U.S. Special Operations Command has privately pressed the staff of the nation’s highest-ranking military officer to include in his upcoming National Military Strategy a discussion of the Sunni Muslim ideology underpinning the brutality of the Islamic State group and al Qaeda.
Thus, behind the scenes, the Pentagon’s top brass have entered a debate coursing through the presidential campaign: how to define an enemy the U.S. military has been fighting for 15 years.
The National Military Strategy, authored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, is one of the most important guidances issued to global combatant commanders. It prioritizes threats to the nation and how to blunt them.
The 2015 public version does not mention Islamic ideology. It lists terrorists under the ambiguous category of “violent extremist organizations” and singles out al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford took the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff two months later and is now preparing his first National Military Strategy.
It is during this process that Special Operations Command, which plays a major role in hunting down terrorists, has provided its input to the Joint Staff, Gen. Dunford’s team of intelligence and operations officers at the Pentagon.
Special Operations Command wants the National Military Strategy to specifically name Salafi jihadism as the doctrine that inspires violent Muslim extremists. Salafi jihadism is a branch within Sunni Islam. It is embraced by the Islamic State and used to justify its mass killings of nonbelievers, including Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds, as well as Christians.
People knowledgeable about the discussion told The Washington Times that SoCom has not been able to persuade Gen. Dunford’s staff to include Salafi jihadism in any strategy draft. It is unclear whether Gen. Dunford has been briefed on the proposals.
Spokesmen for the Joint Staff and U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, told The Times that they could not comment on a pending strategy. Gen. Dunford’s strategy will be classified in its entirety, meaning there will be no public version as was issued by his predecessor, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, in 2015.
Special Operations Command is headed by Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, a veteran terrorist hunter who led Joint Special Operations Command, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden and many other extremists.
There does not appear to be an effort to include the words “radical Islamic terrorism” in the strategy. But including a discussion of Salafi jihadism would tie acts of terrorism to Islamic ideology.
President Obama has fiercely rejected any connection between Islam the faith and al Qaeda, the Islamic State or any other Muslim terrorist organizations. He argues that they have corrupted the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran. His administration refers to them as simply “extremists.”
The counterargument from many U.S. national security analysts and Muslim scholars is that mass killings are rooted in the Koran and other primary writings and preachings of credible Islamic scholars and imams. These teachings at some mosques and on social media encourage youths to become radical Islamists.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ruthless Islamic State founder, is a cleric who studied at a seminary in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi has a Ph.D. in Koranic studies from Iraq’s Saddam University.
‘War of ideas’
If the cycle of global jihadism is to be broken, they say, U.S. officials must accurately assess the nature of the threat and its doctrines. If not, Gen. Dunford’s National Military Strategy is, in essence, directing commanders to ignore threat doctrine and relinquish the information battlefield to the enemy.
“If you look at threat doctrine from that perspective, it’s a much bigger problem because it’s not just the violent jihadists; it’s the nonviolent jihadists who support them,” said one person knowledgeable about the National Military Strategy. “Pretending there is no relationship between the violent jihadists and Islam isn’t going to win. We’re completely ignoring the war of ideas. We’re still in denial. We’re pretending the enemy doesn’t exist.”
A joint counterterrorism report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War concluded:
“Salafi-jihadi military organizations, particularly ISIS and al Qaeda, are the greatest threat to the security and values of American and European citizens.”
The Islamic State is also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
Albert M. Fernandez, who was the State Department’s chief of strategic communication, said that on some level, if not the U.S. directly, people need to talk about the form of Salafi jihadism that promotes violence.
“Using the word ‘extremism’ is extraordinarily vague language,” he said.
Some voices in the Muslim hierarchy differ with Mr. Obama and say the encouragement of violence is a problem that Islam must confront.
One such leader is Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of the Drancy Mosque in Paris. France has Europe’s largest Muslim population and has been wracked by a series of brutal terrorist attacks planned and inspired by the Islamic State.
Mr. Chalghoumi spoke last year at a conference in Washington sponsored by the Middle East Media Research Institute, which tracks jihadi social media and promotes moderate Islamic leaders.
Mr. Chalghoumi said mosques are one “battlefront” in the war on extremism.
“The third battlefront is the mosques, in many of which there is incitement to anti-Semitism, hate and ultimately violence,” he said. “This is the most critical battlefront regarding the future of Islam and its relationship with other religions. But even this one is not solely internal. The government should have a role in prohibiting money from terrorist organizations from reaching mosques and guiding their activities. It should prevent extremist leaders from preaching in pulpits from which they can abuse their power and spew hate and violence. It should make sure that the people who preach religion to others are qualified and endorse human values.”
Advocates of publicly discussing the influence of Salafi jihadism point to Sahih al-Burkhari. It is a nine-volume collection of Sunni Muslim dictates from historical figures that is held as only second in importance to the Koran.
Volume 4, Book 56, justifies the killings of non-Muslims. “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him,” says one apostle of the Prophet Muhammad.
Volume 9, Book 88, contains this: “During the last days there will appear some young foolish people who will say the best words but their faith will not go beyond their throats (i.e., they will have no faith) and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, where-ever you find them, kill them, for who-ever kills them shall have reward on the Day of Resurrection.”
Robert Spencer is an author who runs Jihad Watch, a nonprofit that reports on Islamic extremism.
He explains that Salafi Jihadism is a vehicle for taking the teachings of the Koran and applying them to jihad.
“The Islamic State scrupulously follows the Koran and Sunnah in its public actions, including its pursuit of jihad, and provides in Dabiq its Islamic justification for even its most controversial actions,” he said. “Thus the Islamic State is essentially the apotheosis [highest form] of Salafi Jihadism.”
The Sunnah contains the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Dabiq is a town in Syria where a final battle between Muslims and Christians supposedly will take place.
A 2008 strategy paper from Harvard University’s John M. Olin Institute said:
“Like all ideologies, Salafi-Jihadists present a program of action, namely jihad, which is understood in military terms. They assert that jihad will reverse the tide of history and redeem adherents and potential adherents of Salafi-Jihadist ideology from their misery. Martyrdom is extolled as the ultimate way in which jihad can be waged — hence the proliferation of suicide attacks among Salafi-Jihadist groups.”
Defining the enemy
How to define the Islamic State, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq and has franchises in over 20 countries, has been a hot topic in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Republican nominee Donald Trump criticizes Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for refusing to define the threat as “radical Islamic terrorism.”
He has surrounded himself with advisers who do see the threat that way. Former CIA Director James Woolsey, who has authored papers on the extremist Islamic threat, has joined the campaign as a foreign policy adviser.
Another Trump spokesman is retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who led the Defense Intelligence Agency under Mr. Obama. He has said he was fired by the White House for promoting the idea that there is a radical Islamic movement that must be confronted.
One of Mr. Trump’s most ubiquitous surrogates is former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was on Fox News on Saturday morning again criticizing Mrs. Clinton for not defining the threat.
Mrs. Clinton at one point said “radical jihadists” is the proper description. After the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, by an Islamic State follower, she said “radical Islam” is permissible. She infrequently uses either term.
“Inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and threatening to ban the families and friends of Muslim Americans as well as millions of Muslim businesspeople and tourists from entering our country hurts the vast majority of Muslims who love freedom and hate terror,” she said in June, taking a swipe at Mr. Trump. “So does saying that we have to start special surveillance on our fellow Americans because of their religion.”
The Defense Department on a few occasions has purged from its ranks those who advocate a discussion on how Islam the religion encourages violence.
In 2008, during the George W. Bush administration, the Pentagon ended a contract with Stephen Coughlin, an Army Reserve officer and lawyer. His consulting work centered on showing the links between Islamic law and violent extremism.
In 2012, in the Obama administration, Gen. Dempsey, then the Joint Chiefs chairman, publicly admonished Army Lt. Col. Matthew Dooley for linking the roots of Islamic teachings to the terrorism’s ideology today. Col. Dooley was removed as a teacher at Joint Forces College within the National Defense University and given a poor performance evaluation.
A student linked some of his training materials, and Muslims complained to the White House.
Gen. Dempsey called Col. Dooley’s training materials “academically irresponsible.”
The university’s teaching guidance says it permits outside-the-box instruction.
Muslim groups have petitioned the White House to end what they consider anti-Muslim training.
One set of complaints came in an October 2011 letter from 57 Islamic groups to Mr. Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, now the CIA director. Mr. Brennan refuses to use the words “Islamic extremists” or “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Some of the groups were unindicted co-conspirators in a federal terrorist financing prosecution in Texas. They also have ties to the global Muslim Brotherhood, whose goal is a world ruled by Islamic law.
Gen. Dempsey issued the Pentagon’s last National Military Strategy a little over a year ago.
It says the two leading terrorist organizations are al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which are defined as “violent extremist organizations.” That is the paper’s only use of the word “Islamic,” and there is no use of “Muslim” or “Salafi.”