The chairmen of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees said the military is the No. 1 target for terrorists within the U.S.
During a Wednesday hearing healed by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), King named the armed services as the “most sought-after” target for radical Islamist extremist groups.
“Military communities in the U.S. have recently become the most sought-after targets of violent Islamist extremists seeking to kill Americans in their homeland,” said King in his opening remarks.
“We cannot stand idly by while our heroes in uniform are struck down in the place they feel safest.”
A 14-page report released by King’s staff at the hearing found that “at least 33 threats, plots and strikes against U.S. military communities since 9/11 have been part of a surge of homegrown terrorism.”
The committee report stated that there are “serious gaps” in the “military’s preparedness for attacks against its personnel, dependents and facilities … such as a lack of adequate and clear training in spotting indicators of violent Islamist extremism in individuals who wear the same uniform as those they may target.”
Pointing to the 2009 shootings in Texas's Fort Hood and at a military recruiting station in Arkansas, which killed a total of 14 people and wounded more than two dozen, Lieberman noted that “the only Americans who have lost their lives in terrorist attacks in our homeland since 9/11 have been killed at U.S. military facilities.”
Paul Stockton, the assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs, said on Wednesday that the military was the “target of choice” for al Qaeda and its affiliates.
“Over the last decade, a plurality of these domestic violent extremists chose to target the Department of Defense, making military communities the target of choice for homegrown terrorists,” said Stockton.
Wednesday’s hearing was the fourth that King has held this year exploring the radicalization of Muslim-Americans within the U.S.
The first one drew the most scrutiny, as nearly 100 members of Congress asked him to cancel it or widen the breadth of the radicalized groups he was probing. King lauded the hearing as a success, saying that it brought attention to a taboo subject that is a serious and growing security concern.
The other two hearings focused on the terrorist group al-Shabaab’s influence within the U.S., and the radicalization of Muslim-Americans within U.S. prisons.
Controversy arose again on Wednesday as several Democratic lawmakers rejected the singling out of radical extremists and terrorists who practice Islam.
The ranking Democrat on the House committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), said singling out the one ideology would ostracize members of the armed services and would ignore the possibility of other emerging terrorist groups.
“Focusing on the followers of one religion as the only credible threat to this nation’s security is inaccurate, narrow, and blocks consideration of emerging threats,” said Thompson. “Our military is open to all faiths. A congressional hearing that focuses on religion and the military is likely to harm unit cohesion and undermine morale within our military.”
Jim Stuteville, an Army senior adviser for counterintelligence operations and liaison to the FBI, said that in the wake of the Fort Hood shooting the military has chosen to focus training soldiers and officers to recognize signs of possible extremism within their ranks by identifying behavioral activity and not particular ideologies.
“We adopted that approach because we want to make sure that we can account for any type of threat, both those previously and those in the future,” said Stuteville.
A tense exchange broke out when Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) peppered Stockton with questions, arguing that al Qaeda represented “violent Islamist extremism.” If the U.S. is at war with al Qaeda, then it is also at war with “violent Islamist extremism,” said Lungren.
But Stockton defended the administration's position, saying that to confuse the two would aide al Qaeda’s propaganda machine.
“Al Qaeda would love to convince Muslims around the world that the United States is at war with Islam,” said Stockton. “That is a prime propaganda tool. And I'm not going to aid and abet that effort to advance their propaganda goals.”
Pressed further by Lungren, Stockton shot back, “Sir, with great respect, I don't believe it's helpful to frame our adversary as Islamic with any set of qualifiers that we might add, because we are not at war with Islam.”
—This post was originally posted at 11 a.m. and was last updated at 2 p.m.