FBI Tracks Possible Military 'Insider Threats'

The Pentagon and FBI have conducted more than 100 investigations into possible Islamist extremists inside the U.S. military in the wake of the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston shares the latest developments and what the military is doing to prevent radicalization within its ranks.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

In 2009, Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and injured many more at Fort Hood, Texas, in the worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. This week, NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reported that since then the Pentagon and FBI conducted more than 100 investigations into possible Islamic extremists inside the military, and that at least a dozen of those investigations are considered serious. Dina Temple-Raston joins us here on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Always good to have you with us.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Thank you. It's nice to be in Aspen.

CONAN: And if you're in uniform and you're listening today, have these investigations affected your unit? Have you been told to watch out for anything in particular? Give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. And Dina Temple-Raston, as we look at these numbers, 100 sounds like a lot.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Or it sounds like very little if you think about what the whole universe is that it's talking about. It's not just active members of the service but reservists and contractors and family members who might be able to get on a military installation. But I think what it's interesting about these numbers is that this is the first time we've actually seen the problem quantified in some way. We knew there was a problem with the potential Islamists in the military, but we never knew what the numbers were. And so the number 100 of actual inquiries and then this other more important number of 12 serious cases, that's what's new about this.

CONAN: And does that number 12 include the serious case of a man who'd been AWOL who was, again, going back apparently or allegedly to try to kill people at Fort Hood?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now, see, that's a completely - that's a terrific question, one that I asked that I didn't get an answer to. His name was Abdo, and he was an AWOL very young kid from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, who drove to Texas and wanted to blow up a restaurant in Fort Hood. And what's unclear is whether or not they already had a bead on this young man, because my understanding is the way that they zeroed in that he was going to do something is that he happened to go to the exact same store and the exact same clerk who had sold ammunition and explosives to Nidal Hasan in 2009.

And so when he asked for all of these things, the clerk was quite alerted and immediately called the FBI. Now, whether the FBI already knew about him or whether or not the clerk tipped them off, I haven't been able to get a clear answer on.

CONAN: But another link to the Hasan case too.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Another link to the Hasan case. As he walked out of one of his preliminary hearings, he alleged - or he said Nidal Hasan, Fort Hood 2009. So clearly he was inspired.

CONAN: And that leads to the question of how people are getting inspired in the first place. In Major Hasan's case, there was thought to be a link to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric then in Yemen with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who has since been killed.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Killed by a drone attack last year - a U.S. drone attack. And what's interesting about this is that Nidal Hasan was the first sort of instance that they knew of, of someone who was radicalized in this way on the Internet and then who struck out. And what we don't know about these numbers is, are the numbers as high as they are, because now, post-Nidal Hasan, you have many more service members who are speaking up, not being quite so politically correct, or that you have a heightened alert on the FBI's part and the Department of Defense's part. So something that might have been given short shrift in the past now is considered a real threat.

CONAN: As you reported, though, the FBI and the Pentagon looking back said we should have seen Hasan coming.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. And certainly investigations into what happened with Fort Hood saw that. I mean there were in all 16 emails between Anwar al-Awlaki and Nidal Hasan, and that's a lot of emails. And they - the Department of Defense and the FBI didn't share information on that.

CONAN: And there was also an aspect that many of his superiors thought that he was a troubled case, to put it mildly, but sort of shuffled him from base to base - we don't want this problem.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. That's exactly the problem. And that one is - has so many red flags that it almost implies that you need that many red flags to have this kind of issue. I think what they're saying now is that the threshold is much lower for them to be worried.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in uniform today. How are these investigations affecting your unit? And are you being asked to be on the lookout for anything in particular? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Bobby. Bobby's on the line with us from Parris Island in the Carolinas - the Marine base there, I assume.

BOBBY: That's correct. Hi. How are you? I'm glad ya'll are talking about this. What I've seen is, yes, we're asked to be vigilant. We're always asked to be vigilant. But I think that, generally, among the senior officer staff, there's almost a little bit more of a sense of relief that this is being looked at. In recent - probably in the last two or three years, there's been an extreme fear of backlash of saying anything that might be perceived as anti-Islamic, especially among the more career soldiers. So I think it's a good thing. I think it's going to have a positive influence on the military.

CONAN: So the feeling that you are sort of betwixt and between if you reported something, you might be seen as anti-Islamic. Of course, if you missed something important, well, it could cost people their lives.

BOBBY: Well, yes. And, of course, if you saw something that was - that really was egregious, you were going to report it. But to the extent where you might have some kind of nagging suspicion, you've been bombarded with sensitivity training to the point that you don't, you know, you don't want to look insensitive, I guess.

CONAN: Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. I had a question for you. Have you actually been given specific training to know the difference between sort of tell-tale signs of something that is beyond just the peaceful practice of Islam?

BOBBY: You know, not tailored to that. We've been given a lot of training on what to look for when it come to indigenous terrorism or something along those lines. But, I mean, we all have deployed plenty of times. We all get extensive training on cultural sensitivity and the different things in the Islam religion, but as it pertains to soldiers or Marines in uniform, no. But there - perceived or not, there is a sensitivity of - if you have a number of Islamic Marine, which is particular rare, you really don't want to be digging too much into that because you're perceived as racist or, you know, anti-Islamic, I guess.

CONAN: But might that not also affect morale, if the feeling that someone's under suspicion merely because they're Islamic?

BOBBY: Most certainly, it could. So it has to be handled. I just think there's a balance, and we might have gone too far one side of the pendulum. We just need to make sure we don't swing to the far side.

CONAN: Well, Bobby, thanks very much for the phone call. Good luck to you.

BOBBY: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And that's a situation, I think, that a lot of people in the military are going to find themselves in, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this is what happened with Nidal Hasan's case, is that the people in the military who kept passing him along the line, they were worried that they would look anti-Islamic. And so they basically passed the problem on to somebody else, and it turned out to be an enormous problem when he finally blew up and allegedly shot these 13 people. He is supposed to go to a court martial next month.

CONAN: He allegedly shot these 13 people. So this case has been dragging through. Military trials do not proceed quickly.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They don't. And this one in particular has all kinds of small details going into it because there's a lot of classified information involved, and his back-and-forth with al-Awlaki has clearly sort of complicated the case.

You know, he was in the news last week because he was supposed to go to a hearing, and he now has grown a full beard to - in the words of his lawyer - show how Islamic he is. And so he's not allowed to actually show up into the hearing room. He's on closed-circuit camera until he shaves.

CONAN: Because he's a - still a U.S. military officer, and this would be being out of uniform.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly.

CONAN: All right. In the meantime, you said that number, 100, given the universe of people who might be affected is, well, tiny, I guess. Nevertheless, you quoted Senator Joseph Lieberman as saying a dozen serious investigations, given the damage that Major Hasan did. That's a pretty big number, and it's pretty scary.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. I asked him about this. He's the - he was the chairman of this House and Senate committee that actually revealed these numbers in a closed, classified session back in December. And this is the first time the numbers have come out, that we have them. And Senator Lieberman said that he was actually shocked by the number. He thought it was a big number because of the amount of damage that just one of these shooters can do.

CONAN: So what is the military doing to try to prevent radicalization in the first place?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's the big question, and that's a question that we asked in our story, is: How do you catch this before it gets to a Nidal Hasan point, or before it gets to the point where the FBI needs to open 12 serious investigations? And what this might be, if we have 12 serious investigations, is that whatever they're trying to do to blunt this radicalization isn't working, because 12 serious cases is a lot.

CONAN: There's an interesting point you raised earlier. You mentioned the court martial of Major Hasan. That is moving like lightning compared to legal proceedings against the people charged in the 9/11 case itself, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who's being held at Guantanamo Bay.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right. I was there actually a month or so ago for his arraignment, and he was there with four other codefendants of the 9/11 case. And the arraignment itself - I mean, arraignments can take, in a regular court, maybe 10 minutes. An arraignment that's slightly more complicated, maybe a couple of hours. The arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed down at Guantanamo took 13 hours.

(LAUGHTER)

TEMPLE-RASTON: And he didn't - well, it was less fun being the courtroom for 13 hours, but he didn't even enter a plea. So that gives you an idea of what we have ahead.

CONAN: And as his case proceeds, what can we look forward to?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he was supposed to, actually, have a hearing in July, or in June, and they've postponed that until August 8th. I think we'll see more antics. I mean, I think that they are - the want to go through the system because they want to put the United States on trial. They want people to know Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was tortured. The CIA has admitted that he was waterboarded, among other things, and he wants that to get out. And the question will be whether or not they classify that so it won't happen.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, who's here with us at the Aspen Ideas Festival. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And, Dina, just to step back a little bit, yes, the Hasan shooting at Fort Hood, the worst terrorist incident since 9/11. In that span of time, though, are the people you talked to surprised that there has not been more that we've had to deal with? Or are they surprised that even that much has happened?

No, I wouldn't say they're surprised. I would use the word relieved. You know, there have been some real, bona fide plots between even 2009 and now. For example, just a - less than a month ago, we had a plot that was foiled by British intelligence and Saudi intelligence.

There was a double agent who had - or an agent, depending on how you counted double - but an agent who had infiltrated al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the most active franchise of al-Qaida, and he infiltrated them. He got their latest technology underwear bomb - which, instead of being in big Yemeni underwear, it's actually in small briefs, so they're harder to see, and had a different firing mechanism, with no metal in it whatsoever. And he handed it off to - eventually it got to the FBI, and they're analyzing the bomb now at the FBI lab in Quantico.

That could have been a really scary and bad plot. And even the Detroit bomber, the underwear bomber, who was earlier than that...

CONAN: Abdulmutallab, yes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah, Abdulmutallab. The year right now is just escaping me - 2009, as well, wasn't it?

CONAN: I think so. Christmas 2009.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Christmas 2009. You know, he could have been a terrible terrorist attack. And really, if that bomb had not malfunctioned, which it did in some way - and to this day, bomb makers that I've talked to say it should have gone off. They don't know what went wrong. There might have been some error in the explosive. That's all they can attribute it to. That would have been a terrible terrorist attack. So I think that's why I would say that they're not surprised. I think they're relieved that they've been able to interdict in time.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is Mike, and Mike's on the line with us from Darien in Connecticut.

MIKE: Hi. Good afternoon. Thanks for taking the call. I just wanted to ask, is, you know, I haven't heard any discussion or thoughts on whether there may be a broader conspiracy of - or some type of organized cells within our military that there - shows there's some connection between the Nidal and the other gentleman. How seriously are they looking at that potential element?

CONAN: We hear reports that various criminal gangs of some sort or another have organizations within the U.S. military. What about this, Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, I haven't heard anything like that. It's interesting, because when I go out and talk to people, one of the questions I normally get is: How many sleeper cells are there in America? And I think many people think there are many of them, and I'm not sure there are any. And in the same way, I think that what they're seeing in the military right now and these 12 cases, they won't provide details because these are open cases that they're investigating. But I haven't heard hide nor hair of an indication that this is some great conspiracy. These are individual people who get online, who may be in the process of radicalizing.

MIKE: So we (technical difficulties) understand the way their network operates. They seem to be very patient, and they have to be very cunning to be able to hide their activities. So I would think there should be a very serious, at least discussion, about - and I understand, maybe there are no sleeper cells, but this is a different type of war, a different type of enemy. And that would be the ultimate thing to ignore. That will be a Maginot-line type of failure.

CONAN: It would be an enormous failure of intelligence, an enormous failure to think outside the box and exactly the kind of situation that presented itself before 9/11 when nobody thought that sort of thing might happen. Mike, thanks very much for the phone call.

But as he suggested and as we heard in some of the material recovered from Osama bin Laden's house in Pakistan after the raid in which he was killed, there's still a great deal of interest in spectaculars and symbolic movements, that bomb that was interrupted - Christmas Day bombing. As we look ahead, the next likely event would seem to be the London Olympics.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Indeed. And there are - and it's interesting, because just yesterday, the head of MI5 - which is sort of the U.K. CIA, I guess I would say, or...

CONAN: FBI.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ...FBI. He came out and started talking about terrorism and how he'd use it. This is the first time he has come out and given a public speech since 2010. And one of the interesting things I took out of the speech, the most interesting number was he used to spend about 75 percent of his time worrying about or opening cases on al-Qaida's core operation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, along the border there. He said now, that requires about 40 percent of his time. But the interesting thing is that, now, the threat is much more diffuse. Now the threat goes to Yemen, to North Africa, possibly it seems to be coming up in Nigeria. And that makes it much harder to fight.

CONAN: Not to mention to Birmingham.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And not - in particular, Birmingham, yes.

CONAN: The one in England, not the one in Alabama. Dina Temple-Raston, thanks so much, very much for your time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

CONAN: NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, with us here in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Jerome at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court weighs in on the president's health care law. We'll talk about the decision and what it will mean for you. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Aspen.

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