The west needs a more comprehensive strategy to counter al-Qaeda propaganda and the US should stop using the term “war on terror”, according to a top intelligence official.
By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
Charles Allen, the senior intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security, says the phrase is counter-productive because it creates “animus” in Islamic countries.
“[It] has nothing to do with political correctness,” Mr Allen said in an interview. “It is interpreted in the Muslim world as a war on Islam and we don’t need this.”
President George W. Bush made “war on terror” one of his stock phrases in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001. But there is disagreement in Washington, including among his own administration, over whether officials should use the term.
Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, does not agree with suggestions that the phrase is equated with a war on Islam, says Russ Knocke, his spokesman.
“We are at war with terrorism, and its underlying ideology – not Islam – and we’ve gone out of our way to make that point,” says Mr Knocke. “In truth, war has been declared upon us.”
Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, in an interview said the phrase ”war on terror” was the “dumbest term…you could use”. The Michigan lawmaker, who criticises the Bush administration for using an overly aggressive tone, says he has urged Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, not to use the expression.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Mr Hadley, said the White House recognises that “the use of the word ‘Islamic’ before the word terrorist can be heard by Muslims…as lacking nuance, which may incorrectly suggest that all Muslims are terrorists or that we are at war with Islam”.
“While we want to be mindful to the way our messages are heard by Muslim audiences, we also think war on terror accurately describes the fight we are in,” he added.
While the military in general tends to echo the langauge of the president, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs who recently met with moderate Muslim leaders to hear their concerns, tries to ensure his language does not create the perception of a war against Islam, Captain John Kirby, his spokesman, said.
“The chairman is aware of the concerns voiced by many in the Muslim community about the phrase ‘war on terror’,” Captain Kirby said.
“He is committed – when speaking of it – to focusing his language and efforts on the violent extremists we are fighting. This is not a war on Islam. It’s a war against lethal enemies who are using a warped view of that faith to justify killing innocent civilians.”
That is part of the message that Mr Allen would like the US to emphasise in countering al-Qaeda propaganda around the globe. He says the west needs to orchestrate a “very structured”, almost cold war-style communications strategy to accomplish this.
A five-decade CIA veteran who has spent much of his career dealing with terrorism, Mr Allen says this has become particularly importance since al-Qaeda’s messaging has undergone “amazing” changes over the past 18 months. He points, for example, to efforts by As-Sahab, the group’s media production company, to target US audiences in “American vernacular”.
“There is every reason to believe that the tide should turn and could turn but will take a very, very long time,” says Mr Allen. “We must be proactive and not just be reactive… We have to get our messages out and not just wait for another audio tape.”
At the same time that al-Qaeda is delivering a “more coherent” message, however, Mr Allen says it is “very, very encouraging” that some influential people in the Muslim world are repudiating the group. He says the US should counter al-Qaeda by stressing criticism from the Muslim world at the actions of the group.
Terrorism experts point to Sayeed Imam al-Sharif, a founder of the extremist Egyptian Islamic Jihad group and mentor to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, who recently wrote a book from his Egyptian jail cell calling on al-Qaeda to give up its struggle.
While US officials have warned about an increasing potential for home-grown terrorism, Mr Allen welcomed the results of a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center, which found that the vast majority of US Muslims were concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism and had an unfavourable view of al-Qaeda.
Mr Allen says any comprehensive communications strategy demands a comprehensive outreach programme to Muslim communities both in the US and abroad, which he says is starting to happen.
He also recommends that the next president tell the American people that the country faces a “long, difficult struggle” and has “to engender the kind of strong counter-radicalisation and messaging abroad that will roll back this extremism”.
A recent memo from the homeland security department’s office for civil rights and civil liberties echoed some of these concerns. The memo said terminology employed by the US government should “avoid helping the terrorists by inflating the religious bases and glamorous appeal of their ideology” and “must be properly calibrated to diminish the recruitment efforts of extremists who argue that the west is at war with Islam”.
Mr Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, stressed that the memo was not formal policy, but a series of recommendation that have originated from “active and ongoing dialogue with the community to promote civic engagement and prevent radicalization”.
Frank Cilluffo, a terrorism expert at George Washington University and former special assistant to Mr Bush for homeland security, says the US government can take a series of steps to help counter al-Qaeda. He agrees that the US should abandon the concept of a “war on terror” – which “fuels the adversaries narrative” – and “decouple religion from ideology”.
In the long term, however, Mr Cilluffo says the solution will have to come from within the Muslim community, partly by imams and Islamic scholars stressing that al-Qaeda has deliberately misinterpreted the Koran to justify violence, which he adds will help “take the jihadi cool out of the narrative”.
Marc Sageman, a former CIA operative and author of “Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century” goes a strep further, saying the US has helped glorify extremists by elevating “the status of losers to Mujahedeen heroes”.
While Mr Cilluffo argues that the US should be vigilant in countering al-Qaeda, particularly in Internet chat rooms, Mr Sageman sees the movement more as a fashion that will eventually die out, if left alone.
Mr Sageman argues that the US government could even prolong the demise of the extremist movement by engaging in counter-propaganda fora. Asked, for example, whether US government employees could be effective in countering extremism in online salons, he responds that they would be “thrown out of the chatrooms.”
While Mr Sageman argues that the fad should be left to die a natural death, he says he recognises that for policymakers, this is “totally unpalatable”.