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August 26, 2010
Notes from the Pentagon

Al Qaeda-trained Americans
The FBI is working to track down several hundred American Muslims who traveled to Yemen in recent months and received training there at the hands of the al Qaeda terrorist group, according to U.S. government officials.

Intelligence reports from Yemen indicated that as many as 300 of the U.S. Islamist trainees had been given terrorist training and that many had converted to Islam while in U.S. prisons. It is not known specifically when the American al Qaeda trainees made the journey to Yemen, or — more significantly — how many of them returned to the United States, said officials familiar with U.S. counterterrorism intelligence and operations.

But the fact that so many U.S. nationals were given al Qaeda training has forced U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to redouble efforts to try and penetrate al Qaeda networks in the United States.

"We are concerned about people going to Yemen for training," said a U.S. official, who suggested the trainees traveled in small numbers and not a large group.

The officials said the reports about the training had prompted the FBI to beef up its overseas presence in Yemen and other locations in the region as part of a renewed effort to better track potential terrorists going to Yemen.

Little is known about al Qaeda's networks inside the United States despite increased FBI resources to monitor domestic terrorists.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment.

However, U.S. intelligence officials have expressed growing worries that Western-appearing Islamists will be used in future terrorist attacks because they can more easily pass through security screening than those from the Middle East or South Asia.

U.S. counterterrorism officials said al Qaeda in Yemen has emerged in recent months as the most dangerous wing of al Qaeda. The clandestine Islamist group, headed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri and once based in Afghanistan, has undergone an evolution that now puts Yemen as its main base of operations and support.

According to the officials, al Qaeda terrorists were driven out of Afghanistan beginning in 2001 and many remain in Pakistan's tribal regions.

However, large numbers of al Qaeda members moved to Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion and many were killed there by U.S. forces.

In recent years, al Qaeda began moving in significant numbers to Saudi Arabia, where they found financial and ideological supporters within the oil-rich kingdom. However, Saudi authorities launched a major crackdown on al Qaeda following the failed assassination attempt in August 2009 against Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, head of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism operations. An al Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up near the prince after getting through security by hiding the bomb and detonator in his rectum.

The crackdown drove the terrorists, known formally as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to Yemen, where today it remains one of the most dangerous Islamist terrorist groups.

Army Muslim opposes war
A private with the Army's 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., is opposing plans to deploy him to Afghanistan, claiming his Muslim beliefs prohibit him from fighting in the war.

Pfc. Nasser Abdo in June sought conscientious-objector status and wants out of the Army, Fort Campbell spokesman Rick Rzepka told Inside the Ring

"As his application is being processed, we cannot discuss specific, individual cases currently in the administrative phase, and will respect the soldier's privacy," he said, noting that plans to send him to Afghanistan were put on hold.

However, Mr. Rzepka said the Army recognizes that "even in our all-volunteer force, a soldier's moral, ethical or religious beliefs may change over time."

Pfc. Abdo will undergo a series of interviews and assessments as part of the review that could take up to six months and the review "may not result in immediate action or termination from the service," Mr. Rzepka said.

"Commanders at every level are aware of the importance of properly identifying conscientious objectors assigned to their units, and expediting their discharge or reassignment as appropriate," Mr. Rzepka said.

Mr. Rzepka said he did not know whether military commanders had security concerns about Pfc. Abdo, 20, who joined the military last year. "I'm not on the ground at the unit level, but I'm not aware of any concerns that the unit may have," he said. "The unit is doing what they need to do. He will be afforded every opportunity to make his case as a conscientious objector. As of now, his deployment has been deferred."

Friends of Pfc. Abdo have set up a website called Free Nasser Abdo that includes statements from the soldier, an infantryman. In one statement, Pfc. Abdo said that after learning he would be deployed to a war zone, "I began studying Islamic teachings about war and peace, and reflecting more deeply about the role of Islam in my life."

"I began to believe practicing my faith had to become a central pillar of my life," he stated. "As the time to deploy neared, so my concern for how God would judge my affiliation with the Army grew. I began to seek the opinions of religious scholars, …and [Koranic] verses that would help me decide if it would be permissible to serve in the U.S. Army. This was the first time I had seriously considered that being a soldier in the U.S. Army may not be permissible according to Islamic doctrine. It did not take me long to find an abundance of religious sources on the matter."

Asked why he joined the military and is now seeking to get out, Pfc. Abdo said in a telephone interview that "the main reason I am seeking conscientious-objector status is that I cannot involve myself in any war the U.S. military could conceivably participate or involve itself in." "A war has to be justifiable by Islamic standards," he said. "And this war is Islamically unjustifiable."

Documents obtained by the Associated Press, which first reported the case, quoted Pfc. Abdo in papers seeking separation from the service that "I realized through further reflection that God did not give legitimacy to the war in Afghanistan, Iraq or any war the U.S. Army would conceivably participate in." He said he was harassed and persecuted for his religious beliefs and was not allowed to pray five times a day.

Patrick Poole, a counterterrorism consultant who specializes in domestic Islamism, said the sentiment expressed by Pfc. Abdo that one cannot be a U.S. soldier and faithful Muslim at the same time is not a fringe notion within the Muslim community and has been expressed by some senior U.S. Muslim leaders.

"We shouldn't be surprised that this anti-American sentiment has trickled down into ranks when it is the military's own Islamic advisers or even Muslim chaplains in our service branches who are preaching it," Mr. Poole said.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn outlined the Pentagon's plans for a new cyber defense strategy on Wednesday and said the final strategy will be released by the end of the year.

However, the Pentagon's No. 2 official made no mention during a meeting with bloggers on whether the U.S. military will be conducting offensive cyberwarfare, a strategy that many experts think is the most effective way to defend computers and networks from cyber-attacks.

Mr. Lynn told a meeting of bloggers that the five "pillars" of the new cyber defense strategy are:

  • Recognizing cyberspace as a new domain for warfare.

  • Adopting "active defense" to extend current defenses beyond "hygiene" measures, such as anti-virus software and intrusion detection.

  • Extending protection for critical infrastructure such as power grids, banking and telecommunications networks.

  • Seeking "collective" cyber defenses with foreign countries.

  • Maintaining and exploiting U.S. technological dominance.

    "We're reflecting our judgment that we really think the front lines of national security have been redefined," Mr. Lynn said. "Any major conflict that we see going forward is going to have some element of cyberwarfare, and we need to make sure we've prepared and developed our military capabilities to sustain that."

    Critics of U.S. cybersecurity and warfare strategy say the U.S. government remains mired in legal impediments that arise from defining military, intelligence and domestic security operations.

    Marines and gays
    Gen. James T. Conway, the Marines' soon-to-retire commandant, says there is widespread opposition in the Corps to ending the ban on open gays in the ranks. He said many Marines do not want to bunk in the same room as an open homosexual, reports special correspondent Rowan Scarborough.

    But if the Democratic-run Congress and President Obama change the law, the military's most conservative-minded branch will have to adapt, Gen. Conway, who retires this fall, told reporters at the Pentagon.

    He has been the most outspoken opponent among the Joint Chiefs in fighting repeal, a campaign promise of Mr. Obama's.

    "We recruit a certain type of young American, pretty macho guy or gal, that is willing to go fight and perhaps die for their country," Gen. Conway said, when asked why surveys show the Marines opposed repeal the most.

    "That's about the only difference that I see between the other services," said the 40-year Marine. "I mean, they recruit from a great strain of young Americans as well. They all come from the same areas and that type of thing. So I can only think that, as we look at our mission, how we are forced to live in close proximity aboard ship, in the field for long periods of time and that type of thing, that the average Marine out there pretty uniformly [does] not endorse [repeal] as the ideal way ahead."

    He added, "I caution our Marines and our Marine leadership: If the law changes, we pride our Corps in leading the services in many, many things, and we're going to have to lead in this, too. There will be a hundred issues out there that we have to solve, if the law changes, in terms of how we do business, and we cannot be seen as dragging our feet or some way delaying implementation. We've got a war to fight. We need to, if the law changes, implement and get on with it."

    The Marines bunk two to a room.

    "And I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual," he said. "Some do not object and perhaps a voluntary basis might be the best way to start, without violating anybody's sense of moral concern or perception on the part of their mates."

    He elaborated: "We have some people that are very religious. And I think in some instances — I couldn't begin to give you a percentage — but I think in some instances, we will have people that say that homosexuality is wrong, and they simply do not want to room with a person of that persuasion because it would go against their religious beliefs."

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