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.
Patrick Poole, a counterterrorism consultant to government and law enforcement agencies, said the documents reveal a “culture of willful blindness that continues to grow” within senior levels of government.
“For our military, intelligence, and homeland security agencies to continue to ignore the short- and long-term strategic threat from jihadist groups, and the radical Islamic ideology that fuels them, is nothing less than a dereliction of duty,” Mr. Poole said.
“The current administration seems hellbent on doubling down on the previous administration’s failure to comprehend this threat, and there are American citizens and armed service members [who] are going to die as a result.”
The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano poured scorn on the idea that the omission was not deliberate, pointing out that the quadrennial reviews were subjected to a comprehensive interagency editing and approval process. “It’s not like this is an oversight. … No one is slapping their forehead going, ‘Oh, yeah, we forgot to use the word.’”
Mr. Carafano said he sympathized with the desire “to separate the act of terror from the religion” of Islam, but he said there was a straightforward solution: The word Islamicist or Islamist - as used by Ms. Collins. Webster’s dictionary defines Islamist or Islamicist as “an advocate or supporter of Islamic, especially orthodox Islamic, political rule.”
Mr. Carafano called this “terminology that’s well understood in both the East and the West … [as] an extremist grouping with a political agenda, not a religious one.”
A 2008 paper produced by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties suggested that the distinction between Islam and Islamism might not be well understood.
“The experts we consulted did not criticize this usage based on accuracy,” according to the paper, “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations From American Muslims.”
“Nevertheless, they caution that it may not be strategic for [U.S. government officials] to use the term because the general public, including overseas audiences, may not appreciate the academic distinction between Islamism and Islam.”
A U.S. military report produced in 2008 by a special unit of the U.S. Central Command criticized the federal government for not properly identifying the nature of the Islamist terrorist threat.
“We must reject the notion that Islam and Arabic stand apart as bodies of knowledge that cannot be critiqued or discussed as elements of understanding our enemies in this conflict,” said the internal report by the Centcom “Red Team,” a unit that provides contrarian views for the combatant commander.
“The fact is our enemies cite the source of Islam as the foundation for their global jihad,” the report said. “We are left with the responsibility of portraying our enemies in an honest and accurate fashion.”
Other Obama administration officials, including, most strikingly, the top U.S. diplomat, appear less timid than their defense and homeland security colleagues in using terms such as “Islamic” to describe the nation’s terrorist enemies. Speaking over the weekend of the various threats to U.S. security, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described al Qaeda and its allies as “extremists … fundamentalist Islamic extremists.”
A homeland security official authorized to speak on background said the quadrennial review was not designed to provide a definition of the enemy; instead, it “focuses on what the key goals and objectives should be to prevent terrorism. … Preventing and deterring terrorism - in any form - is the primary mission, which is very clearly spelled out.”
• Bill Gertz contributed to this report.