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Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad

mccarthyReviewed by Colonel James L. Abrahamson, PhD.

Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, by Andrew C. McCarthy, New York and London: Encounter Books, 2008 (ISBN 978-159403213-4), vi, 352 pages, $25.95.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew C. McCarthy led the team that successfully prosecuted Omar Abdel Rahman, "the Blind Sheikh," and 11 other jihadists for seditious conspiracy. Telling the full story of that 1995 trial required McCarthy to weave into his book four investigations and three trials – the 1990 murder of Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane, the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, and the Sheikh's disrupted plot to attack simultaneously three New York City landmarks, with more to follow had that succeeded.

Despite the inherent interest of the trials, the more important part of the book may be what McCarthy learned about both Islam and the shortcomings of relying on the American domestic legal system when confronting Islamist terror networks. American law enforcement, he wrote, excels at solving crimes after the fact and then bringing the accused to trial. Even when successful, convictions will not, he maintains, dissuade those he calls jihadists. Rather than preventing their attacks on the United States, domestic law enforcement exposes American weaknesses and focuses too much attention on how to avoid being held accountable in the event of a failure to prevent an attack.

That became evident in the way the FBI-New York Police Department Joint Terrorist Task Force (JTTF) mishandled the investigation of those members of the Sheikh's cabal who murdered Rabbi Kahane and then bombed the World Trade Center. Shortly after Kahane's murder, the JTTF planted an ex-Egyptian army officer, Emad Salem, within Abdel Rahman's group. He soon penetrated it to the point of frequently meeting with the Sheikh. The task force's agents, however, had foolishly promised Salem he would never need to testify and gave him ambiguous instructions about the desirability of tape recording the group's conversations about safe houses and obtaining items needed to make its bomb. Aware of the plot but not the target, the JTTF could not obtain even a warrant to bug the jihadists' safe house without exposing – at least at trial – the identity of their informant, which would have made him and his family – in the United States and Egypt – targets for assassination. Though the plotters had recruited Salem to make their bomb, the JTTF agents would not allow him to do more than talk about bomb making; never must he assemble or even touch explosives. As the critical moment approached, Salem had therefore to withdraw from the group in a manner that did not expose him as an informant.

Other early shortcomings were less problems in the laws of evidence than evidence of poor police work. Though Salem identified many of the jihadists in the group, for reasons of expense the JTTF never put them under close surveillance when Salem withdrew. Nor did it at that time examine the 47 boxes of evidence seized from the home of the jihadist who had murdered Rabbi Kahane, evidence that would have corroborated Salem's reports and likely supplied justification for wire taps without exposing the task force's informant.

After the plotters brought in new bomb makers, they used a Ryder truck to transport their urea-nitrate bomb reinforced with hydrogen tanks and sodium cyanide to the parking garage beneath one of the towers. It blew a six-story hole under the tower, killed seven people, one of them a babe still in its mother's womb, but did not bring down the building. Springing into action after the February 1993 attack, the FBI quickly identified and rounded up those members of the bombing team who had not immediately fled the country.

After the attack, an aroused JTTF called upon Salem to re-infiltrate Shiekh Abdel Rahman's organization. He soon began reporting on the group's plans to bomb the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and New York's FBI headquarters – preliminaries to an attack on the United Nations, with Sudanese assistance, and on other New York City landmarks. Although the arrests and McCarthy's eventual prosecution prevented those attacks, he also observed that between 1993 and 2001, as the "international ranks of militant Islam swelled," (309) the United States convicted only 29 terrorists. The law enforcement approach had not kept pace with the growing threat.

McCarthy therefore feels that from a certain perspective his prosecution was something less than a success. Though suitable for the domestic realm, he regards traditional law enforcement as inadequate to protect the United States against enemies operating out of the international realm of sovereign states, sub-national groups, and terrorist networks. Those enemies have no respect for or fear of U.S. public law, and they claim the right to use force. When operating in the international realm against terror networks, the president and executive branch must therefore be free, McCarthy argues, to act with discretion and with the support of Congress and the courts. The latter should not invest hostile foreign operatives with constitutional rights if found overseas or illegally in the United States. Nor should federal courts treat such operatives as though they were "full-fledged American citizens charged with ordinary crimes." (309)

Even if that were not so, McCarthy argues that trials are too long and too expensive and take too much time for preparation to serve as a sufficient response to terror networks posing an existential threat to the United States and whose members do not fear imprisonment. When courts demand widespread discovery and seek to impose rules suitable for domestic law enforcement, they in fact empower America's enemies and produce potentially "disastrous consequences." (309) In the trial of the Blind Sheikh, for instance, the FBI had to surrender its list of unindicted co-conspirators, which alerted terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden to those in his ranks who were under suspicion. Discovery prior to trial also made known to the Sheikh's lawyers, and thus to him and other jihadists, valuable information on the methods and sources of U.S. intelligence.

Having given careful thought to Islam in preparation for the trial of the Blind Sheikh, McCarthy came to regard Islam as "a dangerous creed." (316) He came to recognize his protagonist as a leading Islamic scholar who held a doctorate from Cairo's al Azhar University. A religious leader (mufti) consequently authorized to opine on Islamic law and issue fatwa calling for the death of non-Muslims, Abdel Rahman stood in a centuries-long line of Islamic thinkers running through present-day Salafists and Wahhabis as advocates of the true, violent, and expansionist Islam.

Though modern apologists describe jihad is an internal struggle to do God's will, McCarthy points out that the Dictionary of Islam defines the term as "a religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad." (32) The Sheikh thus acted within the Islamic tradition when he called for violence against non-believers as a means to spread the faith globally. The Qur'an, filled with admonitions to fight and slay non-Muslims, supports him, and the hadith provide more explicit calls for violence in the defense and advance of Islam.

McCarthy acknowledges that moderate or progressive Muslims challenge that tradition, and he recognizes their Islam is often a force for good in the lives of its believers. He therefore hopes they will succeed in their efforts to become the authentic voice of Islam. Meanwhile, the countless immoderate Muslims – the jihadists – are no fringe group; they number in the tens of millions. For the moment, moreover, they listen to the likes of Abdel Rahman, who in a recording from his trial avowed: "If God . . . says 'Do jihad,’ it means do jihad with the sword, with the cannon, with the grenades and with the missile. This is jihad. Jihad against God's enemies for God's cause and his word." (49) Based upon his study and experience, McCarthy considers Islam a "conflagration waiting to happen. We are the realm it would engulf. And there is always a Blind Sheikh ready to light the fuse. We can open our eyes and see it. Or not." (318)


Colonel Abrahamson, a graduate of West Point and the holder of a doctorate from Stanford University, served 27 years in the Army. He is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers and a contributing editor of American Diplomacy, and has authored four books on military history.

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