100 Suspected Radicals May Be Part Of U.S. Military

The FBI and military officials are conducting investigations into possible insider terror threats from Islamic extremists within the U.S. military. NPR has learned that about a dozen serious investigations are underway. The real challenge may be finding ways to prevent radicalization within the military in the first place.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The U.S. military has taken a close look at itself and found evidence of threats within its ranks.

MONTAGNE: The Pentagon, along with the FBI, has conducted more than 100 investigations into possible Islamist extremists inside the military.

NPR has learned that about a dozen of those cases are considered serious.

INSKEEP: NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston broke this story yesterday, and this morning, she reports on why there may be so many cases.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: It all goes back to the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood. In hindsight, investigators at the FBI and the Pentagon say they should have seen it coming.

Major Nidal Hasan, the man who's accused of killing 13 soldiers as they prepared to ship out from the base to Iraq, had left them lots of clues.

SENATOR JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: The failures of both the Department of Defense and the FBI to see the signals that were so clear that Nidal Hasan was radicalizing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has led hearings investigating the shooting. He says Major Hasan should have been recognized as a violent Islamist.

LIEBERMAN: He gave lectures in which he essentially was presenting favorably violent Islamist extremism, and yet nobody said, hey, let's take a close look at this guy. He may really do some damage.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Senator Lieberman was a co-chairman of a House and Senate hearing last December. During a session of that hearing that was closed to the public, the FBI revealed the scope of its efforts to prevent another Fort Hood. In that closed hearing, the FBI catalogued all the cases it had opened that involved what they called an insider threat in the military. And the total came to more than a hundred. They include everything from active personnel, to family members, to contractors. A dozen of these cases were serious enough to warrant a formal investigation.

The FBI wouldn't confirm the numbers to NPR or say how many Islamic extremist cases linked to the military are open today. But three sources familiar with the FBI's tally confirmed the numbers to NPR.

In the six months since, officials continue to try to understand what the number of cases means. Is there in an increase in violent Islamists in the military community, or is the FBI being overly vigilant after being criticized for missing the clues in the Fort Hood case?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: The question is, you know, what steps are undertaken in the military to even prevent this type of radicalization?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: And to counter the types of overtures or entreaties or solicitations that some of our service personnel may be susceptible to from those who wish us harm.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So for Hoffman, there's a different challenge: preventing radicalization in the first place. Terrorism experts suggest that the U.S. military is a target for groups like al-Qaida, and that makes its bases and installations vulnerable to insider attacks.

So, since Fort Hood, the military has tried to train its members to recognize how violent extremism differs from the peaceful practice of Islam. It has instituted a kind of If You See Something, Say Something program that's meant to encourage soldiers to speak up. That could explain the number of investigations. But it doesn't get to Hoffman's fundamental issue of how to prevent members of the military community from radicalizing in the first place.

Consider the case of an AWOL Muslim soldier named Naser Abdo. Just last month, he was convicted of plotting to attack a restaurant near Fort Hood. He had chosen it as a target, because soldiers from the base took their families there to eat. Senator Lieberman says Abdo took his cues from Hasan.

LIEBERMAN: When Abdo was being led out of a courtroom during a pre-trial hearing, he shouted out the name of Nidal Hasan and the words Fort Hood 2009.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The number of people who may embrace radical Islam is very small fraction of the entire military community. But Senator Lieberman says that's beside the point. One is enough to kill a lot of people.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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