Andrew McCarthy is the director of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. A former federal prosecutor, he has served as a special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense. After the 9/11 attacks, he supervised the U.S. Attorney's Anti-Terrorism Command Post in New York City. He is a contributor to National Review and Commentary, as well as various other publications. Among his numerous awards is the Justice Department's highest honor, the Attorney General's Exceptional Service Award. He has taught at Fordham University Law School and New York Law School. On October 6, 2008, McCarthy addressed the Middle East Forum in New York City about his new book, Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (Encounter, 2008). It builds on his article, "Prosecuting the New York Sheikh," which appeared in the March 1997 Middle East Quarterly, and his acceptance speech on receiving the Middle East Forum's Albert J. Wood Public Affairs Award in 1996.
In Willful Blindness, McCarthy reflects upon his role as the lead prosecutor in the historic case against the "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was brought to trial for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
McCarthy recounted his involvement in the case, as well as the lessons he learned through his experience. His overarching point was that the U.S. government did, and to an extent still does, consciously avoid the fact that Islam is the animating force behind Islamist terrorism. "1993 was a declaration of war against the U.S.," he said. "The excruciating thing is that at the time the attack happened, they warned us that the World Trade Center would continue to be one of their targets. The writing was on the wall…in 1993, and for whatever reason we didn't see it or at least didn't want to see it."
One reason for the U.S. government's willfully blind attitude toward terrorism, McCarthy observed, was its insistence on pursuing the trial with the utmost deference to political correctness. McCarthy explained how during press conferences, the Justice Department repeated the politically correct lines about Islam, but inside the courtroom, the legal process did not permit such discretion. "What jurors learned and saw," McCarthy revealed, "was that the wave of terrorism that we're already dealing with was generated by a solid ideology and that the Blind Sheikh was a very important person and not a fringe…And that's a lesson that was learned in that courtroom twelve years ago but has not for whatever reason managed to carry itself outside the courtroom to the point where it grabs the majority of people like I think it has to."
McCarthy said, "You can't take Islam out of Islamic Terror." McCarthy himself learned the truth of this adage in the course of his preparation for the trial. Although Abdel-Rahman never took the stand, McCarthy had to prepare for the contingency that he would. To plan for the cross-examination of the Blind Sheikh, McCarthy trained under the premise that since Islamists represent a fringe group of Muslims; he would be able to trap the Blind Sheikh into admitting that his ideology differed from the Quran. In his research, however, McCarthy was unable to uncover any instance where Abdel-Rahman's ideology deviated from Islamic scripture.
McCarthy summarized what he learned about Islam, saying: "I don't want to pretend that Islam is a monolith…but the ideology that he [the Blind Sheikh] is an adherent of…is one that has a very rich pedigree. It is fourteen centuries old…and people have been willing to die for it…We do ourselves no good by underestimating what it is that we deal with." McCarthy concluded that while not all who practice radical Islam practice terrorism, there exists a "healthy portion [who do]…too healthy for our security."
McCarthy also assessed the most effective methods of counter-terrorism, arguing that terrorism is fundamentally a political issue of national self-defense, rather than a legal issue of enforcing criminal law. Trying to pursue national security challenges only through legal methods, which is what the U.S. practiced in the 1990's, is a "prescription for a suicidal result."
Between 1993 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Justice Department made a massive effort to prosecute terrorism cases, but over this entire period only twenty-nine terrorists were convicted and none, besides the Blind Sheikh, were top-level personnel. "Osama bin Laden," McCarthy reasoned, "was indicted by the United States in June 1998, and adding new counts to his indictment hasn't deterred him much."
Instead of processing terrorist suspects exclusively through the court system, McCarthy asserted that the "only sensible counterterrorism strategy is a holistic, comprehensive one that brings to bear all of the tools of government." McCarthy's approach would not only include the courts, but also the resources of the U.S. military, various intelligence services, and the Department of the Treasury. Above all else, however, McCarthy felt that it is imperative that the U.S. recognize the central role that Islamist ideology plays in terrorism, and to make this the basis of all future policy.
Summary account by Eric Bergel