FBI investigating more than 100 suspected Islamic extremists within the U.S. military

The FBI and Department of Defense call these cases ‘insider threats.’ They include not just active and reserve military personnel but also individuals who have access to military facilities such as contractors and close family members with dependent ID cards.

NPR  Officials define that as a case requiring a formal investigation to gather information against suspects who appear to have demonstrated a strong intent to attack military targets. This is the first time the figures have been publicly disclosed.

Officials would not provide details about the cases and the FBI would not confirm the numbers, but they did say that cases seen as serious could include, among others things, suspects who seem to be planning an attack or were in touch with “dangerous individuals” who were goading them to attack.

The FBI and Department of Defense call these cases “insider threats.” They include not just active and reserve military personnel but also individuals who have access to military facilities such as contractors and close family members with dependent ID cards. Cases seen as serious could include, among others things, suspects who seem to be planning an attack or were in touch with “dangerous individuals” who were goading them to attack.

“I was surprised and struck by the numbers; they were larger than I expected,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut and chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, told NPR. “The reality is it only took one man, Nidal Hasan, to kill 13 people at Fort Hood and injure a lot more,” Lieberman said.

Hasan was an Army major at Fort Hood in Texas who is charged with opening fire on soldiers in the base’s processing center in November 2009. The rampage is considered the most serious terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks.

MAJOR NIDAL HASAN

Prosecutors say Hasan had been in touch with an American-born radical imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, to ask for spiritual guidance ahead of the shooting; and Awlaki is said to have blessed it. Awlaki was killed in a drone attack in Yemen last year. Investigators also say Hasan had been displaying signs of increasing radicalization before the shooting took place, but the behavior had not been properly reported. Hasan’s court-martial is set to begin on Aug. 20, and he faces the death penalty.

The FBI compiled its tally of Islamic extremist cases in the military late last year for a joint hearing that Lieberman co-chaired. The hearing was looking at possible threats to military communities inside the United States, and the number of cases was revealed at that time. The FBI typically divides investigations into three categories: assessment, preliminary investigations, and then full investigations in which agents have enough evidence to justify using all the investigative tools at their disposal. As of last December, there were a dozen cases in that last category.

“This number speaks not only to the reality that there is a problem of violent Islamic extremists in the military, but also that the Department of Defense and the FBI since the Nidal Hassan case are working much more closely together,” said Lieberman. But the Fort Hood shooting inspired new reporting procedures aimed at catching plots before they unfold. Since 2001, law enforcement officials have foiled and prosecuted more than 30 plots or attacks against military targets within the United States.

Just last month, an AWOL Muslim soldier named Naser Jason Abdo was convicted of plotting to attack Fort Hood. Officers found components for an explosive device in Abdo’s hotel room not far from the base. 

NASER JASON ABDO

Officials say for many aspiring violent jihadis a military base is seen as fair game for an attack. Al-Qaida’s narrative revolves around the idea that America is at war with Islam the world over, and the perception is that the U.S. military is at the forefront of that battle.

Counterterrorism officials say that for many freshly minted jihadists, a military target is an easier choice than targeting a shopping mall or other soft civilian targets — precisely because it is seen as part and parcel of the battle. 

“After the Fort Hood shooting, having just one serious case, much less having a dozen, is cause for concern,” says Bruce Hoffman, a professor and counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University and a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center. You have to think about how people in the military community aren’t just your run-of-the-mill jihadis,” Hoffman says. “These are people who have access to guns and to bases and are supposed to have security clearances. This is not the community you want to be radicalizing.”