Two new documents laying out the Obama administration’s defense and homeland security strategy over the next four years describe the nation’s terrorist enemies in a number of ways but fail to mention the words Islam, Islamic or Islamist.
The 108-page Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, made public last week by the Department of Homeland Security, uses the term “terrorist” a total of 66 times, “al Qaeda” five times and “violent extremism” or “extremist” 14 times. It calls on the U.S. government to “actively engage communities across the United States” to “stop the spread of violent extremism.”
Yet in describing terrorist threats against the United States and the ideology that motivates terrorists, the review - like its sister document from the Pentagon, the Quadrennial Defense Review - does not use the words “Islam,” “Islamic” or “Islamist” a single time.
Although the homeland security official in charge of developing the review insists it was a not a deliberate decision, the document is likely to reignite a debate over terminology in the U.S.-led war against al Qaeda that has been simmering through two administrations.
“There was not an active choice” to avoid using terms derivative of Islam, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy David Heyman told reporters on a conference call. President Obama had “made it clear as we are looking at counterterrorism that our principal focus is al Qaeda and global violent extremism, and that is the terminology and language that has been articulated” by Mr. Obama and his advisers, Mr. Heyman added. He declined to use the I-word.
The sensitivity to terminology is not new. In April 2008, during the George W. Bush administration, an official guide produced by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the multiagency center charged with strategic coordination of the U.S. war on terrorism, urged officials not to use the words “Muslim” or “Islamic” in conjunction with the word “terrorism.”
Such usage “reinforces the ‘U.S. vs. Islam’ framework that al-Qaeda promotes,” read the NCTC’s “Words That Work and Words That Don’t: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication.”
Instead, the guide urges policymakers to use terms such as “violent extremists,” “totalitarian,” and “death cult” to characterize al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
The Obama administration has adopted “violent extremism” as its catchall phrase for terrorism.
It is advice that officials at the Defense Department also appear to have taken to heart. The 128-page Quadrennial Defense Review - which like the homeland-security review is a congressionally mandated effort to ensure budgeting and other planning efforts are properly aligned against threats to the nation - also eschews words associated with Islam, employing instead the constructions “radicalism,” “extremism” or “violent extremism.”
“I understand the reluctance to play up religion as a part of violent extremism,” said Stewart Baker, who held Mr. Heyman’s job at the Department of Homeland Security in the last administration. “But it’s easy to take that too far. Which communities [in the United States] is the government planning to engage to counter extremism? Not Hispanics, I’ll bet, or Lutherans.”
Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, said in a statement that she was “struck” by what she called the “glaring omission.”
Other kinds of extremism - for instance, white supremacism - are also seen as threats by many analysts, but they generally are acknowledged to pose a much less significant danger.
“To understand a threat and counter it, we must know our enemy,” said Ms. Collins, the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “While there are other threats to our national security from other types of violent extremism, the gravest threat comes from Islamist extremists. … In a review such as this, it is critical that we identify and address the specific threat posed by Islamist extremism.”
Ms. Collins noted that the publicly available portions of the recent Pentagon report on the attack at Fort Hood also did not use terms related to Islam. “We shouldn’t be reluctant to identify our enemy,” she said.