks, Nosair expressed his desire to destroy America's "high world buildings which they are proud of and their statues which they endear and the buildings in which gather their heads [their leaders]."