A Fifth Column?

November 9, 2009 Topic: Security Region: Americas

A Fifth Column?

A senate inquiry into Nidal Hasan’s possible links to terrorist groups could make the Army-McCarthy hearings look like a tea party.

Do Muslim-Americans serving in the United States military pose a threat to American national security? Are they subversives? The military says they aren't. "Our diversity, not only in our army but in our country, is a strength," General George W. Casey observed this past Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. He added, "And as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that's worse." But already pressure is mounting for a closer investigation of the Fort Hood shooting suspect Maj. Nidal M Hasan and possible links to an al-Qaeda supporter and imam named Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has been linked to the 9/11 attacks.

Until now, the storyline on Hasan had been that he was a lone wolf, a suicidal gunman who cracked up at Fort Hood under the pressures of facing deployment to Iraq. In this version, psychiatrist Hasan himself was depicted as something of a . . . victim. He was symptomatic of a military that was overstretched, of bad decisions made by the Bush administration in pursuing two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasan had been pushed over the brink. Unless the pressure eases up on the military-perhaps by retrenching in Afghanistan-there will be more Hasans, so the logic seemed to go. A November 6 post by Kate Dailey on Newsweek's blog "The Human Condition" exemplified such thinking:

Of course, the vast majority of those under that stress, no matter how brutal, will not pick up a gun and shoot indiscriminately, like Hasan did. But the situation is bad, and getting much worse. From there, it isn't much of a leap to argue that to further tax our military would do as much as anything to guarantee that the homegrown terror on display today could well repeat itself in the future.

But now that version of events is starting to change. A new avenue of inquiry has opened up. According to today's Washington Post, "New leads are being pursued based on information gleaned from a methodical review by investigators of Hasan's computer and his multiple e-mail accounts. Those include visits to Web sites espousing radical Islamist ideas…" This is not all. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, who heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, plans to hold hearings about the army's approach to Hasan and whether he was, in fact, a terrorist.

To some extent the debate about whether Hasan's actions constitute terrorism is a bit abstruse. His mowing down of his fellow soldiers clearly was a terrorist act-one intended to terrorize, to sow terror, which it did. But it is emphatically worth exploring Hasan's links, if any, to figures abroad and, moreover, to study whether the army itself is a victim of political correctness. Lieberman is about to probe the army's most vulnerable point. Did officials overlook warning signs out of excessive deference to Hasan's Muslim heritage? Had he been a right-wing extremist, would the army have acted similarly-or would it have sought to expel Hasan from its ranks?

For its part, the army clearly wants and needs to attract Muslim-Americans. Iraq is Exhibit A of what goes wrong when America stumbles into a country that it is essentially clueless about. An understanding of other cultures and language skills make an enormous difference in navigating foreign terrain. For Muslim-Americans, as the New York Times points out today, the dream of serving in the army is no different from that of other newcomers: "In interviews, they cited patriotism, a search for discipline and their dreams of attending college. Some Muslims said they had also enlisted to win new respect in a country where people of their faith have struggled for acceptance." Many Muslim-Americans are clearly serving their country proudly.

But as the Times article also makes clear, there are a number of simmering problems. The attitudes of other army recruits towards Muslims and a feeling of dual loyalty among some former soldiers. It is the dual loyalty charge that is going to be the most painful accusation for Muslim-Americans. It's the same charge that was leveled at American Jews when someone like Jonathan Pollard was busted for spying. But the question of service in the army is a much more potent and potentially combustible one.

Make no mistake: hovering over Sen. Lieberman's inquiry will be the question of whether the army contains a fifth column of Muslim-Americans intent on waging a war against the war on terror on the American homeland. Done properly, it could provide a salutary look into what may well be a nonissue. But done in an inflammatory fashion, it could end up making the Army-McCarthy hearings look like a dainty tea party. Carried far enough, the ultimate target of suspicion for some could be none other than President Barack Hussein Obama, whose patriotism has already been impugned by his detractors.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.