When it comes to homeland security, President Obama’s first year in office was a nightmare. In September, Nidal Malik Hasan, a radicalized Army major, murdered 13 defense department employees at Ft. Hood, Texas. Shortly thereafter, Najibullah Zazi was arrested before he and compatriots were able to carry out an al Qaeda-inspired plot to conduct suicide bombings on the New York subway system. Then, on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at the direction of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, attempted to kill himself and the 278 passengers aboard a transatlantic flight as it approached Detroit. And to top things off, by the year's end, nearly four dozen Muslim-Americans had been indicted or arrested in connection with terrorist plots originating in the United States or aimed at targets in the U.S.
If there is any good news for the administration, a recent report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security has this last number dropping by more than half, to 20, in 2010, and with the number of Muslim-Americans attempting to carry out attacks at home dropping from 18 in 2009 to 10 in 2010.
However, these numbers should provide cold comfort for those whose job it is to worry about homeland security. For one thing, the fact that there were ten Muslim-Americans involved in plots against domestic targets in 2010 is still almost double the number on average for the years 2002-2008. Moreover, some of the plots, if they had been carried out successfully, would have resulted in a large number of deaths and casualties, with the planned attack on the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland and the attempted car-bombing in Times Square being the most notable examples.
No less disturbing was the release last week of a report by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, on why the government failed to prevent the deadly attack at Fort Hood. It's a virtual compendium of the still-existing fissures and flaws that mar the domestic counterterrorism effort, which, coming up on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 attacks, is a pointed reminder that there is still work to be done.
First off, the report makes it clear that there was no excuse for the Army to have not dealt with Major Hasan well before he went on his killing spree. Peers and superiors alike recognized his inability to disassociate his own views from those of Islamists and his obsession with issues such as whether Islam forbade American Muslim soldiers from taking part in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. His scholarship was seen for what it was: ideologically driven, with little or no professional content. He was, as an instructor and colleague noted, a “ticking time bomb.” But none of that prevented his superiors from giving him laudatory officer evaluations. As the Senate report pointedly puts it, “these evaluations bore no resemblance to the real Hasan.”
It is difficult not to conclude that various forms of “political correctness” were at work here. Pseudo-academic freedom, combined with worries by Hasan's superiors and advisors about being seen as insensitive to Islam, created a dynamic that led the Army to keep passing Hasan along, indeed even promoting him. Unfortunately, as the report pointedly notes, it's not clear in the aftermath of the shootings that this has been corrected. Neither the Pentagon's review nor Secretary Gates's subsequent directives implementing the recommendations of the review directly address the issue of Hasan's own Islamist views or the threat posed by Islamist radicalism more generally. “DoD's failure to address violent Islamist extremism by its name,” the senators suggest, means that the subject remains “taboo.”
No less worrisome is the report's account of the FBI's handling of the Hasan case. Here was an Muslim-American in the U.S. military who was in direct email contact with Yemen-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki—someone well known in counterterrorism circles as being the intellectual godfather of previous domestic terrorism plots—but given only the most cursory of reviews by the FBI. How and why that happened is the meat of the senators' report.