On Tuesday, I was a panelist at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on “Willful Blindness: Consequences of Agency Efforts to Deemphasize Radical Islam in Combating Terrorism.”
The hearing was held by the Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts,” chaired by Senator Ted Cruz (R. Tex.). I was one of six panelists. Video of the hearing, which lasted about three hours, is available on the Judiciary Committee website (here). The written testimony I submitted prior to the hearing is (here).
I was also asked to make an opening statement. Below is the prepared version of that statement (which I had to edit down a bit for purposes of time while delivering it at the hearing).
Chairman Cruz, members of the committee, my name is Andrew C. McCarthy. For over eighteen years, I was a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, retiring from the Justice Department in 2003 as the chief assistant United States attorney in charge of the Southern District’s satellite office.
I worked on terrorism investigations and trials in various capacities following the jihadist bombing of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993, and continuing through the end of my Justice Department tenure. This included several weeks helping supervise our command post near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the jihadist atrocities of September 11, 2001, in which nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by al-Qaeda jihadists in the worst domestic attack by a foreign enemy in American history.
From 1993 through early 1996, I led the investigation and successful prosecution of the jihadist cell that carried out the World Trade Center bombing and subsequently plotted an even more ambitious attack: simultaneous bombings of various New York City landmarks. In October 1995, after a nine-month trial, all defendants were convicted of various offenses, principally including seditious conspiracy to wage a war of urban terrorism against the United States.
In light of our discussion about radical Islam this afternoon, it is worth noting that our case taught me there are very much two sides to this story. The first Muslims I encountered in our case were not terrorists. They were Muslims seized with American patriotism who helped us infiltrate and disrupt the jihadist cell led by Omar Abdel Rahman, better known as “the Blind Sheikh.”
Following my retirement from the Justice Department, I worked on a bipartisan task force of former government officials in connection with an effort to assist Congress in assessing amendments to the October 2001 USA PATRIOT Act. I also served for several months as a consultant to the deputy secretary of Defense, during the time when the Defense Department was both cooperating with the 9/11 Commission and attempting to structure a military justice system tailored to the detention and trial of alien enemy combatants.
Consequently, I have had the opportunity to participate “on the front lines,” as it were, of our government’s initial responses to the enemy’s declaration of jihadist war against the United States (which, in effect, is what the 1993 WTC bombing was): as well as in our transformation from a pre-9/11 law-enforcement-centric counterterrorism approach to a post 9/11 war-footing, with critical law-enforcement and domestic-intelligence support missions.
I remain convinced that this war-footing strategy is the only sensible counterterrorism paradigm for our current threat environment — very much including its prevention-first counterterrorism mindset, relying on intelligence-driven policing — as opposed to the pre-9/11 emphasis on prosecution that sees terrorism as a criminal-justice matter mainly to be addressed by investigations after attacks have occurred.
In my second career as a writer, I penned an account of my afore-described experiences in 2008, entitled Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad. Obviously, the title is a double entendre: My principal defendant, Omar Abdel Rahman, is a blind and willful exponent of sharia-supremacist ideology; our government’s response to the threat he represents has been, and continues to be, willfully blind to this ideology – the belief system that catalyzes the threat against us.
To grasp this dangerous phenomenon, we need only consider Sheikh Abdel Rahman.
After the World Trade Center bombing, our government represented to the American people, just as it does after every jihadist mass-murder today, that the terrorist attack executed by Muslims in express reliance on Islamic scripture was a wanton act, unrepresentative of any mainstream of Islamic thought.
Now, put aside for a moment that sane people — and our jihadist defendants were surely sane — do not commit mass-murder attacks for no reason. Common sense tells us that there has to be a good reason that motivates them in a powerful way, overcoming basic humanitarian instincts.
Let us instead focus on Omar Abdel Rahman. He was not merely blind. He was beset by several other medical handicaps. Terrorism is hard work. Yet, here was a man who seemed utterly incapable of doing anything that would be useful to a terrorist organization: he couldn’t build a bomb, hijack a plane, or carry out an assassination.
Still, he was the unquestioned leader of terror cells and revered by jihadists across the globe. How could that be?
The answer is straightforward, though it plainly remains one we do not want to hear.
The Blind Sheikh is a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence graduated from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning for over a millennium. His area of expertise is sharia — Islam’s legal code and societal framework.
The jihadists who listened to him did so because he is an internationally recognized authority in the political ideology that draws on Islamic scripture to inspire attacks against the West.
The centrality of ideology tells us why terrorists obeyed the Blind Sheikh. It tells us why terrorists act. This is something we must grasp if we have any hope of defending ourselves and defeating our enemies.
Yet, instead of focusing on this ideology, we have wasted much of the last two decades on a fool’s errand: attempting to define a “true Islam,” in the futile hope of discrediting terrorists as purveyors of a false Islam.
The stubborn fact is that there may not be a “true Islam.” Islam has a rich and diverse history, and there are various interpretations of it, all vying for the mantle of “true Islam” and denying it to one another. Innumerable factions of Muslims have been debating one another, often violently fighting amongst each other, for fourteen centuries. They have not settled the question, “What is the true Islam?”
The United States is not going to settle it, either.
From a humanitarian standpoint, we have to hope courageous reformers prevail – devout Muslims like my co-panelist here this afternoon, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser. We should do what we can to help them, including marginalizing – instead of taking our cues from – sharia-supremacist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
But from the standpoint of American national security, it is irrelevant whether there is a true Islam. What matters is that there is a sharia-supremacist construction of Islam to which hundreds of millions of Muslims have adhered for centuries. They are supported by centuries of scholarship and scriptural literalism. We are not going to convince them that they are wrong.
They do not care what American politicians and commentators think about “the true Islam.” They judge themselves by their own civilization and culture principles – just as we in the West do by ours. It is absurd to believe, as what passes for today’s counterterrorism strategy maintains, that they are motivated or even affected by the language we use to speak about them, or by our stated beliefs about Islam.
Sharia supremacism, their interpretation of Islam, is not a religion as we understand religion. It is political radicalism with a religious veneer. Sharia supremacism is virulently anti-Western, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic. It rejects basic tenets of Western liberalism, including the power of people to chart their own destiny and make their own laws in contravention of sharia. It rejects individual liberty and equality. It brooks no separation between spiritual life and civil society. It endorses violent jihad to implement and spread sharia. And it regards the United States, closely trailed by Israel and Europe, as the principal enemies of Islam that must be defeated.
That is something we desperately need to understand and highlight, not obscure and avoid.
There has been a reluctance to do this. Government counterterrorism policy has been willfully blind for a quarter-century to the ideological underpinnings of radical Islamic terrorism. The reluctance has been rationalized on the wayward theory that because a person’s religious beliefs and political speech are constitutionally shielded from prosecution, they are similarly shielded from mere inquiry and investigation – notwithstanding that we know they are often precursors to violence.
A sensible national security policy cannot regard the objective presentation of evidence as if it were the promotion of hate speech.
There is nothing inherently wrong with, much less constitutionally offensive about, the concept that radical religious or political beliefs should trigger investigations. That is especially the case if those beliefs are conveyed by aggressive language, or by association with other radicals or mosques known to endorse jihadism.
Here’s an important principle we must get right:
It cannot be that evidence an investigator may use to prove guilt of terrorism offenses is somehow insulated from an investigator’s suspicions about potential terrorism offenses.
The goal of counterterrorism is supposed to be the prevention of jihadist attacks, not the hope that there may be a living terrorist or two still around to be indicted and tried only after Americans have been murdered.
In 1996, I was awarded the Justice Department’s highest honor for proving the nexus between (a) jihadist commands in Islamic scripture, (b) their exploitation by sharia jurists like the Blind Shiekh, and (c) the commission of jihadist atrocities by the young Muslims he inflamed. Today, to say aloud what the Clinton administration honored me for twenty years ago, is to be ostracized as an Islamophobic bigot.
Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, that is no way to protect our country.