Monday, September 22, 2003

Almost exactly six months ago, at the start of the liberation of Iraq, this column warned that a “fragging” incident at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom “could be the precursor for a far larger and more dangerous problem, both for the military and for American society more generally. Call it the ‘Fifth Column syndrome.’ ”

This ominous forecast was prompted by a disturbing possibility: Sgt. Asan Akbar, the alleged perpetrator of a lethal grenade attack on his superiors who commanded the 101st Airborne on the eve of the unit’s “jump off” into Iraq, “could have gotten murderous ideas about America, its armed forces and the Muslim world from a chaplain in the U.S. military.”

The column went on to note that, “As of June 2002, nine of the armed forces’ 14 Muslim chaplains received their religious training from [a] Saudi-supported entity, the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS) in Leesburg, Va. In March of that year, the multiagency Operation Greenquest raided the offices of GSISS, along with 23 other Muslim organizations. Agents also raided the homes of Iqbal Unus, the dean of students at GSISS, and Taha Al-Alwani, the school’s president.

According to search warrants issued at the time, these groups were raided for “potential money laundering and tax evasion activities and their ties to terrorist groups such as … al Qaeda as well as individual terrorists … (including) Osama bin Laden.”

These troubling facts have, regrettably, just been called to mind once again. This week, the Army arrested one of its Muslim chaplains, Capt. James Yee, charging him with five offenses: sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order. According to The Washington Times, it “may also charge him later with the more serious charge of treason, which under the Uniform Code of Military Justice could be punished by a maximum sentence of life” in prison.

At this writing, it is not clear whether Capt. Yee was one of those recruited, trained and certified by the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences. What is known about him, however, according to a profile in the New York Times shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks is that, at the time he was “the newest Muslim chaplain … , a Chinese-American and a West Point graduate who was born into a Lutheran family, took an interest in Islam in college and deepened his convictions while stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., where he was studying vehicle maintenance during the month of Ramadan alongside four visiting Egyptian army officers. In a telephone interview, Chaplain Yee said he left the military to attend a traditional Islamic school in Damascus, Syria, where he spent four years studying Arabic and religion. He is serving with the 29th Signal Battalion at Fort Lewis, Wash.”

The article went on to quote Chaplain Yee as saying that, “Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some of the 80 Muslims on his base have come to him with concerns about being deployed to fight Muslims overseas. He said he tells them, ‘An act of terrorism, the taking of innocent civilian lives is prohibited by Islam, and whoever has done this needs to be brought to justice, whether he is Muslim or not.’ ” If true, this would be commendable and helpful to the war effort.

Unfortunately, subsequent to that interview, Capt. Yee was assigned to minister to al Qaeda, Taliban and other enemy combatants incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to press accounts, he is suspected of performing while there a very different service for his co-religionists. When he was arrested, he was reportedly carrying classified documents, including diagrams of the facilities in which the prisoners are being held. He may also have been facilitating communications between the detainees and perhaps fellow terrorists still at large in ways that could undermine U.S. efforts to interrogate the former and counter the latter.

One can only hope the surveillance that resulted in Capt. Yee’s arrest is part of a wider effort to ensure chaplains ministering to Muslims in the U.S. military are promoting the sorts of moderate, pro-American views he purportedly held in 2001, rather than the sort of radical, intolerant and jihadist views of the so-called “Islamists.” Otherwise, the danger is very real that serving members of the armed forces could be subjected to ominous proselytizing intended to give rise to clandestine Fifth Column activities in this country and a whole new front in the War on Terror.

These sorts of concerns prompted two of the nation’s legislators who are most knowledgeable about Islamist penetration and influence operations in the United States — Sens. Charles Schumer, New York Democrat, and Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, to call in recent months for just such an assessment by the Pentagon. To date, their appeals for action by the Office of the Secretary of Defense appear to have gone unanswered. If that situation was undesirable before the arrest of Chaplain Yee, it is wholly unacceptable in its aftermath.

Muslims in uniform have a potentially important contribution to make to the national security, just as their civilian counterparts can contribute greatly to the commonweal. We cannot, however, allow Islamists among them to use our guarantees of religious freedom — or, for that matter, other civil liberties — to destroy the U.S. military and governmental institutions established more than two centuries ago to promote and safeguard those liberties, and the millions of Americans of all faiths who hold them dear.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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