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Rooting Out Threats Within the Ranks By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 13, 2004

America’s military forces, like all others, invariably must deal with threats from within its own ranks.  Such threats in the form of spies, saboteurs, extremists and terrorists are, unfortunately, nothing new and have been a problem for our Armed Forces literally since their formation with the Continental Army.  The war on terror, of course, has seen its own version of these threats.

Ali A. Mohamed, a former U.S. Army sergeant, was described as a "mid-level player" in the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.  He pleaded guilty in 2000 and was sentenced to prison.  Mohamed also admitted being a follower of Osama bin Laden.  Also, the arrest in Britain on August 5, 2004 of Babar Ahmad by UK law enforcement authorities on a U.S. Federal terrorism arrest warrant issued in Connecticut revealed that Ahmad allegedly had a connection to a U.S. Navy sailor who may have provided him classified Navy documents about warship deployments and vulnerabilities to attack.

Our modern military, of course, has developed a variety of internal institutions to deal with such threats, to include each Service having its own criminal investigative and counter-intelligence organizations to the Defense Department’s agency-wide Inspector General, itself with a criminal investigative division.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation also has investigative jurisdiction over such matters within the military.


As the nature of warfare in the 21st century is changing, so may be the nature of the internal threat within the military.  After the Vietnam War, the United States ended conscription and instituted its all-volunteer military that continues today.  With that, America’s armed forces have realized a continuing pace of enlistment by foreign nationals into the ranks.  Historically, most aliens in the U.S. military have served with honor, and there is every indication that continues.  Many of the combat heroes in today’s war on terror have been foreign national enlistees.  It’s interesting to note, as reported in an October 8, 2003 article by columnist Michelle Malkin, that an estimated 10,000 alien military members have applied for expedited U.S. citizenship processing since such rules were recently implemented.  In that article, Ms. Malkin also rightly reported about the unfortunate ease some illegal aliens have in obtaining enlistment into America’s military, particularly utilizing false identity documents. 


That point is noteworthy, as it raises the issue of how extensive the standard background checks are on a regular enlistee.  Such checks are really fairly limited, generally consisting of criminal history and standard security “watch lists.”  In the cases of alien enlistees, recruiters are supposed to verify immigration status with INS and now its Homeland Security successor, but if a document purporting to be a “green card” with an alien registration number is presented and a recruiter is a bit too busy or perhaps a bit too trusting or if the immigration computer record system is flawed…well, that extra step in status verification might not get done properly.  As Ms. Malkin’s article noted, sometimes even illegal aliens make it into our military and that is a definite security threat.  During my twenty-five years as an INS Special Agent, I personally saw a number of such cases.


That relatively cursory background check for normal enlistees is done mainly because it would cost a lot of money to send investigators out to interview friends, neighbors, coworkers and relatives of every person seeking enlistment into the military.  Of course, such in-depth background investigations are conducted for those who receive restrictive security clearances.  Are there still potential problems? 


In December 1995, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, two African-American civilians were gunned down and murdered one night.  The Fayetteville police quickly arrested three suspects.  All three were soldiers from the Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division at nearby Ft. Bragg.   As the investigation ensued, it was discovered the three accused, who were eventually convicted in state court of charges related to the murders, were skinheads, members of a radical white supremacist faction operating on the Army base under the noses of military commanders who had earlier professed that no such activities would ever be tolerated in their units.  How did the Army react and investigate this cabal of extremist thugs within its ranks?


An article issued by the American Forces Information Service on December 15, 1995 in the wake of the Fayetteville murders said, “…defense officials are again emphasizing DoD’s policy concerning military personnel participation in supremacist organizations.”  The article went on to describe how then Secretary of Defense William Perry said there is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the U.S. military and Secretary of the Army Togo West would form a review board to investigate extremist and supremacist activities within the Army.  A CNN report dated December 22, 1995 noted the 82nd Airborne’s commanding officer ordered all his soldiers to complete an “education and training program” that included watching a news conference by Secretary West discussing the evils of extremism.  A tough response, indeed.


A CNN report on December 6, 1996, a year after the Fayetteville murders, quoted an Army General as saying of the white supremacist extremists within the 82nd Airborne Division, “We did not see this cancer coming.  We missed the signs, symbols and manifestations of extremism.”  That same General also said the Army had erased extremism from Ft. Bragg by implementing sensitivity training and actively investigating extremists, going on to say that even tattoos were screened and that several soldiers had been discharged for failure to remove tattoos.  While the North Carolina civilian criminal justice system appropriately dealt with the murdering extremists from the Army, the Army conducted sensitivity training, had its soldiers watch videos of news conferences, and was on the lookout for suspicious tattoos. 


That was, of course, the era of extremism in Political Correctness.  Unfortunately, in the Federal Government, especially the military, attitudes change slowly.  Fast forward to today and the war on terror and the new and current internal extremist threat within the ranks, and that is the threat of militant Islamic radicals who are members of the U.S. military.  While the percentage of Muslim military members is small, the vast majority of those persons are genuinely honorable, trustworthy and loyal service members, just as any other members of our military.  Yet, because America has been attacked by and is at war with, as the 9-11 Commission has correctly stated, global radical Islamist terrorists, there are some who would have all Muslims in the military be subject to special inquiry just because they are Muslim. 


This would be no more correct or justified than doing the same to Irish Catholic military members if America had been attacked on 9-11 by some global version of the Irish Republican Army.  That said, if we were chasing IRA Chief Olsen B. O’Liden through the green fields of Northern Ireland instead of OBL through the badlands of Pakistan, we might seriously consider how closely we look at those Irish aliens we recruit into our military while we were engaged in that war.  There might even be an argument for putting a moratorium on the recruitment of certain foreign nationals while such hostilities are underway.


There have been several recent military cases against Muslim service members accused of internal security violations.  One Army case resulted in all charges being dismissed.  An Air Force case is pending in court.  Another Army case, wherein the accused sergeant is alleged to have killed superior officers in Kuwait in a “fragging” incident is pending in the military court system.  These few cases hardly indicate an epidemic that would justify something akin to an internal witch-hunt against Muslim military members.


The fact is, however, the U.S. military is increasingly reliant upon volunteers for its recruitment and, with an ever-increasing number of aliens in the general population, it is reasonable to expect that even more foreign nationals will seek to join America’s armed forces.  It only makes sense that every foreign national seeking to join the U.S. military should receive extra security screening.  And, forgetting political correctness, aliens, especially those who are recent entrants, who come from countries that are primary producers of the very radical Islamic terrorist enemies who we know are seeking to destroy us, should simply not be allowed to join our military at this time unless they are fully vetted by the security screening process and are deemed vital to the military’s mission.


Finally, any individuals or groups within the U.S. military who espouse anti-American views or views that support our enemies should be thoroughly investigated.  We are a country at war.  The fact is, persons who serve in the military don’t quite have the same rights as civilians, and that is especially true during wartime.  The internal security of our military forces must be preserved.  Our military should not launch any broad ethnic or religious based inquiry for security purposes, but it should aggressively investigate any leads based on actions or statements that indicate a potential threat, no matter where those leads might take the investigation.  It’s hard to imagine those three racist skinhead thugs at Ft. Bragg didn’t exhibit some obvious indicators well before they killed those two innocent civilians.  The Ft. Bragg General noted it well in 1996 when he said, “We missed the signs, symbols and manifestations of extremism.”  Today we are at war with cunning, sophisticated Islamic extremists who want to kill us all and who will likely seek to infiltrate our military in their efforts to reach their goal.  We can’t afford to miss this time.


William West is a retired INS Supervisory Special Agent who worked on counter-terrorism cases; he is now a consultant for the Washington, DC-based Investigative Project, a counter-terrorism research organization, and a freelance writer. 

Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer.

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