FBI Agents Still Lacking Arabic Skills

WaPo’s Dan Eggers reports that the FBI has made virtually no progress in getting its agents, who are theoretically at the pointy end of the domestic counterterrorism spear, training in Arabic.

Five years after Arab terrorists attacked the United States, only 33 FBI agents have even a limited proficiency in Arabic, and none of them work in the sections of the bureau that coordinate investigations of international terrorism, according to new FBI statistics.

Counting agents who know only a handful of Arabic words — including those who scored zero on a standard proficiency test — just 1 percent of the FBI’s 12,000 agents have any familiarity with the language, the statistics show.

The numbers reflect the FBI’s continued struggle to attract employees who speak Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and other languages of the Middle East and South Asia, even as the bureau leads a fight against terrorist groups primarily centered in those parts of the world. The same challenge is facing the CIA and other agencies as the government competes with the private sector for a limited number of applicants with foreign-language proficiency, according to U.S. officials and experts.

The shortage of agents with foreign-language skills also shows the extent to which the FBI has focused on translators since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in part because officials believe it is more valuable to have specially trained linguists.

As I noted yesterday when it was revealed that the FBI was still relegating its counterterrorism analysts to clerical roles, this is hardly surprising. The FBI is a law enforcement agency with a law enforcement mindset and its organizational cultural views counterterrorism as a diversion from its important work.

FBI agents make their careers off of big busts that lead to putting big-time mobsters away, not sitting at a desk and reading Arabic websites. Translating Arabic into English is, at best, some clerical task for support specialists to perform so that the Special Agents can go out and be supercops.

There’s virtually zero chance this will change any time soon.

UPDATE: Marc Schulman gives an example of why this is so important: “Another study released last week found that three terrorists housed at a federal prison in Colorado were able to send more than 90 letters to fellow extremists overseas, in part because the prison did not have enough qualified language translators to understand what was happening.”

Steven Taylor highlights this from the WaPo article:

Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University associate professor who heads the school’s Security Studies Program, said the FBI’s continuing failure to attract Arabic-speaking agents is “a serious problem” that hurts the bureau’s relations with immigrant communities and makes it more difficult to gather intelligence on extremist groups. “With any new immigrant communities, they need these language skills, whether it’s Vietnamese or Pakistani or Arabic,” Byman said. “It also often gives you extra cultural knowledge and sensitivity. It makes you more sensitive to nuance, which is what investigations are often all about.”

King Baniain suggests that simple economics is at work here.

Douglas Farah, though, thinks it’s much more serious than even the bureaucratic recalcitrance I point to in my original post:

[W]e have still not taken this war seriously. There is no widespread effort to understand radical Islam, read the literature, understand what their plan is or what their motivations are.


The fundamental flaw is an ongoing inability or unwillingness to identify the enemy as Islamist who want to kill us, and deal with that enemy for what it is-a sophisticated, multi-pronged, coherent group that constantly runs intelligence, counterintelligence and propaganda operations.

There’s something to this, to be sure. Still, much of the intelligence community has redoubled its efforts in learning Arabic, focusing on Islamist terrorist groups, and understanding political Islam. The FBI’s total lack of effort in this endeavor reflects its core vision of itself.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Terrorism, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. calls, your best bet is to speak in Arabic. Lovely. […] Pingback by Polimom Says » Where have all the linguists gone…? — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 4:08 pm Hide Comments | Add your comment Outside The Beltway | OTB linked with FBI Agents Still Lacking Arabic Skills Polimom Says » Where have all the linguists gone…? linked with […] And then there’s this from Poliblog, which kind of answers my last question above: So, I guess if one doesn’t want the NSA to know what you are saying when they listen in on

  2. legion says:

    Gaining proeficiency with any non-roman-alphabet-based language is a non-trivial task. There’s a finite pool of people with those skills, and I’ll wager other “traditional” intel agencies are already snapping them up, not to mention the civ companies that contract out support to those agencies. Why exactly _should_ the FBI maintain its own organic capability in this area? If translation is truly a “merely clerical” task, is there a legal or bureaucratic reason they can’t task out such jobs to CIA/DIA/NSA? Or make use of a support contract one of those agencies has with a private company?

  3. Triumph says:

    If translation is truly a “merely clerical” task, is there a legal or bureaucratic reason they can’t task out such jobs to CIA/DIA/NSA? Or make use of a support contract one of those agencies has with a private company?

    Uh, they already do that. Ask Sibel Edmonds about how effective it’s been.

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    I’m wondering if it is crappy pay that is a problem. If one is looking at a crappy paying job with the FBI and a better paying private sector job, most will pick the latter. Does the FBI offer a special pay rate/bonus/whatever for those skills that are in high demand, but hard to fill?

    Seems like a logical solution…so naturally I’m doubtful the government would implement it.

  5. Anderson says:

    [W]e have still not taken this war seriously. There is no widespread effort to understand radical Islam, read the literature, understand what their plan is or what their motivations are.

    Leaving the more dubious implications here aside, this is exactly right. The feds should be pouring $$$ into Arabic-language programs, Mideastern studies, etc.

    But they’re not. Because those programs aren’t PC with our Republican masters. Many professors in those programs are … gasp … pro-Palestinian! and even anti-Israeli!

    (Never mind that, if the feds *did* get heavily involved in supporting those programs, their political complexion would change. We wouldn’t want to use our brains excessively — might hurt ourselves.)

  6. James Joyner says:

    Steve: I dunno, the FBI has managed to attract lawyers and CPAs as agents for decades. The pay is pretty decent and it’s fairly prestigious.

    Anderson: There’s a lot of issues, to be sure. There would no doubt be a culture clash if Middle East Studies types from our universities were hired by the feds in greater numbers. I don’t think it’s a Republican/Democrat thing, though, since it was pretty obvious in the 1990s that we needed a huge influx of Arab linguists and didn’t really do anything about it.

  7. Richard Gardner says:

    One of the oddities on DC is that there is a government-sponsored Foreign Language program, including Arabic, a block off the Mall at the Dept of AGRICULTURE Graduate School (the language programs are not graduate level).

    What isn’t mentioned in the article is how significant the dialects of Arabic are – if someone has studied, say Egyptian Arabic, he will have some difficulty understanding someone from Morocco, though the written language is the same. (Sort of like Jamaican English versus Midwest US English).