A strategic report from an influential D.C. think tank argues the U.S. must actively engage, debate, and discredit the radical Islamist ideology that creates jihadist terrorists if the United States is to win the war on terrorism.
"Know your enemy": It's been an axiom of war since Sun Tzu.
Approximately 2,500 years later, a group of counterterrorism and national security experts have tweaked that maxim for a White House they fear is too politically correct for its own good as it fights al Qaeda and its fellow jihadist terrorists. This derivative is better expressed as "Define your enemy."
In a 30-page strategic report for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy , report authors J. Scott Carpenter, Matthew Levitt, Steven Simon, and Juan Zarate argue that while the Obama administration has had some successes in addressing violent extremism, it too often fails to call out the specific ideology that spawns terrorist violence.
"Unless government recognizes and articulates clearly the threat posed by the ideology of radical Islamist extremism, its broader whole-of-government efforts will lack strategic focus and will fail to address the varied root causes of domestic and foreign radicalization. It is indeed possible to do this without denigrating the Islamic religion in any way," the study group writes in "Fighting the Ideological Battle: The Missing Link in U.S. Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism " (.pdf).
The White House has complicated matters even more, the report says, by banning words like "jihadist," "Islamist," and "Islamist extremism" from the government's lexicon that accurately describe the ideology the United States fights to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities.
While the authors note that the Obama administration has helped to restore America's image in the Muslim world through public diplomacy and depleted al Qaeda's leadership through military counterinsurgency operations, they argue the administration has failed to address the Islamist ideology that continually produces more violent Islamist militants and terrorists. The authors maintain this is a necessary part of a comprehensive counterterrorism program.
"Lacking is a full-throated recognition of the degree to which ideology fuels violent extremism, especially as international borders become less relevant due to the Internet and other technologies," the report states.
(For previous coverage of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's work on counterradicalization and counterterrorism, see "Muslims Best Way to Stop Radicalization in U.S., Report Says " from February 2009.)
The authors argue that unless the United States starts to win the ideological battle it will face a youth bubble in the Muslim world as well as other vulnerable populations online susceptible to radical Islamism. Citing a recent report from the RAND Corporation, the authors note that there has been 46 cases of occurring radicalization inside the United States since 2001, with 30 percent occurring in 2009. The common link between these cases: radical Islamist ideology, according to the study group.
By not discrediting the ideology that persuades an individual to cross the line into violence, the authors argue, the United States is left trying to kill and capture violent extremists and terrorists rather than destroying the ideas that radicalized them. "Our ultimate adversary is not the individual bomber, but the radical ideology that propels him to carry out an act of terrorism," the report explains.
In an effort to discredit Islamist ideology and its propagandists, the authors offer a host of recommendations, the core of which is to separate the religion Islam from its political ideology Islamism. The United States can do this, the authors believe, by supporting moderate Muslim leaders inside local communities and overseas, especially those that have defected from Islamism, while publicly debating and discrediting radical Islamists. The latter part they argue is a cornerstone of the American project that respects the most important values of American democracy: freedom of speech and religion.
"The objective... is to strengthen the moderate center against the extremist pole and help Muslim communities become more resilient in confronting the challenge," according to the report.
♦ Screen shot of cover page of "Fighting the Ideological Battle"