The White House’s official policy of banning the word “Islam” in describing America’s terrorist enemies is in direct conflict with the U.S. military’s war-fighting doctrine now guiding commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
John O. Brennan, President Obama’s chief national security adviser for counterterrorism, delivered a major policy address on defining the enemy. He laid out the White House policy of detaching any reference to Islam when referring to terrorists, be it al Qaeda, the Taliban or any other group.
But Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the man tapped by Mr. Obama as the new top commander in Afghanistan, led the production of an extensive counterinsurgency manual in December 2006 that does, in fact, tell commanders of a link between Islam and extremists.
The Petraeus doctrine refers to “Islamic insurgents,” “Islamic extremists” and “Islamic subversives.” It details ties between Muslim support groups and terrorists. His co-author was Gen. James F. Amos, whom Mr. Obama has picked as the next Marine Corps commandant and Joint Chiefs of Staff member.
Mr. Brennan on May 26 told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that “describing our enemy in religious terms would lend credence to the lie propagated by al Qaeda and its affiliates to justify terrorism, that the United States is somehow at war against Islam. The reality, of course, is that we have never been and will never be at war with Islam. After all, Islam, like so many faiths, is part of America.”
In a speech that also severed the Obama administration from President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” Mr. Brennan also said: “The president’s strategy is absolutely clear about the threat we face. Our enemy is not terrorism because terrorism is but a tactic. Our enemy is not terror because terror is a state of mind and, as Americans, we refuse to live in fear. Nor do we describe our enemy as jihadists or Islamists because jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam meaning to purify oneself of one’s community.”
Asked about the discrepancy between the White House policy and the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine, Michael Hammer, Mr. Brennan’s spokesman, said “We don’t have anything to add to John’s speech.”
Larry Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress, said Mr. Brennan is correct to avoid linking Islam to terrorism.
“Once you attach a religious thing, you’re basically saying somehow or other this is caused by the religion,” Mr. Korb said. “Most Muslims are not that way.”
He added, “If you put that term [Islamic terrorist] on there, it causes you more problems in the long run. You don’t want to see this as a war on quote unquote the Muslim world. If I took a look at all the people, for example, who killed abortion doctors and I said they’re Christian terrorists, or something like that, and they are all who have done that. That is their interpretation of the Bible. But most people are not. Some of these people will quote the Bible and say I had to go after this doctor because he’s killing innocents.”
Asked how to define the enemy, Mr. Korb answered, “Al Qaeda. That’s what we went in there for.”
Mr. Brennan said that describing the enemy as Islamists “would actually be counterproductive. It would play into the false perception that they are religious leaders defending a holy cause, when in fact they are nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims.”
Mr. Obama made an outreach to Muslim countries one of his early priorities as president. He has praised Islam and its contributions to American life. His new NASA director recently said one of his agency’s “foremost” goals is reaching out to Muslims.
The Petraeus counterinsurgency manual takes the position that, to understand the enemy, commanders must recognize terrorist links to Islam — its leaders in some cases, its fundraising and its infrastructure. Forces must fight “Islamic extremists,” it says, differently from the Viet Cong or followers of Saddam Hussein.
“Islamic extremists use perceived threats to their religion by outsiders to mobilize support for their insurgency and justify terrorist tactics,” the manual states.
In a section on the ideological source for Islamic terrorists, the doctrine says, “For many Muslims, the Caliphate produces a positive image of the golden age of Islamic civilization. This image mobilizes support for al Qaeda among some of the most traditional Muslims while concealing the details of the movement’s goal. In fact, al Qaeda’s leaders envision the ‘restored Caliphate’ as a totalitarian state similar to the pre-2002 Taliban regime in Afghanistan.”
The manual also discusses support networks for “Islamic extremists:”
“A feature of today’s operational environment deserving mention is the effort by Islamic extremists, including those that advocate violence, to spread their influence through the funding and use of entities that share their views or facilitate them to varying degrees. These entities may or may not be threats themselves; however, they can provide passive or active support to local or distant insurgencies.”
Among these support groups, it says, are “religious schools and mosques.”
In the successful prosecution of an Islamic charity in Dallas that funneled money to the designated terrorist group Hamas, the U.S. Justice Department listed scores of U.S.-based Islamic groups as unindicted co-conspirators.
The counterinsurgency doctrine also talks of people “committed to anti-United States terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.”
How to define the enemy has been debated in Washington since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress advocated no Islam link, while conservatives generally say a more precise definition of the enemy is needed if the U.S. hopes to win.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, some Muslims criticized the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for using the term “Islamic extremism.”
“If it’s not our intent to paint everyone with the same brush, then certainly we should think seriously about just characterizing them as criminals, because that is what they are,” Muneer Fareed, who then headed the Islamic Society of North America, told The Washington Times.
Douglas Feith, who as undersecretary of defense for policy under Mr. Bush helped plan the war on terror, said, “There always has been a sensitivity that we do not want to do or say anything that will allow our efforts to be mischaracterized credibly as a war against Islam.”
Mr. Feith, an analyst at the Hudson Institute, is now working on a paper on a U.S. strategy for countering “Islamist extremism.”
“What Brennan has done in this speech, I think, he’s bent over backwards to avoid using the term Islam at all and it makes discussions of what we’re really up against artificial, unrealistic and strategically unhelpful,” Mr. Feith said. “I think they need to be a little bolder and a little more honest and a little more assertive in making this extremely important distinction. To say Islam has nothing to do with it is ridiculous.”
He describes the distinction this way:
“People in the administration should be making the clear distinction between Islam, which is a religion and which is not our enemy, and extremist Islamism, which is a political ideology and is our enemy. … The fact is our enemies fly the banner of Islam. They claim to represent the religion. There are other people in the religion who say they don’t. What we need to be clear about is, our enemy has an extremist political ideology. They describe that ideology as the true religion. And there is no way we can deal with this phenomenon without confronting the fact that the enemy political ideology is rooted in a religion.”
Mr. Brennan, in a June 24 meeting with reporters and editors of The Times, said that the administration’s goal of not describing al Qaeda and its allies in Islamic terms is aimed at denying them legitimacy.
A 2008 U.S. Central Command “Red Team” report, or contrarian analysis, warned that divorcing Islam from jihadist terrorism is a mistake.
“The sources of Islam (Quran, Hadith, Shariah) claim divine origin and include a large body of Islamic jurisprudence on warfare that is detailed, instructive and directive,” the report said. “A balanced, intellectually critical approach must be taken in order to deconstruct the prime underpinnings and language of the concept of jihad, which rest firmly in the sources of Islam and not solely as contrivances within the criminal minds of a small number of violent extremists.”