Five years after Arab terrorists attacked the U.S., only 33 FBI agents have even a limited proficiency in Arabic, and none of them work in parts of the bureau that coordinate investigations of international terrorism, the Washington Post reports. 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 numbers reflect the FBI’s struggle to attract employees who speak Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, and other languages of the Middle East and South Asia. 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.
FBI officials said it is not crucial for agents working in the terrorism-operations sections to know Arabic or other foreign languages, because they rely primarily on documents or interviews already translated by FBI linguists. Daniel Byman, head of the Georgetown University 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.”