Willful Blindness and Radical Islam: My Testimony

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).

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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.