WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., said Thursday the U.S. and its allies throughout the world must remain “engaged, strong, adaptive, and forever united” in response to the continued threat of violent Islamist extremism, in a speech marking the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Unfortunately, the Administration’s strategy to address the current threat of homegrown terrorism was “a big disappointment,” Lieberman said, because it failed to properly identify the enemy, no one has been put in charge of the task, and there is no budget for the job.
Following is a copy of the speech, which the Senator delivered at the National Press Club as part of the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism:
Thank you very much Gary. Thank you for that welcome. Every time someone says it about needing no introduction, I remember being here at a gathering a few years ago when Henry Kissinger was the keynote speaker and the moderator said, “Henry Kissinger is really a man who needs no introduction, so I give you Dr. Kissinger.” And Kissinger got up and said, “You know, I suppose it’s true that I don’t need an introduction, but I like a good introduction.” So I appreciate that introduction.
Good Afternoon. Let me thank you Gary. Let me thank the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, and the University of Maryland. In less than two weeks, the United States will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on our homeland in our history. This anniversary will stimulate quite a round of reflection on where we have come in the past decade and where we are going. Whether we’re safer or not. Whether we’ve done well, or not, in responding to the attacks of 9/11. For me, this is the first of several occasions that I will have to reflect on these questions and I thank you very much for giving me that opportunity.
We’re at a moment, here at home, where the American people are understandably focused on the economic problems we are facing rather than the threat of terrorism to our homeland security. The fact that terrorism has receded from the forefront of our national consciousness is a reflection not just of the failures of our economy, but I think of the successes of our counterterrorism policies over the past decade.
We have not had another major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. And 10 years ago, no one would have dared to predict that with any confidence. Unfortunately, our success in keeping our homeland safe has prompted some to question the seriousness of both the original threat and the continuing dangers. It has become fashionable in some quarters to characterize the past decade as a period in which America mistakenly exaggerated the danger imposed by Islamist extremism and terrorism and overreacted in the wake of 9/11. This view, in my judgment, is profoundly mistaken. If this view is embraced, it would lead to a false and dangerous roadmap to our future.
The American government’s response to the attacks of 9/11, and to the broader ideological challenge those attacks represented to our country, has been absolutely necessary and correct. First and foremost, we were right to recognize that after 9/11, we became a nation at war – in a conflict that was and is real, brutal, and global with the forces of Islamist extremism who attacked us. We have also been absolutely right to put this conflict at the top of our national security agenda, where I believe it continues to belong for the foreseeable future, because the enemy has been weakened in the past decade, but clearly not vanquished.
The threat Islamists pose to us and our allies throughout the world, most particularly the Muslim world, is absolutely real. Had we not acted in the way we did for the past ten years, it’s very likely that we would not enjoy the luxury today of debating whether we overreacted to the threat. Our enemies would’ve taken advantage of our lack of resolve and I fear many more Americans would have become their victims.
The fact that we have gone a decade without another mass casualty attack in the United States has not been because our enemies have stopped trying to attack us. Our homeland security has been hard won and fiercely fought. It’s the result of the determination and focus of leaders across two administrations and six congresses to enact and implement reforms and reorganizations within our government. It’s the result of painstaking, and often dangerous, work by countless heroic individuals. Soldiers, diplomats, intelligence operatives, and law enforcement personnel, to name some, are operating at home and on almost every continent. And what’s different, as compared to pre-9/11, is that they’re coordinating their operations with one another.
As a result, we have made tremendous gains against the forces of Islamist extremism that attacked us and our allies around the world. I believe, without doubt, that we’re much safer today than we were ten years ago. At the same time, we’ve made these dramatic and effective improvements in our homeland security. We have also prosecuted the war against Islamist terrorists abroad with a determination, ferocity, and ingenuity that our enemies did not expect: From un-manned aerial drones to the unprecedented fusion of intelligence and military operations to a brilliant new counter-insurgency doctrine that blended civilian and military initiatives.
The United States over the past has built and unleashed the most capable counterterrorism forces in human history against the most significant terrorism threat in history. We showed that our best in the world military could dominate on a very different and unconventional battlefield. The clear result is that our attackers have failed to achieve their goals.
Al-Qaida’s senior leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan has been decimated. It’s affiliate in Iraq, which came dangerously close to seizing control of that country has been gutted. And of course, Al-Qaida’s founder and architect of the 9/11 attacks is no more – justice having been delivered to Osama Bin Laden by courageous American hands. More fundamentally, our country grasps the basic nature of this conflict.
Rather than seeing it as a clash of civilizations, a battle between Islam and the West, as Al-Qaida has sought to portray it, the United States and our allies in the world have correctly seen the war as an ideological struggle: A struggle between a violent extremist minority that seeks to dominate a large part of the world and eliminate the freedoms of people and a moderate majority of Muslims who want the same freedoms and opportunities that we all desire.
The clearly stated goal of the violent Islamist extremists has been to establish a caliphate, an empire, within the Arab and Muslim world that would overthrow existing governments there. It may seem fantastical to us, but that is quite clearly what their goal has been.
We also correctly diagnosed, early on, that the political ideology of Islamist extremism was being bred in part by the freedom deficit in the broader Middle East, by the corrupt and autocratic governments that gave no outlet to their people for legitimate grievances, let alone granting the human rights and economic opportunity. Now, throughout the Middle East, we see the narrative of the violent Islamist extremism being rejected by tens of millions of Muslims who are rising up and peacefully demanding lives of democracy, dignity, opportunity in the economy, and involvement in the modern world. Indeed, the rallying cry of the Arab Spring and its successes thus far are the ultimate repudiations of Al-Qaida and everything Islamist extremism stands for. I hope that our willingness to stand up to violent, extremist, repressive Islamism in the name of human rights may have given the people of the Arab world the courage and principle that they have remarkably shown in the last several months.
Did we make mistakes over the past decade in prosecuting the war against violent Islamist extremism? Of course we did. Just as every nation, including ours, has made mistakes in every war that they, and we, have fought. Yet looking back at our actions over these ten years, it’s crystal clear to me that we have gotten a lot more right than wrong. We’re better off and safer as a result of it, and so is the rest of the world.
Looking ahead, I think we have to acknowledge some unsettling facts. In protecting our homeland, we have sometimes benefitted from just plain luck. Had Faisal Shahzad wired his car bomb correctly and detonated it in Times Square last year; or had Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab succeeded on Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day over Detroit the year before that, the history of homeland security during the past decade would’ve looked very different than thankfully it does today. This is the challenge we face in a country as open, big, and free as ours is. It’s difficult to be 100 percent secure, and those two strokes of luck remind us of that. And while Al-Qaida is down, they and their ilk are certainly not out. Currently geo-political realities do not justify claims of victory or a sense of closure and complacency.
In addition to the continuing threats from abroad – from places like Somalia and Yemen and Pakistan and of course Iran, which remains the number one state sponsor of Islamist terrorism, and just about on every continent of the world, most notably in recent times to watch the spread of Islamist extremism in Africa is evidenced tragically by the bomb explosion at the U.N. building last week — current political realities really remind us that this war is not over. In addition to those threats from abroad, we also face a new and ominous threat at home from so-called homegrown terrorists, often so-called “lone wolf” terrorists. I know that that has been one of the topics that you have focused on at this event today. It’s most important to note that the two Islamist attacks in which Americans have been killed inside America since 9/11 were both carried out by radicalized Muslim-Americans. One, [Nidal] Hassan at Fort Hood, the other [Abdulhakim] Bledsoe in Little Rock. Most people don’t remember Bledsoe, but he was a convert to Islam, who spent some time abroad, and got up one day, and walked into an army recruiting office in Little Rock to shoot and kill an Army recruiter just because he was wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army.
The Congressional Research Service has reported that between May of 2009 and July of 2011, 31 arrests were made in connection with homegrown plots by American citizens or legal permanent residents of the United States. Many who had direct contact with Al-Qaida or other violent Islamist groups in Yemen, Pakistan, or elsewhere. By comparison, in the more than seven years before that from September 11th, 2001 through May 2009, there were 21 such plots.
I think one of the major reasons we’re seeing this increase in homegrown American terrorism is because our enemies know how much we have raised and broadened our guard, our homeland defenses, against attacks like 9/11 from inside our country. So, they are trying to use the internet and other means to circumvent our strong homeland defenses. That’s why homeland violent Islamist terrorism is a real and growing threat to America. And why it demands a very strong and methodical response.
In that regard, the Obama Administration recently released a new strategy that seeks to address this homegrown threat, but to me, the report, which is entitled, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” was ultimately a big disappointment. The thrust of the report and the strategy the administration announced in it is that we need to engage domestically in the war of ideas against the Islamists and recognize that the terrorist threat is not just coming across our borders, but that there are Americans who are subject to radicalization and attacking our homeland. That, of course, I agree with. That is true.
The administration’s plan, however, for dealing with that reality suffers from several significant weaknesses. The first is that the administration still refuses to call our enemy in this war by its proper name, violent Islamist extremism. We can find names that are comparable to that, but not the one that the administration continues to use which are “violent extremism.” It is not just violent extremism. There are many forms of violent extremism. There’s white racist extremism, there’s been some eco-extremism, there’s been animal rights extremism. You can go on and on and on. There’s skinhead extremism, but we’re not in a global war with those.
We’re in a global war that affects our homeland security with Islamist extremists. To call our enemy violent extremism is so general and vague that it ultimately has no meaning. The other term used sometimes is Al-Qaida and its allies. Now, that’s better, but it still is too narrow. It focuses us on groups as opposed to an ideology, which is what we’re really fighting.
I assume this refusal of the administration to speak honestly about the enemy is based on its desire not to do anything that might feed into Al-Qaida’s propaganda that we’re engaged in a “war” against Islam. That is so self-evidently a lie that we can and have reputed it. I think that we have done so effectively.
I was quite struck by the recent PEW poll of opinion on this in the Muslim world – that they want to separate themselves from Islamist extremism because that’s not who they are. In fact, in the poll of Muslim-Americans, more than half felt the leaders of their own community were not doing enough to attack, criticize, and distinguish between them and Muslim extremists.
To me, that poll is an expression of a reality that I have seen very clearly in my own interactions with the Muslim-American community, which is extremely law abiding, patriotic, and non-violent. The problem is that when you’re dealing with an unconventional and brutal enemy it takes a very small number of people to do very great harm. So the numbers are significant to us.
In fact, our most important allies in this war are the overwhelming majority of Muslims in communities around the world who want the same basic things that people everywhere want: a life of freedom, a life of opportunity for prosperity, a chance to raise their children in safety and give them all the opportunities for a better future that they deserve. Exactly the opposite of what the violent Islamist extremists offer them, and the Arab uprisings this year are the best proof that the Muslim majority in the world understands that.
To win this struggle, it is vital to understand that we’re not just fighting an organization Al-Qaida, but we are up against a broader ideology, a politicized theology, quite separate from the religion of Islam that has fueled this war. Success in the war will come consequently not when a single terrorist group or its affiliates are eliminated, but when broader set of ideas associated with it are rejected and discarded. The reluctance to identify our enemy as violent Islamist extremism makes it harder to mobilize effectively to fight this war of ideas.
Let me give you an example from our Senate Homeland Security Committee’s investigations into the murders at Fort Hood. There was clear evidence that Maj. Hassan’s fellow soldiers were very concerned with his increasing public identification with and statements about violent Islamist ideology. At one point, for instance, he stated that a Muslim-American would be justified in killing his comrades in defense of Islam. But rather than reporting that immediately, they kept quiet, and Maj. Hassan was actually promoted after making statements like that.
How could that have happened? Maybe some were ignorance of the whole reality of Islamist radicalization. I think some of the rest feared making waves, in particular, making waves that would cause the people reporting Maj. Hassan as being labeled prejudiced.
To its credit, the administration’s strategy does outline a community led approach to countering homegrown extremism. With the federal government playing a significant role in fostering partnerships providing support, sharing information, and helping to build trust between local Muslim-American communities and law enforcement. I applaud that. The strategy also reaffirms a commitment to promote American ideals as a counter narrative to the bankrupt ideology of the Islamist extremists. I applaud that of course as well.
But that document never states what we were hoping for on the Committee, and beyond, which is who is in charge of these programs? It never defines what resources are needed to make them work. It doesn’t list specific actions that should be taken by specific dates to combat the clear and present danger homegrown Islamist terrorism. These, to me, are significant omissions.
There’s clearly a lot more work to do before we have from the administration the kind of clear national strategy that will make sense from the government’s point of view. Also, from the point of view from the Muslim communities that we’re trying to engage in this fight in America. I think that such a strategy also must address the role of the internet and radicalization and what we must do to counter it. The report doesn’t really do that.
The Senate Committee released a report in 2008 on this subject that showed the importance of cyberspace to the self-radicalization process. Then incidentally, terrorists communicated mostly in password-protected Islamist or Jihadist chat rooms. Today, they’ve spread out over the web and are very adept at using social media to spread propaganda, to train, and to recruit. To address this threat, we really urgently need a plan that will define how the government can work with the private sector internet companies and others to remove terrorist content as best we can from these sites, although, that’s not easy to do because of the openness of cyber space. It’s not easy to do permanently.
We also need to facilitate new partnerships between internet companies and Muslim-American communities to create positive content that counters the propaganda of the terrorists. We need a better organized national engagement with Muslim-American communities, who are our most powerful defense against homegrown terrorism because we obviously hope that within the Muslim-American communities leaders and members will be educated and community members will create an environment in which individuals who know of others who seem to be radicalizing can come forward and report them to law enforcement. This is the movement of “see something, say something”.
The Islamist extremists who explicitly declared war on us in 1998 and then brutally attacked us on 9/11/01 – these people will not surrender their fanatical ambitions. As we approach this tenth remembrance of 9/11, looking back, we have reason to be grateful. I think for all that has been done together to protect our homeland and our people and to deny the Islamist extremists the victories they have sought. It’s also clear that, though not pleasant to say, that this war goes on and will go on for quite a while. In the years ahead, we and our allies throughout the world must remain as engaged, strong, adaptive, and together united in this conflict as we have been during its first decade.
Thank you very much.