Muslims in the Media: An Analysis of U.S. Newspaper Coverage of the Attack at Fort Hood, Somali Plot and the attempted Northwest Airline Plot

By Sheila B. Lalwani

I. Introduction

Recent events have spurred new debates surrounding the coverage of Islam and Muslims in America. An analysis of the news coverage on the attacks at Fort Hood, Somali connection in Minnesota to terror networks and Nigerian terror attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight sheds light on the conflicted terrain journalists face regarding the identity of Muslims in America and the connection of religion to criminal activity. The attacks on Fort Hood drew a complicated response from elected officials and the news media. Some politicians were reluctant to call the tragedy “an act of terrorism,” and one Islamic organization quickly condemned the attack. On the other hand, coverage of the Somalis with strong ties to Minnesota and the Nigerian terror attempt inherently connected the perpetrators’ Muslim identity to their terrorist activities and actions.

These assumptions on part of journalists lend themselves to shaping the prism in which to report stories and articles about Islam and Muslims in America. The media play an incredible role in shaping public opinion and public policy. To paraphrase an oft-repeated maxim, the media often tell the public what and how to think about a certain issue, and stories about Islam and Muslims in America are not the exception. In the instance of the attack on Fort Hood, the initial reporting contained information of the assailant’s religion and connections were drawn; but in cases of the Somalis and Nigerian terror plot, identity as a Muslim plays a foundational role. These instances illustrate the complicated confluence of Islam, Muslims and American security.

II. The Attack at Fort Hood

The narrative immediately told in the wake of the attacks at Fort Hood varied from the stereotypic coverage often offered. The attack – that left 13 people dead and numerous others injured – had been perpetrated by a Muslim who served on the base. The emerging interpretation of coverage of the attacks at Fort Hood was that the perpetrator was Muslim but that the attacks were not part of a “jihad.” As journalists raced to cover the news of the victims, the story of the suspect was as compelling: Maj. Nidal Hasan Malik served as an Army psychiatrist and espoused the belief that American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wars against all Muslims. The suspect reportedly said, “God is Great!” when he opened fire with a pistol on Nov. 5 at Fort Hood.1 Articles detailed that before he was cut down by police, he shot to death four commissioned officers, eight enlisted soldiers and one civilian in the crowded center. Numerous others were wounded. The initial articles that ran in newspapers were bread-and-butter journalism: Who? What? When? Where? How? An article in the New York Times quoted Christopher P. Grey, a spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigation. Numerous military officials were named in the Times story and others.2 The immediate issue on the minds of broadcasters and reporters was to find out if the attack was part of a larger, coordinated plot. It became critical to determine if Malik was connected to Al Qaeda or if he was an operative for another terrorism organization.

The incident led to greater questions surrounding Muslims and armed service. Coverage focused on the tension between being an observant Muslim and a proud member of the U.S. military. Reporters questioned if the two identities could co-exist. Numerous organizations focused on whether Muslims can fight for the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan. For example, the Time article, “Fort Hood: Army Gains with Muslims May Be Lost,” focused on this issue. 3 Muslims in the military are a part of an extreme minority: Less than 1% of the United 1.4 million troops, and that figure represents an estimate, since only 4,000 troops have declared their faith. It was hard for the public to keep that in mind. As Thompson points out as the basis of the story, “By all accounts, the percentage of Muslims who are outstanding, competent or misfit soldiers is proportional to that of every other ethnic group. But that logic is increasingly hard to hear in the aftermath of Major Nidal Hasan’s killing spree at Fort Hood in Texas.”4 Members of the armed forces are not required to provide information on their faith, and it is possible that there are more Muslims serving in the armed forces than the statistics show. However, the example demonstrated a clear discomfort with being uncomfortable with Muslims in the military.

Other aspects of coverage focused on the civilian reaction. In “Muslims at Fort Voice Their Outrage,” 5 New York Times reporter Michael E. Moss covered the reaction on part of Muslims in Texas. As the article stated, “Leaders of the vibrant Muslim community here expressed outrage on Friday at the shooting rampage being to one of their members, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who had become a regular attendee of prayers at the local Mosque.”6 Muslims quoted in the story noted the problems associated the irony of race and religion in committing a crime. As quoted in the article, ‘“When a white guy shoots up a post office, they call that going postal,”’ said Victor Benjamin II, a former member of the army. “But when a Muslim does it, they call it jihad.”7 A mosque leader said to Moss that he did not fear retribution and was hopeful that good relations would prevail.

The above quote demonstrates the struggle to characterize the Muslim community in America. Very few in the public understand the meaning of jihad and may characterize it as connection Muslims with criminal activity. The news articles did not provide a coherent discussion of the connection to jihad and criminal behavior. In fact, there may have been a conscientious effort to not to connect jihad with the actions of Malik.

Elected leaders, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, had initially refrained from calling Hasan a terrorist, but he suggested that Hasan became an extremist while in Army, and he should have been weeded out of the ranks as a result.8 Other media outlets reported the same. The Thompson article drew from the New York Post which quoted Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer. Peters told the Post that Hasan raised many questions that the Army felt reluctant to address.9 As quoted in the article, “Political correctness killed those patriotic Americans at Fort Hood as surely as the Islamic gunman did. Maj. Hasan will be a hero to Islamist terrorists abroad and their sympathizers here.”10 The article confirmed that the since Sept. 11, Muslims in uniform have come under greater scrutiny and tested the ability of the U.S. military to balance its needs with the Islamic beliefs of its soldiers. The Hasan case brought these issues further to light.

Other Muslims groups were also quoted in the story. As Nihad Awad, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in the story, “We reiterate the American Muslim community’s condemnation of this cowardly attack. Right now, we call on all Americans to assist those who are responding to this atrocity. We must ensure that the wounded are treated and that families of those who were murdered have an opportunity to mourn.”11 The article quoted non-Muslims friends who said Hasan harbored doubts about enlisting in the Army. As the article quoted, “He said he should quit the Army,” Mr. Reasoner said. “In the Koran, you’re not supposed to have alliances with Jews or Christian(s) or others, and if you are killed in the military fighting against Muslims, you will go to hell.”’12 Coverage of the killings at Fort Hood continued and these angles were hard to ignore.

III. The Somali Plot: A Focus on Identity

Identity as a Muslim was key when news outlets around the country covered the Somali Plot – the case in which Somalis were charged with providing support to terrorists and conspiracy to “kill, kidnap, maim or injure.” In this case, identity was hard to miss. A federal grand jury had indicted Salah Osman Ahmed of Minnesota and Abdifatah Yusuf Isse of Seattle as part of a counterterrorism investigation.13 The case was connected to a major federal investigation into the disappearance of up to 20 local men of Somali descent. Some believed that the Minnesota men may have been recruited by terrorists to return to their homeland and fight in the continuing civil war. The first wave began in 2007 and the second took place in 2008. According to the indictment, as reported, the men, “provided material support and resources, namely personnel, including themselves, knowing and intending that the material support and resources were to be used in preparation for and to carry out a conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons in a foreign country.”14

It was not hard to see why identity was a major part of the story and the necessity for journalists to connect the identity of the suspects as Muslims to the crimes they committed. The Twin Cities Somali community is the largest Somali community in the U.S., and the community is known for its religiosity. The Star Tribune, the newspaper of record in Minnesota, aggressively covered the story and has a history of covering the Somali community. These articles range from the religious fervor of the community to its challenges to integration within Minnesotan and American society. In particular, the terror plot carried double or triple bylines, a journalistic indication of the importance of the news. For example, one article, “2 Somali Men Indicted in Terror Plot,” went in-depth into the background of Isse and spoke to people who were aware of him. As the article reported, “Isse traveled to Somalia in 2007, according to Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. Isse returned from Somalia, first to Minneapolis, then back to Seattle, where he was arrested, Jamal said.” As the article noted, there was surprise among the Somali and mainly Muslim community. The article went further in-depth on Somalis who have been recruited to join terrorist organizations and their ultimate fate.

The New York Times piece, “A Call to Jihad, Answered in America,” covered the same incident and took an in-depth look at the issue on the basis of identity, religiosity and communal belief.15 The article called attention to the unique community of Somalis in Minnesota, and their suspected role in the on-going civil war in Somalia. Like the coverage in the Star Tribune, the New York Times coverage focuses mainly on the terror plot, but also includes a space for community reaction. As the article noted in a subsection, “A Struggle to Understand,” numerous Somalis were surprised to learn about the terror links in their community to Somalia. As quoted in the article, “For many older Somalis in Minnesota, the deepest mystery is why so many young refugees would risk their lives and futures to return to ac country that their parents struggled to leave.”16 The article quotes a source who knew the mother of a Burhan Hasan, who had been killed in Africa, and provides an insight into the psychology of the Somali men. As written in the article, “(Burhan) had been calling from Somalia, telling her that he was “fine” and that he missed her cooking.”17 The article quoted Burhan as saying that he had no future in America, and that, if he returned, he would be sent to Guantánamo. Shortly after the family had finally persuaded him to return to the U.S., they learned that he had died in Africa.

IV. Nigerian Plot

The attempt to blowup a Delta/Northwest Airlines Flight 253 rattled the country, and the news agencies were quick to report on the identity of the victim. The suspect, a Muslim, hailed from Nigeria. The Detroit Free Press, the most respected newspaper in Michigan, ran a number of articles on the attempted terrorist attack as did other newspapers. Free Press reporter Naomi R. Patton wrote an article, “Passenger ‘heard a pop and saw … smoke and fire’ ” that ran on December 25, 1999. The article focused on witnesses and their experiences aboard the flight. The article quoted several passengers as they remembered their experiences.18

The New York Times in “Terror Attempt Seen as Man Tries to Ignite Device on Jet by Anahad O’Connor and Eric Schmitt, takes another look at the terror attempt.19 The article named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and reported on the security element of the story. In particular, the article was focused on ascertaining the details of how the suspect was able to bring the explosive on board. The article quotes elected officials, a senior Department of Homeland Security official and a federal counterterrorism official. Only the politician was named. The article was slow to name any link between the terrorist and a terror organization, but the suspect, according to the story, is said to have received directions from Al Qaeda. The FBI was also quoted. Another federal official and a Michigan state official confirmed he was being treated at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for burns. A second Department of Homeland Security official was also quoted as saying, “For a while now, we have had real concerns about Al Qaeda or terrorist connections in Nigeria.”20 Other news organizations and news agencies also quoted security officials as making the same or very similar remarks.

V. Conclusion

It has become trite to say that the 9/11 attacks changed America. However, the full extent of that reality with regard to the Muslim community has yet to unfold. Newspapers employ varying paradigms in which to report on Islam and Muslims in America. The overarching theme that violent acts can be tied to Islam jihad was proven false in the case of the Fort Hood attacks. However, news organizations connected identity as Muslims to terrorist activity regarding the Somali plot and terror plot on a Northwest flight. Elected leaders and religious organizations were quick to condemn the attacks, while also distancing Islam and Muslims in America from the criminals. It remains unclear if the practice will continue.