The radical ideology that attracts and motivates people to sympathize with and engage in Islamist terrorist activity is all-too-often not given the weight it deserves in the dialogue on counterterrorism. That said, two recent separate articulations on the vital need to do more to counter and actually triumph over extremist Islamist ideology deserve a close look.
Speaking at last month’s Aspen Security Forum, Douglas Feith, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in President George W. Bush’s Administration, and Senior Fellow and Director, Center for National Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute, explained that, “If we do not do something to counter the ideology that is inspiring these people to do these terrible violent acts, we’re essentially on a treadmill that is going to get faster over time.”
In the context of his remarks, it is safe to assume that Feith would not argue that nothing has been attempted when it comes to ideology. Simply put, however, Feith described the Bush and Obama Administrations’ collective efforts to counter ideological support for terrorists and take on Islamist extremism as “a major deficiency that has existed since 9/11.”
Feith’s comments are noteworthy because, unquestionably, many highly talented and driven public servants across the Bush and Obama Administrations have worked extremely hard in this area, whether it was or is called “the war of ideas,” “countering violent extremism,” or something else. Indeed, some progress has been made.
And yet – crucially – despite our many significant, laudable successes in homeland security and counterterrorism since September 11, including killing Osama bin Laden and severely degrading core al-Qaida, extremist Islamist ideology lives on in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria and beyond, including across the Internet, where people from all over the world, including in Europe and right here in the United States, can and do drink deeply of it. Despite the fact that we as a country have been busy working on the problem – and we can rightly point to speeches, events, strategies, plans, initiatives, working groups, meetings and money spent – what truly matters are results, and those are ultimately unsatisfactory.
In a recent statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, Frank Cilluffo, Director of The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (where I am a Senior Fellow), explained:
“Unfortunately, our efforts to counter and defeat the jihadist ideology have been lacking, with the result that the terrorist narrative lives on and continues to attract and inspire those who wish us harm – despite and in some cases even empowered by – the so-called Arab Spring.” Cilluffo continued by saying that ideology-related efforts are “the biggest element missing from our statecraft on counterterrorism.”
So how should we think about changing course? According to Feith, the Obama Administration is “defining the problem incorrectly” by focusing on defeating al-Qaida and its affiliates “rather than [focusing] on an ideologically driven global movement.”
In Feith’s view, “in order to really win this battle and solve the problem, something has to be done to discredit Islamist extremism and to recognize that one can attack the political ideology of Islamist extremism without attacking Islam as a religion.”
To that end, Feith recommends that the responsibility (and presumably accountability) “to take on the ideology” be clearly given to an official within the U.S. Government. In addition, Feith cited as a model the major effort in the early 1950s against communism in Europe, which involved “overt measures and covert measures” and “working with groups and social democrats.”
According to Cilluffo, “The power of negative imagery, as in a political campaign, could be harnessed to hurt our adversaries and further chip away at their appeal and credibility in the eyes of their peers, followers, and sympathizers.”
Cilluffo explains further that “a sustained and systemic strategic communications effort aimed at exposing the hypocrisy of Islamists’ words versus their deeds could knock them off balance, as could embarrassing their leadership by bringing to light their seamy connections to criminal enterprises and drug trafficking organizations.”
Especially in the closing stages of this presidential campaign season, going negative is something we in America understand well. Although the coming months will not be conducive to careful reflection on the difficult and complicated issues involved, a new administration, or the inevitably new blood injected into a second Obama term, present an important opportunity to undertake a fresh and comprehensive assessment of what has and has not worked, and what opportunities lie ahead.
Regardless of who is in a position to lead government efforts in this regard, it is imperative to note that a government-centric approach – particularly a U.S. federal-centric one – would be inherently flawed. After all, victims groups, educational institutions, faith-based and community organizations, foundations, businesses, and others outside of the government sector, both in the United States and especially those abroad, are enormously influential in shaping public perception and the broader culture. Some are already working to counter extremism, but overall, their effectiveness could be enhanced with the right kinds of partnerships, be they highly visible or subtle in nature.
Indeed, unlike government – which can succumb to serious delays and compromises associated with “the interagency process,” “concurrence,” “coordination,” and general risk aversion – those outside government can often act more nimbly. In addition, many non-governmental organizations already possess a deep familiarity with the religious, cultural, and linguistic essentials necessarily for this struggle – and that kind of understanding is not sufficiently prevalent in the U.S. Government.
Ultimately, as Feith explains, “What counts is what Muslims are saying among themselves, not what American officials are saying to Muslims, and the challenge is how do you operationally stimulate the debate and influence the debate.”
Efforts to confront and defeat the ideology that perverts Islam and results in the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocents – a huge number of which are Muslim – will inevitably garner false accusations of Islamophobia and of government meddling in religion. However, to drastically cut off the supply of recruits and sympathizers, and therefore to be truly successful in our counterterrorism efforts in the long term, such a confrontation is necessary. A key part of that undertaking is to support those who reject terrorism, including the overwhelming percentage of Muslims at home and around the world who are willing to stand up against what a virulent few are doing in the name of Islam.