Uncle Sam's Jihadists
What's the U.S. military doing about radical Muslim soldiers? Not enough.
The most disturbing story of the war so far is the fragging at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait. According to news reports, on March 23, Sgt. Asan Akbar rolled a grenade into each of three tents of sleeping officers and senior NCOs of the 101st Airborne Division. Then he allegedly shot the soldiers with an automatic weapon as they fled from their tents. Two of them, a major and a captain, died, and 14 others were injured.
The episode is unsettling for a number of reasons, most of all because it exposes a fact about our military that commanders have tried their best to ignore: the presence of radical, anti-American Muslims in the ranks. Akbar, a convert to Islam, reportedly said when he was captured: "You guys are coming into our countries and you're going to rape our women and kill our children." It's increasingly clear that there is a small group of soldiers for whom anti-American fatwas issued in mosques around the world supercede the oath of loyalty they took to their nation.
Almost nothing is known about radical Islam in the ranks. Very little is known about Islam in the ranks, period. Today, there are somewhere between 4,000 and 15,000 Muslims in the U.S. military. The estimates are so vague because Muslims, like Jews, often prefer not to declare their religion, and the armed services don't require that declaration. Some American servicemen and women are Muslim by birth. Many are converts, and most of the converts are black Americans. It was during the first Gulf War that the U.S. military first grappled with the issues raised by Muslim conversion in the ranks: As many as 3,000 U.S. soldiers may have embraced Islam since then. Click
For most of the Muslims in today's military—as for most of the Jews or Catholics or Baptists—religion poses no problem for service. They worship at different times and in different places than Christians or Jews do and have different dietary restrictions, but they're simply loyal American soldiers. The military does whatever it can to accommodate this growinggroup. In 1997, it opened its first permanent Islamic prayer center, the Masjid al Da'awah, at the Norfolk, Va., Naval Air Station. At least two dozen sailors attend weekly. In 1998, Fort Lewis turned a space that had been used for Catholic and Protestant services into a Muslim center.
Do some soldiers visit radical mosques? Do some follow the teachings of anti-American imams? There are no studies to answer this, and the military doesn't talk about it. But Akbar's alleged fragging and other recent incidents suggest that some Muslim soldiers have been radicalized. There are even indications that some may be infiltrating the military in order to undermine it.
At best, military monitoring of radical black Muslims has been sloppy. The last year has witnessed three incidents, including Akbar's, suggesting the radicalization of Muslim soldiers. Beltway sniper suspect and former Army Sgt. John Allen Muhammad converted to Islam in 1985, around the same time he moved from the National Guard into the regular Army, according to news reports. During the first Gulf War, Muhammad may have been involved in a fragging incident very similar to last week's. Muhammad allegedly pulled the pin on an incendiary grenade in a crowded tent near the Iraqi border, setting a sergeant's sleeping bag on fire. No one was injured, but Muhammad was removed from the 84th Engineering company by MPs. "We assumed he was locked up," recalls a Marine who serviced with him. "Evidently that wasn't the case." It is not clear what, if any, punishment followed. Like Timothy McVeigh, another domestic terrorist who graduated from the Gulf War, Muhammad soon slipped back into the population and ultimately introduced the deadly combo platter of his military training, politico-religious views, and psychosis to the taxpayers who paid him to serve his country.
Shortly before Muhammad's murder spree, a black American Muslim named Jeffrey Leon Battle was among those arrested in Oregon, one of a group called the Portland Six accused of ties to al-Qaida. Battle was a former Army Reservist. According to the Justice Department, he planned to wage war against Americans in Afghanistan and may have joined the Army Reserves in order to learn how to kill American soldiers. And in May 2002, the feds arrested a Seattle-based Muslim cleric named Semi Osman as part of an investigation of a terrorist training camp in Oregon. Osman, a mechanic in the Navy Reserves, had access to fuel trucks similar to the type used in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen. In January, he pleaded guilty to a weapons charge.
One of the weirdest stories of a radical Muslim is that of Ali Mohamed. According to various reports that surfaced after 9/11, Mohamed came to the United States in 1986 while he was a major in the Egyptian army, and secretly, a member of Islamic Jihad. After marrying an American, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of sergeant. A busy soldier, he taught a class on Islamic fundamentalist perceptions of America to special forces at Fort Bragg, N.C., and also taught at the JFK Special Operations Warfare School where he stole classified military documents. After he was discharged from the Army in 1989, he hooked up with Osama Bin Laden's nascent al-Qaida operation. Using his new American passport and connections, he spent the '90s traveling around the world helping plot terror operations. The FBI finally arrested him in 1998, and he eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring with Osama Bin Laden to attack Western targets.
Even after the arrests of John Allen Muhammad, Jeffrey Leon Battle, and Semi Osman, alarm over jihadists with American military backgrounds has not been not widely sounded. "I'm shocked," former Gen. Wesley Clark told CNN after news of Akbar's alleged fragging broke. "I'm shocked," said the other military commentators on all the other networks.
Were they really? I hope not; as military men, they should have known what was going down in the ranks. But as high-profile members of the media, they were probably afraid to risk offense by speaking the truth, which is that a small number of anti-American Muslim soldiers endanger their brothers-in-arms and tarnish the reputation of Muslim soldiers generally.
Deanne Stillman is the author of Twentynine Palms: A True Story
of Murder, Marines and the Mojave.