Julia Gorin, Jewish World Review, Mar. 11
Last month, National Guardsman Ryan G. Anderson was arrested and taken into custody at Fort Lewis, Wash., accused of attempting to provide information to the al Qaeda network. The arrest happened to fall on the two-year anniversary of the trial against ousted Serb president Slobodan Milosevic. The confluence is not entirely unsymbolic.
With the prosecution portion of the Milosevic trial coming to a close at the Hague last month, it is worth looking back at our own trials of the past year in the war on terror. For some distinct parallels emerge between our fight and that of another multiethnic nation, once called Yugoslavia.
Last March, almost a year before we learned the name of the white Muslim convert in the National Guard, an African-American Muslim sergeant in the Army rolled grenades into the tents of sleeping fellow soldiers at a base in Kuwait, and then shot those who tried to flee, ultimately killing two and injuring 14. Then a Chinese-American Muslim Army chaplain stationed at the Guantánamo detention camp was arrested while traveling with sketches of the prison, and an Egyptian-born civilian interpreter for the Army was arrested after traveling to and from Cairo with 132 compact discs, one of which contained hundreds of classified documents labeled “SECRET.” Facing the most serious charges is a senior airman and interpreter named Ahmad I. al-Halabi, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has been under investigation since 2002, and has pleaded innocent to 32 charges against him, including helping detainees communicate with one another and delivering information to Syria that contained flight schedules to and from Guantánamo as well as prisoners’ names and messages. Other interpreters are suspected of having intentionally mistranslated interrogations, and an unnamed member of the U.S. Navy is being held for improper communications with detainees. Two more arrests are pending, with about ten people under scrutiny altogether. Meanwhile, Middle East expert Daniel Pipes warns that Islamic fundamentalists have already “infiltrated our prisons, police force, and military.”
The attempts to sabotage the armed forces should not be catching us off guard. Not because of any cynical assumption that Muslim Americans are naturally traitorous and can’t be trusted in the military, but because we’ve seen this before: in Yugoslavia.
In addition to the post-9/11 headlines trickling out of the Balkans about terror cells being uncovered in Bosnia and about unsurprising links between al Qaeda and the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), there is an uncomfortably prescient New York Times article from 1987. It is a piece that the Times was careful to not dredge up in April 1999, when it endorsed the offensive air war on Belgrade, unleashed by otherwise-scandalized Bill Clinton. The article tells of an ethnic Albanian conscript who shot up his Slavic fellow soldiers as they slept, killing four and wounding six. It tells of other Albanian Yugoslavs raiding arsenals to steal weapons to equip the KLA.
A quote appears in the article from Yugoslavia’s then-defense secretary, Fleet Admiral Branko Mamula, who reported to the army brass three weeks after the slaughter that ethnic Albanian subversives, as the Times referred to them, were “preparing for ‘killing officers and soldiers, poisoning food and water, sabotage, breaking into weapons arsenals and stealing arms and ammunition, desertion and causing flagrant nationalist incidents in army units.’”
In the immediate aftermath of the fatal attack by Sergeant Hasan Akbar against our troops last March, while concerns about possible attacks by Muslim-American military personnel were quietly included in an intelligence report given to senior administration members, officials did their best to downplay any Muslim connection. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters asking about the Muslim threat in the military simply that the motivation for Akbar’s attack was unconfirmed and under investigation. Akbar was ultimately charged not with terrorism, but with premeditated and attempted murder. What’s more, no additional security measures were taken by the Navy or Marines at that time. Navy spokesman Commander Tom Van Leunen asserted, “We view our sailors as Americans first, Americans with full religious freedom. We do not single out any religious group.” And Marine spokesman Major Matt McLaughlin offered, “The Marine Corps is built on shared group values. We draw strength from our diversity, but to the extent that any Marine would force personal beliefs on fellow Marines runs counter to the Corps’s culture.”
Certainly we’re not facing anything so well organized or epidemic in the American armed forces as what Yugoslavia was facing. The connections, if any, among detained or arrested U.S. military personnel are unclear. Yet the Muslim chaplain Yousef Yee — who (according to the AP) was once “the public face of the Bush administration’s effort to assure Muslims that they were not the targets of the war on terrorism,” and whose father last month accused the military of ethnic and religious profiling — dodged questions about how deeply involved he was with the detainees, and about whether he sympathized with them.
Defending a population against problem members who invoke their religion to wreak havoc is not waging a war against a religion. To confuse the two can lead to dangerous misperceptions, and to purposely obfuscate the two is criminal calculation.
The final paragraph of that 1987 Times article — which tastefully avoids use of the word “Muslim” throughout — portends an end to “the multinational experiment called federal Yugoslavia,” its genesis in a now-familiar province: “The hope is that something will be done…to exert the rule of law in Kosovo while drawing ethnic Albanians back into Yugoslavia’s mainstream.”
As we feel justified in going halfway around the globe to fight terrorism, to do essentially what Belgrade was trying to do in its own backyard before we bombed it and killed 2,000 Serb civilians, perhaps we can finally start to appreciate what that country was up against. Even post-breakup, Yugoslavia was composed of 27 different nationalities, all struggling to work together so they could continue to live as a single nation.
In our efforts to maintain perspective in the face of those who would have us believe that, rather than defending ourselves, we are waging a war against Islam, we should learn from history — specifically from the history of another experiment in diversity that now has been reduced to the name “Serbia and Montenegro.”