FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
The Attempted Terrorist Attack by the Face of Peaceful Islam, and the Problems it Presents for Media and Muslims Alike
"We're not all terrorists, you know?"
The headline of the day is that a second terrorist attack on Fort Hood, Texas in under two years was discovered this week, and its plotter, Private First Class Nasser Jason Abdo, arrested before the attack could be carried out. The latter fact, of course, differentiates this plot from the successful attack carried out by Major Nidal Hasan in November 2009, when the Army officer and Islamist radical gunned down thirteen people – including a pregnant woman – and wounded thirty-two more, while yelling “Allahu Akbar!” after receiving counseling and religious justification for the attack from the American-born al Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki.
He was formally charged in federal court today with possession of an “unregistered destructive device.” The plot that was foiled this week, allegedly inspired by Hasan’s rampage (Abdo reportedly yelled “Nidal Hasan, Fort Hood 2009!” in court today), involved attacking a popular off-post restaurant with pipe (pressure cooker) bombs, and then using a handgun to shoot any who survived the blast. According to law enforcement officials, the attack was planned for Thursday – the day after Abdo was arrested. His next appearance in court is reportedly scheduled for 2 pm on August 4, at the Waco Federal Courthouse.
This is an interesting case for many reasons, and Abdo is an interesting central figure; as such, it deserves significant attention from the public, counterterrorism experts, and the media. For our purposes, Abdo’s story begins last year. After enlisting in the Army as an infantryman and being assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Abdo decided on the eve of his unit’s deployment to Afghanistan that he was a “conscientious objector” (CO) whose Muslim faith was incompatible with service in the military in general, or with combat in particular. “I [had been] under the impression that I could serve both the U.S. Army and my God simultaneously,” he told CNN in one of several interviews with major news media outlets that highlighted his claim of conscientious objector status last fall.
During the period between his enlistment and infantry training, and the completion of the pre-deployment readiness process, Abdo said his impression changed. “I don’t believe that Islam allows me to operate in any kind of warfare at all, including the U.S. military and any war it partakes in. I believe that our first duty as a Muslim is to serve God.” He told ABC that “a Muslim is not allowed to participate in an Islamicly [sic] unjust war. Any Muslim who knows his religion or maybe takes into account what his religion says can find out very clearly why he should not participate in the US military.” ABC, in turn, reported that Abdo sought to dedicate his life to combating “Islamophobia” and serving as a vocal advocate of Islam as a peaceful religion, while other news organizations also provided Abdo with a platform and aided him in becoming a face of an Islamic peace movement that is woefully lacking in public participants, and anti-war groups championed Abdo and his story as the “missing story of a Muslim peacemaker” (more discussion of Islam’s perception problem below). “I want to use my experience to show Muslims how we can lead our lives,” he told ABC, “and to try and put a good positive spin out there that Islam is a good, peaceful religion. We’re not all terrorists, you know?”
“Free Nasser Abdo” Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts, as well as a personal website, were established to support Abdo’s CO application and to take donations for his “legal defense fund” (content has not been added to these accounts since last year, and the personal website is no longer online [404 error]), and the leftist organization Courage to Resist highlighted Abdo as an exemplification of “the missing story of Muslim peacemaking.” After initially being recommended against, Abdo’s conscientious objector application was approved in May of this year, and he was put on the path toward discharge from the U.S. Army. However, his discharge was delayed for an unrelated issue: child pornography (reportedly 34 pictures on his government-issued computer), for which Abdo had been under investigation since November, and with which he was charged in May and arraigned June. His CO discharge was put on hold pending his court-martial. Then, after the four-day 4th of July weekend, Abdo failed to return to duty at Fort Campbell, instead going AWOL (absent without leave) from the post until turning up in Killeen, Texas this week, “in possession of a large quantity of ammunition, weapons and a bomb inside a backpack.”
Abdo’s arrest came about as the result of an alert gun store clerk and the child pornography charge, for which a military warrant had been issued. Greg Ebert, a retired Killeen policeman working at the gun store Guns Galore (infamous for being the place Nidal Hasan purchased the firearms used in the November 2009 shooting spree), said Abdo’s arrival at the store in a taxi, combined with his “rude” attitude and questions which suggested he wasn’t familiar with some of the explosives he was purchasing, combined to raise his suspicions. “He stands here and asks the manager, ‘what is smokeless powder?’” said Ebert. “Well, my God, if you don’t know what it is, why would you buy six pounds of it?” Ebert called the police to report his suspicions (“We felt uncomfortable with his overall demeanor and the fact he didn’t know what the hell he was buying,” Ebert said; “I thought it prudent to contact the local authorities, which I did”), and Abdo was arrested at 2pm on July 27 at a traffic stop.
As J.M. Berger has briefly noted, several aspects of this arrest suggest that the authorities – federal, local, and military – were entirely unaware of Abdo’s plot, and therefore that his attack would have been successful to at least some degree had he ultimately decided to carry it out. The arrest was made during a traffic stop by the Killeen Police Department, after Ebert alerted authorities to Abdo’s suspicious behavior and questions. Abdo was taken into custody not because of his firearms purchase or because of intelligence about his planned attack, but because of an outstanding warrant on the child pornography charge which had been filed against him earlier this year. It was only during a search of his room at America’s Best Value Inn that authorities found the materials he planned to use in the attack: six canisters of smokeless gun powder, three boxes of ammunition, a magazine for a 40 caliber hand gun, several pounds of sugar, a pressure cooker, and “Jihadist materials.” Just what the latter consisted of remains to be seen, th0ugh Fox News quoted a “counterterrorism source” as saying that Abdo’s bomb-making materials and methodology came “straight out of Inspire [al Qaeda's English-language magazine] and an Al Qaeda explosives course manual,” and the New York Times reports that Abdo had in his possession the Inspire article “how to make a bomb in your kitchen sink.”
The question of whether Abdo was actually affiliated with al Qaeda has obviously come up (see the noteworthy discussion by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, J.M. Berger, and Clint Watts on Twitter this morning). While it is important to note that a significant amount of information remains unknown and unreleased, if Abdo was in fact affiliated with al Qaeda, it seems likely that to have been a recent development – or, at least, one which was unrelated to his initial decision to enlist in the U.S. Army. The chief justification for this assertion is the target and methods chosen by Abdo for the attack, none of which required Army access or affiliation to obtain or carry out: he purchased weapons and ammunition from a civilian gun store, uniforms with Fort Hood-based unit designation patches from an off-post surplus store, and was targeting a restaurant located outside Fort Hood, but which is heavily trafficked by soldiers and post employees.
Also of note is the apparent method of attack planned by Abdo: explosives, followed by small arms used to kill any survivors of the blasts. This suggests motivation to leave behind a significant body count, but, interestingly, not a larger number of wounded. Abdo reportedly “admitted that he planned to assemble two bombs in the hotel room using gun powder and shrapnel packed into pressure cookers to detonate inside an unspecified restaurant frequented by soldiers from Fort Hood,” but his plan to follow up with small arms would seem to negate the impact of the shrapnel as a maiming agent. This intent to kill rather than kill and maim may suggest inexperience or a lack of clarity of purpose, or it may simply demonstrate Abdo’s intent to make a statement by killing every one of his victims. More information on his intent and his methodology will come out as this investigation progresses, and it will bear watching.
Even more relevant to Abdo’s case is his Islamic faith. This is not simply because he is yet another Muslim who has allegedly attempted to carry out a terrorist attack on the West, but because it is readily apparent that Abdo defined himself in large part by that faith. He initially identified himself as “a soldier who was a Muslim,” but in a year or less appears to have swung like a pendulum to two opposite, radically extreme points: first the claim of total pacifism, based on his Islamic faith, and then the attempt to commit mass murder of Americans, again apparently based on his Islamic faith. Another aspect of this case that will bear watching is who Abdo was in contact with during this period of radicalization, and whether his contacts were face to face (i.e., on post or in the greater Fort Campbell/Clarksville community) or online (which could obviously include a much wider geographic area, including perhaps Awlaki or someone similarly prone to instigation, incitement, and religious justification of terrorism).
The ABC report which lauded Abdo as a face of nonviolent, peaceful Islam noted that he is the son of “a Muslim father and a nondenominational Christian mother” (a statement which on its face suggests that his father may have been the more serious and devout of the two), and that he decided to commit to Islam when he was a teenager. Perhaps self-taught in his Islamic faith, at least to a degree, Abdo may already have been a prime candidate for an “identity crisis,” which appears to have been what played out over the course of the last year. ABC additionally noted that Abdo did not make use of the Imam stationed at Fort Campbell, but instead relied on “his personal circle of Islamic advisers,” saying of military Imams, “In my experience, they don’t know their religion. They don’t know their faith.” Clearly Abdo thought that he did know true Islam, though once again it appears that his understanding of what it entailed shifted radically between fall 2010 and summer 2011.
The Islamic/Islamist aspect of Abdo’s case will remain controversial, and it remains to be seen how much it will factor into media reports about the case (more on media and Abdo below). Islam’s “perception problem” in the West is not a new topic or issue, but it is one which deserves both scrutiny and discussion in light of recent events. Killeen’s KCEN TV has quoted Baylor University Islamic Studies Professor Christian vanGorder as saying that Abdo’s terror plot shouldn’t be “linked to Islam.” Said vanGorder:
“The holy Quran does teach Muslims that they have the right to defend themselves if and when they’re attacked,” he says, “but the Quran also teaches that it’s forbidden to initiate any type of aggressive violence. …When we see these types of terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam, they don’t represent Islam any more than say for example a Christian would feel represented by people killing in the name of Christ.”
This is a timely statement given last week’s tragedy in Norway, which saw Anders Behring Breivik – who blew up a government building and cold-bloodedly gunned down several dozen unarmed young people at a youth political retreat out of self-proclaimed nationalism – being associated with Christianity, and his motives with rightist, xenophobic ideology, in several hundred news reports (a quick Lexis/Nexis search of “Breivik” and “Christian” returns 398 results), including on the front page of the New York Times. By contrast, attempted attacks like Faisal Shahzad’s planned Times Square bombing, which was linked to the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban, are repeatedly reported as having their “motives shrouded in mystery.“ Shahzad is just one example of many in which media reports downplay the relation of Islamic actors’ actions to their faith and to their relationships with Islamist organizations like the Taliban, al Qaeda, and others.
This unwillingness to identify Islamists’ successful and unsuccessful terrorist attacks on western targets with the religion in whose name they are being carried out, combined with “Islamic Rights” groups like CAIR and like-minded individuals’ first reactions to terrorist attacks being not a condemnation of the act, but a warning to the greater public not to accuse or discriminate against Muslims, and the media’s apparent eagerness to associate the terms “Christian” and “right” with malevolent actors, has only further intensified the distrust of media and Muslims alike on the part of a growing segment of the American population which sees the nonviolent majority of Muslims as tacitly approving the actions of their radical co-religionists (two examples of many here and here).
The perception problem this creates is worsened by actions like last week’s effort to cast blame on analysts and experts like Will McCants who, simply doing their jobs, reported – with ample caveats – claims of responsibility for the Norway attack being posted on jihadi forums like Shmukh. The attempt to reverse the perceived effects of reporting on the Islamist connection to the Norway attacks that was claimed by Islamists themselves resulted in a whiplash-inducing 180° that did nearly as much damage to the public view of the media and “anti-Islamophobia” organizations and individuals as the other aforementioned attempts obfuscate the Islamic connection between terror attacks and those who carry them out.
One more aspect of the Abdo case that will bear watching is the media take on it – both the reporting and the self analysis. Whether it was intentional or not, the decision by CNN, ABC, and several other news outlets to feature Nasser Abdo last year tied their credibility and their reputational fates to his. Their action helped make Nasser Abdo one of the faces of non-radical, peaceful Islam – a fact which is very relevant to the story going forward, as this representative of the peaceful nature of Islam now stands accused of trying to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. A responsible fourth estate would devote significant private and public time to introspection and to honest investigation of the danger of radicalization, as well as of whether – and if so, how – they were hoodwinked into putting an aspiring terrorist on their air as the face of peaceful Islam (as noted above, I see Abdo’s radicalization more as a process – albeit an accelerated one – that had not been completed at the time he was preaching Islamic peace on American news networks).
The “anti-war” site Courage to Resist, which as noted above featured Abdo as the embodiment of “the missing story of Muslim peacemaking,” has already (and predictably) stumbled out of the gate, saying they are “very concerned that PFC Abdo’s arrest will be unfairly used against other Muslim military service-members and would-be Conscientious Objectors,” while the leftist organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, which also promoted Abdo last year, is now trying to disavow any association with him. It also remains to be seen what groups like the Fellowship for Reconciliation, which highlighted Abdo for his “deepened commitment to peace in Islam” and requested public support for him, will do in the wake of his arrest, but based on past actions it seems likely that the wider response to Abdo’s radicalization and attempted terrorist attack will not be an increase in media outlets and those who purport to represent Islam condemning his and others’ terrorist actions, or engaging in introspection, but instead a digging-in of their position that “Islamophobia” must be preemptively condemned – an action which, if taken, will simply exacerbate Islam’s “perception problem,” further widening the gap between mainstream Muslims and many in the West and further oiling and fueling the machine of radicalization.