Does America Speak Terrorist?

In the ongoing battle to protect the country from violent extremists, language—and access—is more important than we’ve given it credit for.

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Somali terrorists tried to blow up Barack Obama’s inauguration. Internet yahoos threatened to “lay him out in a box.” He requested Secret Service protection for himself earlier than any presidential candidate in history. And on Christmas, the botched plane bombing by a Nigerian allegedly claiming al-Qaida affiliation exposed America’s security vulnerabilities like never before.

Nevertheless, Americans seem to feel comfortable with the relative level of security that the United States offers. Compared to nations like Israel or Indonesia, bombings are not a daily worry. A recent poll found that Obama’s approval rating for handling terrorism is actually up. But there’s a very worrisome trend: The United States’ intelligence officers do not have the language capabilities needed to root out terror where it lies.

For a nation of immigrants, the United States is surprisingly underprepared to talk with potential terrorists. In a 2009 budget report, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a stern warning that language skills in the intelligence apparatus are basically “nonexistent.” “Very few people speak Arabic, and very few have ever been to the region,” one former NCTC analyst told the Washington Independent. U.S. soldiers rely heavily on translators, who are themselves at risk of being targeted by hostile locals. The recent killing of seven CIA agents in Pakistan by a supposed “triple” agent spotlights the dangers of relying on individuals with the linguistic skill set who haven’t been thoroughly vetted.

We’ve had almost 10 years to get this right. After 9/11, an entirely new federal agency was created to keep Americans safe—and not just in airplanes. The Department of Homeland Security, headed by Janet Napolitano, is tasked with defending ports, food and water supplies, as well as guarding against attacks from above. Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, wields unprecedented powers of coordination in the fight against violent extremism. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), also established after 9/11, evokes the Fox television show 24 and describes its mission as “integrating all instruments of national power to ensure unity of effort.”

That sounds good—but with only “eight or nine” analysts assigned to the Middle East and just one analyst committed to the entire Arabian Peninsula (from which suspected Detroit bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly obtained his explosives), the NCTC looks like it needs help.

Preliminary reports suggest the Christmas attack stemmed from breakdowns in the reporting protocols between the State Department, which granted Abdulmutallab a visa, the Transportation Security Administration, which maintains the infamous “no fly list” for suspected terrorists and the European military police who handled security for Abdulmutallab’s flight in Amsterdam. But it also stemmed from language and cultural obstacles—the State Department failed to stop the alleged bomber from boarding his plane because officials in Nigeria had misspelled his name. What’s more, all of these moving parts of the American security apparatus rely in part on information—from intercepted telephone calls to online chat room postings—that comes to America in another language.

Though the Yemen-to-Nigeria-to-America attack confirms the globalized nature of security threats, it’s increasingly clear that the United States does not have the optimal resources to handle the stream of chatter that undergirds these threats. Learning Russian became a key component of Cold War intelligence strategy—former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke it. And now, a host of new languages and dialects are more relevant. Arabic, Urdu, Dari and Pashto are of crucial importance to surveillance, counterinsurgency and strategic planning in foreign theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other sites across the Middle East. In the unstable and newly relevant Horn of Africa, Somali, Swahili, Hausa (spoken in Nigeria and the Sudan), Amharic and many local dialects are key.

In a series of press conferences following the failed Christmas Day attempt, Obama stressed that America “must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death.” This begs the question: How?

American schools have traditionally been poor at training students to speak foreign languages at all, let alone the comparatively complex languages like Arabic, Mandarin or Swahili needed in the 21st century. “Arabic is not like Italian,” says Eckhart Frahm of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University. “You can’t really learn it properly in a month or even in three years.”

The U.S. government has been open to public-private partnerships on the issue of strengthening its foreign intelligence analytic abilities. The National Security Education Program, created by the U.S. Congress in 1991, supports study of rare languages important to national security. But just under 30 percent of current NSEP scholars are Arabic speakers, (other languages include Mandarin, Turkish, Swahili and Russian), but none study Dari, spoken in Afghanistan, or Urdu, spoken in Pakistan. NSEP fellowships, which are for more advanced scholarship, are funding academic research on topics such as “Islamist Political Parties and Post-Conflict Economic Reconstruction and Reform in Algeria,” “Migration Dynamics in the Middle East” and “Sudanese Refugees in Egypt”—but there is little focus on the type of intelligence-related skill set that the United States could badly use.

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