The White House today is nearly devoid of the hard-liners who arrived in January wanting to use the bully pulpit to expose radical Islam as the root cause of global terrorism.
Sebastian Gorka, a scholarly but intense voice on the need for Islam to reform itself, exited Friday after a number of other like-minded thinkers were shown the door. Mr. Gorka was a cable news regular who took joy in bashing Mr. Trump’s critics, especially CNN.
The exodus began with retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who had planned to use his national security adviser role for the Gorka-type message. Next were a cadre of his people on the National Security Council staff. Then chief strategist Steve Bannon left the White House and returned to fighting his wars at Breitbart News Network.
Critics see the cleansing as a victory for Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Mr. Flynn’s successor as national security adviser.
As an Army strategist and prominent public speaker, the historian-warrior has expressed a consistent theme that the Islamic State terrorist organization, al Qaeda and other ultraviolent Muslim groups do not reflect Islam.
It is much the same argument made by President Obama, who saw himself as a personal defender of Islam.
Hard-liners have held out hope that President Trump, as commander in chief, will counter the McMaster culture.
But the White House shift from the Gorkas and Bannons came into even sharper focus last week when Mr. Trump delivered his first prime-time TV address to the nation. His speech on how to win in Afghanistan against a collection of violent Islamic groups never mentioned the word “Islamic,” only the generic term “terrorist.”
“Trump pointedly did not refer to ‘Islamic terrorists,’ but only to ‘terrorists,’ for the very first time,” said Robert Spencer, who runs the nonprofit Jihad Watch. “He campaigned on the promise that he would deal honestly with the motivating ideology behind the jihad threat. He has betrayed that promise.”
In an interview, an administration official who asked to speak not for attribution told The Washington Times that critics such as Mr. Spencer and Mr. Gorka are missing the point.
Mr. Trump announced not a retreat but rather a war plan against Islamic extremists. Mr. Gorka mentioned the missing words as motivation to leave.
“The fact that those who drafted and approved the speech removed any mention of radical Islam or radical Islamic terrorism proves that a crucial element of your presidential campaign has been lost,” Mr. Gorka said, according to The Federalist.
The administration official told The Times that neither Mr. McMaster nor any other official made a conscious effort to leave out the words “radical Islamic terror.” If Mr. Trump wanted those words in the speech, then they would have been included, the official said.
“It was not a deliberate omission in any sense,” the official said. “It’s not something anyone thought about.”
Mr. Bannon wanted U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, a nexus of Islamic terrorism.
“I find it extremely odd that the same people who are complaining he didn’t use that special phrase in his speech are also complaining about the policy, which is to go and fight and kill and blow up radical Islamic terrorists,” the administration official said. “So, ‘We’re [Mr. Bannon, Mr. Gorka, et al.] upset that the talismanic three words are not there, and we’re upset about the policy, which is to go and kill the people the talismanic three words signify.’”
Islamic terrorism or ignorance
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump called for withdrawing U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. His Aug. 21 speech was a commitment to a continued American presence without a timetable for leaving.
At its core, that speech was a call for war against the Taliban, the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the administration official said.
“That’s kind of the great triumvirate of radical Islamic terrorists,” the official said.
Early in Mr. McMaster’s tenure, the president overruled his objections to uttering the phrase “Islamic terrorism.”
“The president will use it when he wants,” the official said. “I’ll make a prediction here that may turn out wrong: You will hear Trump use the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ again. He will use it. It’s one of his phrases.”
Peter Mansoor is a McMaster ally and retired Army colonel who served in Iraq and teaches at Ohio State University.
Hours before the Gorka departure was announced, Mr. Mansoor told The Times: “With Bannon gone, certainly McMaster’s views hold more sway, but with Sebastian Gorka still in the West Wing, unanimity is still elusive.”
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, conservatives have adopted a view that, to defeat Islamic terrorists and their ideology, the U.S. has to label them for what they are: extremists within the religion who rely on its scholars, mosques and money to justify and spread death.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s founder, studied at a seminary in Iraq.
Spanish authorities on Aug. 19 raided the home of an imam who is suspected of supervising the Barcelona van attack for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Mr. McMaster takes a well-documented view diametrically opposed to Mr. Spencer’s Jihad Watch.
“There is a cycle going on where groups like ISIL, who use this irreligious ideology, this perverted interpretation of religion, to justify violence. They depend on ignorance and the ability to recruit vulnerable segments of populations to foment hatred, and then to use that hatred to justify violence against innocents,” Mr. McMaster said last year at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Ignorance” is a McMaster theme.
“They use that hatred, then, to justify violence against innocent people,” he said in 2014 at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. “So to break that cycle, ultimately I think you have to address the ignorance. I think the long-term, multigenerational battleground is a battleground of education.
Conservatives say they do not believe the “ignorance” label fits al-Baghdadi, who skillfully used Islamic scholarship to justify mass killings. They also say it does not fit the thousands of educated Muslims who flocked to Syria to join the Islamic State and support its killings.
“Indeed, al-Baghdadi has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies,” Mr. Spencer told The Times.
The word “ignorance” is popular among Islamic activists to label people such as Mr. Spencer, who, he said, “note how Islamic jihadis use the teachings of Islam to justify violence and make recruits among peaceful Muslims.”
“This is a theologically charged term in Islam, as the pre-Islamic period of any nation is known as its time of ‘ignorance,’ or ‘jahiliyya,’” Mr. Spencer said. “McMaster is no doubt being heavily propagandized by representatives of these groups, as his language reflects theirs.”
‘Know the enemy’
NBC News acquired Islamic State personnel files on about 4,000 foreign fighters who entered Syria. Far from being poor and uneducated, the cadre included 629 businessmen, 76 police and military personnel, 103 skilled white-collar workers including lawyers and engineers, 69 information technicians and 28 media workers.
“Overall, the size of the Islamic State recruiting pool provides for a larger number of occupational [backgrounds] present and therefore more diverse resources available to Islamic State leaders,” said the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
In his Aug. 21 speech, Mr. Trump referred to “terrorist” or “terrorists” 18 times but never labeled them Islamic.
He referred to “a terrorist group called ISIS” in one instance and in another “designated foreign terrorist organizations.”
Mr. Spencer contends Mr. Trump has retreated on other issues.
Still in place is an Obama-era “Countering Violent Extremism” program that awards money to nonprofit groups and generally ignores the jihad threat. The study of jihad ideology is still downplayed in law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The Department of Homeland Security canceled CVE grants to some organizations and has been working behind the scenes to direct more attention to Islamic extremism.
“We cannot defeat the enemy without knowing the enemy, and under Trump so far we still refuse to make any effort to know the enemy,” Mr. Spencer said.
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army colonel and author of a counterterrorism book, said Mr. McMaster reflects the politically correct thinking permeating military schools.
“Anyone who really studies the Islamic trilogy — the Sera, Hadith and Koran — will come away with a thorough appreciation for the faith’s radical and militaristic thinking,” said Mr. Maginnis, whose book “The Deeper State” appears Oct. 1. “Unfortunately, many in the U.S. military have been subjected to the politically correct view that leaves them intellectually dishonest about the facts of Islam and that faith’s violent history, much less the implications it has for contemporary terrorism.”
The Obama administration’s last National Military Strategy, which is the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman’s guidance to all commanders on threats and how to defeat them, did not mention Islamic terrorism. Instead, it used the generic term “violent extremist organizations.”
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the current chairman, said his strategy is not to be released publicly in any form.
Some commanders had pressed his staff to include a discussion of Salafist Islamic teachings and how they influence the Islamic State and other Sunni Muslim terrorist groups.