Although jihadi propaganda videos released in the past year have continuously called for terrorist attacks on the US and the West, it was not until after the heinous attacks in Paris that the White House scheduled an international anti-extremism summit initially set for last year, but postponed without explanation.
The decision to schedule the summit only in the wake of the Paris attacks highlights growing concerns that terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda are a step ahead of US counterterrorism efforts.
Scheduled for February 18, 2015, the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism will discuss domestic and international efforts to counter violent extremism—particularly the radicalization and recruitment of individuals in the US and abroad to commit acts of violence— in light of recent terrorist attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, and Paris.
“The summit will include representatives from a number of partner nations, focusing on the themes of community engagement, religious leader engagement, and the role of the private sector and tech community,” the White House said. “Through presentations, panel discussions and small group interactions, participants will build on local, state, and federal government; community; and international efforts to better understand, identify, and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home in the United States and abroad.”
In addition to criticism for not holding the summit last year when it was originally scheduled, the current administration has also been scrutinized for the title of the upcoming Summit—the “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.”
"It’s not just Islamic violent extremism we want to counter," press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday when asked to explain why "Islamic" was omitted from the title of an upcoming Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. "There are other forms [of violent extremism]."
Failure to define the jihadi terrorist threat
Last month, US Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, wrote a letter to President Obama outlining gaps within the current administration’s approach to countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts.
Three years ago, the Obama administration released a national strategy for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States and corresponding implementation plan. However, McCaul noted that, “Since that time, the threat posed by homegrown violent Islamist extremism has only intensified with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the proliferation of Al Qaeda affiliates around the globe, and the spread of jihadi propaganda.”
In particular, McCaul noted one of the principal reasons behind the administration’s failure to adequately address the CVE threat is refusal to define the threat and identify these attacks for what they are: acts of Islamist extremism.
“Clarity is lacking when it comes to exactly how to define ‘CVE,’” McCaul said. “In particular, officials appear to have conflicting understandings of exactly what sets CVE apart from broader counterterrorism or general community outreach. This confusion is only compounded by the fact that multiple agencies play a role in CVE efforts, leading to potential conflicts between federal entities, as well as redundancies and gaps.”
When jihadists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris several weeks ago, they shouted, “We have avenged the prophet" and "Allahu Akbar" (God is great). Since then, the attackers have been connected to ISIS and Al Qaeda.
However, US and Western government officials are refusing to call the attacks in Paris “Islamic.” At a press briefing last week, Earnest defended the White House’s decision, saying, “We don’t want to be in a situation where we are legitimizing what we consider to be a completely illegitimate justification for this violence.”
Senior Intelligence Community and counterterrorism officials — as well as the rank and file — are in a strained relationship over the White House’s response, which is raising concerns that failure to address the ideology behind these terrorist organizations will prevent the US from curbing the threat of global jihadism.
“You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists,” asserted former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and recently retired retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn while speaking to a group of Special Forces members recently. He stated the Obama administration is unwilling to identify an enemy that’s “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”
Frustration with the administration’s inability to define the enemy as Islamist jihadists and to have a strategy to deal with the growing threat of Al Qaeda, its affiliates and the Islamic State, Flynn stepped down as DIA director last summer.
Flynn said, "For instance, in the case of the menacing — grotesque Islamic extremists the world faces,the United States must:
- "Clearly define this enemy;
- "We must articulate a clear, unambiguous strategy and ensure everyone understands it;
- "We must better organize ourselves to achieve that strategy nationally and internationally;
- "We must create a single unified & international ‘chain of command’ (probably civilian led) and;
- "We must tell the American public this is likely to last for decades."
"In truth," Flynn stated, "the only way to operate effectively within an infinitely complex environment is by orienting all decision making to a core set of principles — or a more apparent logic of action that enables realistic assessments of our enemies, our objectives, our means and of our methods of engagement."
"President Ronald Reagan understood this," he pointed out. "He was clear about the Soviet threat and their political ideology of communism and he led the country to deal with that adversary with the right balance of engagement and soft power. But that wasn’t mere realism or pragmatism."
Flynn said, "Calling our enemies what they are is vital," but that, "Many today don’t like that type of clarity. They want us to think that our challenge is dealing with an undefined set of violent extremists or merely lone wolf actors with no ideology or network."
"But that’s just not the straight truth," he stated. "Our adversaries around the world are self-described Islamic militants. And that means … as the President of France has rightly said … that our fight is with Islamic extremists using terrorism as their means to fight."
"Although that movement has a lot of variation, it is fueled by a vision for worldwide domination achieved through violence and bloodshed. They want to silence all opposition. They hate our ideals and our way of life," Flynn said, emphasizing that, "They’ll take any action to accomplish their objectives — whether that means suicide bombings, beheadings or mass executions. ISIS proves that point."
"It does us no good to refuse to admit what is plainly true," Flynn said. So, "So long as we lack the intellectual clarity to accurately define our enemies we will also not have the necessary capacity to defeat them. You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists."
He’s not the only senior Pentagon or Intelligence Community official frustrated with the White House’s seemingly intractable position on Islamist jihadists,according to various senior officials Homeland Security Today interviewed on background.
“We cannot be describing the enemy with a broad brush and declaring the entire Islamic faith and people as enemies. However, we also have to be able to tell the truth that some of these people are doing something that is simply a recipe for permanent war in this world,” said John Lenczowski, president and founder of the Institute of World Politics, and former Director of European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council.
“The war on terror isn’t simply between Western ideas and radical Islamic ideas, it is a war between radical Islamists and those Muslims who reject the notion that killing innocents is morally acceptable as a way of promoting their faith in the world," Lenczowski said.
Lenczowski noted that refusing to identify radical Islamist extremists for what they are is counterproductive. Not only is it an attempt to appease and propitiate radical Islamists by not identifying them for who they are, it also does not give courage to those Muslims who reject the radical interpretation of Islam.
"This effort to avoid mentioning the word ‘Islam’ has left us with only a couple options when it comes to countering Islamist terrorism,” Lenczowski said. “And that is the military option and whatever might be done through intelligence means. But all of those options that haveto do with fighting the war of ideas and fighting the war non-militarily in the moral and ideological battle space have been effectively removed from the table by this unilateral intellectual and rhetorical disarmament by this administration.”
And, “That is the fundamental strategic problem here,” Lenczowski said.
Recognizing Islamist jihadism, radicalization
The threat of recognized Islamist jihadism was so serious by late 2005 that in early 2006 FBI warned in a little known intelligence assessment, The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad, that “radicalized US converts to Islam and their potential to attack the homeland are growing concerns of the US Intelligence Community.”
“This assessment provides a working model of the radicalization process for a legal US person who is a convert to Islam, utilizing FBI case examples that illustrate the process … derived from open and closed FBI investigations” and “academic literature,” the profile stated.
According to the FBI’s indicators of jihadist radicalization, “converts who proceed through the radicalization process are often driven by an extremist with whom they have come into contact,” noting that, “under certain situational circumstances where motivation and opportunity exist, converts are able to bind to extremist individuals or groups and begin to forge an Islamic extremist identity.”
The assessment warned that “homegrown Islamic extremists are a growing threat, and are identified as legal US persons whose primary social influence has been the cultural values and beliefs of the United States, who also have the intent to provide for or directly commit a terrorist attack inside the United States.”
Prepared specifically for counterterrorism investigators, analysts and law enforcement, the assessment is a detailed profile of the “indicators” of someone undergoing Islamist radicalization. The FBI said it specifically “developed [the assessment] in order to identify an individual going through the radicalization process.”
Since it was issued, the underlying indicators of jihadi radicalization that it identified have been buttressed by what’s been learned from a string of Americans who’ve assumed the mantle of Muslim radicalization, or “sudden jihad syndrome.”
A top federal counterterrorism official told Homeland Security Today that when you “put [the indicators] in the context of an investigation of the suspicious actions or activity of a Muslim who also has suddenly become radical, the indicators are valid – we’ve seen them time and time again. This isn’t racial profiling when in the aggregate they paint a portrait of ideological radicalization.”
Nearly a year before Muslim Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan when on his jihadist killing spree at Ft. Hood (the administration still refers to the killings as "workplace violence"), the FBI counterterrorism investigators in Washington, DC to whom the San Diego Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) referred their concerns about Hasan’s contact with Los Cruces, New Mexico-born Anwar Al Awlaki — who joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as its best recruiter and operations planner — “almost flippantly” dismissed the JTTF’s worries, an intelligence official familiar with the matter said.
Washington’s rejection of the seasoned JTTF’s fears about Hasan, especially his communications with Al Awlaki raised questions about how seriously Washington was taking the threat of homegrown Muslim radicalization that the Intelligence Community had even then long been warning about, officials familiar with the matter told Homeland Security Today.
“It also raises questions about whether the FBI’s assessment was even taken into consideration by Washington in its review of the JTTF’s concerns,” one of the officials added.
“The [FBI profile] and its particulars aside, the content of the messages between Hassan and Al Awalkiwould lead a reasonable person to conclude that Hassan was well on his way to Islamist radicalization, and the notion that this was seen as ‘research’ for his [psychiatric] practice is not an explanation I would not put forth as a defense in the court of public opinion,” said David Cid, a 20 year veteran of the FBI where he served as a counterterrorism specialist frequently consulted by the CIA.
“Any … any contact,” with Al Awlaki should have been taken very seriously – “it should have caused the [Washington FBI counterterrorists to whom the San Diego JTTF referred the Hasan case] to want to know everything they could about him – with their own radicalization profile in mind,” a veteran counterterror official emphatically agreed.
In a statement, the FBI said Washington counterterrorism analysts had assessed that the content of Hasan’s communications with Al Awlaki were consistent with Hasan’s research as a psychiatrist at Walter Reed Medical Center. There was no indication that he was involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning, the FBI maintained. Consequently, the analysts saw no need to further investigate Hasan, a decision officials said infuriated veteran members of the JTTF who had been involved in the early investigations of Al Awlaki, and who had tried to nab him before he permanently left the US in March 2002.
“Major Hasan came to the attention of the FBI … because of emails he had written to a known terrorism suspect,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “but the FBI did not pursue an investigation of him because they concluded that the emails were consistent with his research at Walter Reed."
“I will say that on the basis of what I know so far, it is disturbing to know that there was this interaction between Hasan and other people. That is, I find, disturbing,” Holder eventually admitted in the wake of the disclosure of Hasan’s communication with Al Awlaki and the evidence of his jihadist radicalization.
Counterterrorism officials Homeland Security Today interviewed on background assured that “many” of the warning signs of Hasan’s [Islamist] radicalization were missed. “There were all sorts of indicators of radicalization that’d been identified in the FBI’s radicalization guide” that would have been seen in Hasan’s actions had investigators just talked to Hasan’s superiors, colleagues and patients.
“It wouldn’t have taken analysts long at all to realize he fit the profile of a person undergoing [Islamist] radicalization had they done so,” one of the officials said, adding, “and the FBI generally is big on using profiles.”
"Lots of people saw signs of trouble, but nobody connected the dots," Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler who worked for the Bureau for 25 years, told the Dallas Morning News. "Everybody was carrying around dots in their pockets – his co-workers, his medical school peers – everybody had a dot here and a dot there."
Counterterrorists familiar with the FBI’s Islamist jihad radicalization profile said “indicators” of radicalization identified in the profile were “glaringly” evident, but that the “failure to recognize them in an intelligence assessment that was intended to be used in investigations” of persons like Hasan begs the question of whether the assessment was ever taken into consideration by the Washington analysts who ultimately dismissed the San Diego JTTF’s concerns.
The analysts’ admittedly poorly considered analysis of Hasan’s emails with Al Awlaki and their consequent failure to probe the indicators of Hasan’s radicalizing despite the many “obvious” indicators he exhibited, further raised the question, officials said, whether the investigators understood, ever studied, or where even aware of the FBI profile – which clearly emphasized that preliminary “information collected during investigations does not always reveal the full scope ofan individual’s experience with radical Islam.”
Understanding when to dig deeper was addressed by then Homeland Security Undersecretary for Intelligence and Research Charles Allen in a March 28, 2008 internal memo obtained by Homeland Security Today.
“Good analysts are always alert to the possibility of what I call ‘abrupt discontinuity’ in order to warn of new threats,” Allen pointed out. “Analysts who operate only in a linear fashion are certain to fail to discern abrupt changes in the threat environment and thus fail to warn of impending threats that could damage US interests.”
Veteran counterterror officials told Homeland Security Today that, “In the Hasan case, it really [shouldn’t] have been too hard to … find parallels with the [radicalization indicators]” the FBI had outlined, one said.
The FBI profile cautioned that “during the pre-radicalization stage, an individual may not display overt signs of radicalization because conversion does not always lead to radicalization.”
Nevertheless, the FBI said it had been able to develop “a preliminary list of indicators the FBI has developed in order to identify an individual going through the radicalization process.”
And “[Hasan’s] emails [to Al Awlaki] should have been more than sufficient to justify a closer look at him; this was common sense stuff,” an official said with audible frustration.
It wasn’t until after Hasan’s jolting jihadist-inspired attack though that congressional investigators uncovered scores of the indicators of radicalization that had been identified by the FBI more than two years earlier, not the least of which were his emails to and from Al Awlaki. But according to officials familiar with the FBI’s investigation, FBI headquarters botched “moving” on Hasan by failing to recognize the “warning signs.”
The FBI did not respond to questions about how widely the assessment was disseminated within the Bureau or whether it has or is being used in domestic jihadist probes or for identifying potentially dangerous, radicalized Muslims brought to their attention. But officials familiar with the matter said on background there were “high level” bureaucratic concerns that the assessment wasn’t “politically correct,” as one said.
“So why [isn’t] this profile considered? If the FBI takes the time to put together this sort of intelligence assessment as a tool for its own counterterrorism investigators to use, and they don’t, then what good is it – unless there’s a political correctness component here that we don’t know about?” the official added.
“That’s a good question,” said decades-long veteran CIA officer and head of the Agency’s WMD counterterrorism unit Charles Faddis, who agreed with officials who said Hasan’s radicalized mindset – which comported with the FBI’s profile of a person undergoing radicalization – was lucidly evident in the tone and tenor of his behavior and writings to Al Awlaki.
“So what happened?” Faddis asked. “We are at war. We knew a US Army officer was talking to the enemy. Did we really need to over analyze the situation?” he said after studying the FBI’s profile. “What would we have done in 1943 if a US Army officer was found exchanging correspondence with a Nazi official in Germany? … whatever happened to common sense.”
Bowing to political correctness?
Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but the West Coast JTTF asked Washington counterterror analysts for help in assessing the potential threat Hasan posed amidst highly publicized protests in 2007 of the New York Police Department Intelligence Division’s (NYPD-ID) very similar profile of indicators of Muslim radicalization, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.
The timing was so coincidental that not just a few officials said they suspected someone at the Department of Justice — or in the administration — decided to downplay further use of the profile because of concerns that it also might offend Muslims if it became public.
"The administration let go of the lexicon [to describe jihadists as ‘Islamist extremists,’ etc.] and replaced it with a lexicon that was designed by apologists, hence the national capacity for identification and detection of the ideological threat is now nonexistent,” said Walid Phares, an adjunct professor at the National Defense University School for National Security Executive Education and director of the Future of Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Phares said, “I had clearly recommended as an advising member of the Future Terrorism Task Force of the Homeland Security Department in 2006 and 2007 that not identifying the ideology would lead to a higher national security risk.”
The NYPD-ID’s radicalization profile, unlike the FBI’s profile, was made public and quickly became the brunt of criticism that it was anti-Muslim. It was decried as racial profiling.
Authored by former NYPD-ID Director Mitchell Silber and another NYPD-ID analyst, it identified specific indicators of the phases through which homegrown jihadists progress on their way to radicalization.
The New York City University (NYCU) School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice quickly lambasted the profile of Muslim radicalization as being full of “faulty conclusions [that] will lead to racial and religious profiling. It “makes sweeping generalizations about the process of violent radicalization and its coupling with Islam.”
The Brennan Center’s critique further asserted that “… the report … blatantly ignores the fact that the majority of religious activity mentioned in the report as indicators of radicalization does not pose a threat to national security. Though the report claims to disavow racial profiling, the policy suggestions it makes clearly promote this practice. For example, it lists the following as suspicious behavior: wearing traditional Islam clothing, growing a beard, praying five times a day, and participating in community and political activism. The NYPD report shows an alarming negligence in its methodology and conclusion that is counterproductive to counterterrorism policy and civil liberties.”
The Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition (MACLC), which was formed in the wake of the furor over the NYPD report, also blasted the analysis and issued its own critique: CounterERRORism Policy: MACLC’s Critique of the NYPD’s Report on Homegrown Radicalism.
The MACLC critique said the NYPD analysis “presents a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents … call[ing] into question the loyalties and motivations of law-abiding and mainstream Muslims in a deeply offensive way and paints them as potential threats to national security without substantiated evidence. Furthermore, it erroneously associates religious precepts with violence and terror, irrespective of First Amendment and equal protection rights. As such, MACLC has found that the NYPD report neither protects American Muslims from undeserved scrutiny and profiling nor strengthens domestic security discourse.”
Phares told Homeland Security Today “the attack against the [NYPD] report is precisely because the latter defines the threat as jihadism. For example, the New York City University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice stated that the report ‘is full of faulty conclusions [that] will lead to racial and religious profiling,’ and that it ‘makes sweepinggeneralizations about the process of violent radicalization and its coupling with Islam,’ is the same narrative used by the jihadist propaganda.”
Author of, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West, and The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy, Phares said “obviously, the NYCU center is wrong because it doesn’t establish a distinction between Islam as a religion and jihadism as an ideology. Certainly the NYPD report has many aspects that needs to be reviewed and corrected, but the Brennan Center has committed significant academic mistakes. I suggest the university check the nature of the expertise upon which it made these statements. If a law school cannot make a difference between a religion and an ideology, it is facing a serious research problem.”
Continuing, Phares said “the center argues that just because the NYPD reports tries to establish parameters where extreme religiosity is one of the factors that usually accompanies the Salafist behavior, and not the central factor, the report is thus generalizing. I think the Brennan analysts have shown that they lack the understanding of how jihadists operate. The NYPD … critics are simply repeating what pro-jihadists commentators are repeating on Al Jazeera daily: that the United States is going after a religion. That’s what happens if you do not distinguish between theology and ideology.”
In a series for Canada’s National Post in which he argued that a better understanding of the radicalization process is needed, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, author of, My Year Inside Radical Islam, stated attempts to “engage in serious study of the radicalization process have met with chilly receptions … the NYPD study in particular generated enormous controversy,” even though it’s very similar to the FBI’s profile of radicalization that was issued the year before. “While [the NYPD] study is by no means above criticism, many critiques [have] suggested that any exploration of this difficult area should be off-limits.”
“The same kind of arguments surfaced in the wake of the Ft. Hood shootings. If commentators really believe it is inappropriate to explore how terrorists have radicalized, that is their prerogative. But let’s be honest about the kind of profiling that is relevant here,” Gartenstein-Ross noted. “From my perch, it seems that understanding how terrorists are made can be used as a tool to protect rights rather than violate them – to avoid the kind of generalized suspicion that the opponents of profiling rightly fear.”
But the NYPD profile isn’t without a modicum of justified criticism. Cid said “some language changes would have taken most of the sting out of criticism. For example, the report states ‘Muslims in the United States are more resistant, but not immune to the radical message.’”
“All Muslims?” Cid asked. “This could have been worded more artfully. For example, ‘there are some Muslims in the United States who, though likely more resistant to a radical message, may be influenced to begin down the path of radicalization’ or something akin to this, which does not leave one with the impression that the NYPD believes all Muslims are susceptible to this message. Clearly they are not.”
Still, Cid stressed the assessment “is an honest attempt to develop a constellation of warnings and indicators to gauge intention, the most difficult dimension of a threat assessment to measure, and yet the most important.”
Cid said the development of such a profile “is difficult because our internal life may not manifest externally, and important because the means to carry out an act of violence is no more complex than picking up a gun.”
“Obviously the FBI and many other agencies need to be fully aware of the sensitivities as they proceed in their work, but the best way to solve the issue of community sensibility is to identify the jihadi doctrine, goals, behavior, and indoctrination process so precisely that the matter isremoved from religious issues and kept in the realm of radical ideologies only,” Phares said.
“For example, many kept pounding in the media that Hasan was a ‘pious Muslim.’ Why that insistence? So what? There are many Muslims who are pious and aren’t jihadi Salafists,” Phares continued. “The focus should not be made that terrorists are ‘pious Muslims.’ This is wrong tactically and academically. The focus must be on the affiliation with jihadism, period. If a practicing Muslim prays five times a day and invokes Allah a hundred times a day, there is no problem at all with it. But if an individual presents lectures on jihad and calls for it, legitimizes it, and exchange emails with jihadi ideologues, yes this is an indicator of jihadi activities. But it is just that, an objective indicator that you haven’t invented but it is there being played in front of your eyes and ears.”
“The government unfortunately has taken the ability of its agencies to detect the most important, that is the ideology, leaving bureaucrats and law enforcers to a vast nebulous of theological practices,” Phares said. “The jihadists are winning when we divert the issue from jihadism into Islam. And that’s where we are right now.”
“It’s not about religion – it’s about terrorist ideology; an ideology committed to the killing of Americans, destruction of our country and subordination of our constitution,” added 20-year CIA veteran, Clare Lopez, whose specific areas of expertise includes Islam and Iran.
Lopez said “there’s no consideration due either ideology or those who hold and act on such ideology. Quite to the contrary, it’s the constitutional professional duty of our national intelligence and security leaders to protect us from ‘all enemies foreign and domestic,’ and if this ideology is the enemy, then it’s prosecutable if they fail to deal with it as they ought to.”
“Until our national security leadership acknowledges and focuses on the true nature and identity of this enemy coming at us (Islamic jihad and all who follow its call), we will continue to lag behind the curve – and without doubt there will be preventable disasters and deaths as a consequence of their dereliction of duty to protect us,” Lopez said.
“As far as the FBI critics, they should be asked what other parameters they offer?” Phares said. “In some instances, the activist NGOs are calling for including their activists as the only accredited instructors on Islam. So in the end, the US government counterterrorism agencies would be instructed by apologists for jihadism as to how to behave with the community. That is unseen and unheard of.”
Moving forward: addressing gaps in current CVE efforts
In order to improve the nation’s efforts in combating the extremist jihadist ideology espoused by violent Islamist groups, McCaul initiated a review last year of the administration’s CVE policies and programs in order to identify strengths, weaknesses and remaining gaps in the nation’s CVE efforts.
The House Committee on Homeland Security uncovered several significant problems in the administration’s approach to the threat of violent Islamist extremism: lack of clearly defined, overall lead agency; lack of an overall definition of CVE; insufficient budgeting for and accounting of CVE efforts and reliable personnel figures; unclear coordination between domestic and foreign CVE efforts; and lack of established metrics for success.
Despite these areas of concern, the committee was encouraged by improvements to community outreach, efforts to formalize communication and cooperation between partner agencies and the creation of a specific CVE coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the establishment of specific CVE points of contact at 26 FBI field offices.
“While there have been positive developments on your administration’s CVE efforts, there are still fundamental problems which will hinder your long term success mitigating the threat of violent Islamist extremism in the United States,” McCaul in his letter to the President.
Developing a counter-narrative to terrorist propaganda
McCaul’s concerns echo the findings of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, Countering Violent Extremism in the United States, written in February 2014 by Jerome P. Bjelopera, A CRS specialist in organized crime and terrorism. The report raised the question of whether the federal government is in the business of determining which ideologies are dangerous and which are safe.
“If the framing of a counter-narrative challenging terrorist ideologies is necessary, how precisely should the federal government partner with state and local government and civilian counterparts in the development of this counternarrative?" Bjelopera questioned. "How do government entities keep a counter-narrative from being publicly viewed as propaganda or fueling terrorist conspiracy theories about the United States?"
“In order to conduct effective oversight, Congress may choose to ask the administration to define exactly what it means when referring to “violent extremist narratives," Bjelopera said.
In the meantime, as the US was grappling with the dilemma over defining the enemy and developing a counter-narrative, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are outpacing US efforts to counter jihadi propaganda, which these jihadist organizations have learned to use adeptly.
Islamist jihadist organizations like Al Qaeda and its affiliates, ISIS and other designated jihadist terrorist organizations, have increasingly refined their use of social media platforms and other online services to spread jihadist propaganda and to call for jihadists in the West to carry out attacks on non-believers and apostates.
These calls to jihad have increased in recent months, as Homeland Security Today has been reporting. This week, for example, the Islamic State’s spokesman renewed calls for jihadist attacks against the West. But the Islamic State has repeatedly been calling for Lone Wolf jihadi attacks on the US homeland.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi (Caliph Ibrahim) recently vowed "volcanoes of jihad everywhere." Al Baghdadi is a former US detainee who returned to jihad. While the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq wasn’t detained at GITMO, he was a detainee at the largest US run detention facility in Iraq, Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr. As Homeland Security Today reported in an in-depth examination of the most dangerous jihadists the US has freed, Al Baghdadi was among prisoners the administration freed in 2009 as Obama wound down the US’s presence in Iraq.
Months earlier, Homeland Security Today reported a pro-ISIS social media group called upon ISIS supporters in the US to use the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere throughout the United States as a cover to carry out lone wolf attacks.
In addition, last year the Somalia-based Al Qaeda affiliated jihadi group Al Shabaab Al Mujahideen’s media wing, Al Kataib Foundation, released a video calling for Muslims living in the West to "take your Istishhadi [suicide] vest" and carry out a lone wolf attacks.
Homeland Security Today also reported that AQAP recently released a five-minute audio recording, "A Word about the Blessed Raid in Paris," by its chief cleric Sheikh Harith Al Nadhari, in which he congratulated the jihadis who attacked the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo as "heroes.”
"The enemies of Allah’s prophet [Muhammad], who have [declared their] disbelieve in him … and insulted him, the wicked from the sons of France, have assumed that Allah shall not avenge His messenger, and they have thought they are safe from Allah’s ruling regarding them … [But] Allah has come to them from where they didn’t expect, [allowing to] overcome them, and tormented them by the hands of the believers,” said the Middle East Media Research Institute’s translation of Al Nadhari’s message.
These are just a few of many examples of jihadi propaganda released in the year. Although the "extremist" summit, which promises to address many of the challenges laid out by McCaul and Bjelopera is a step in the right direction, failure to define the enemy has created a fundamental strategic problem in US counterterrorism efforts.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently said on ABC News that there was a need to find ways to "prevent people from adhering to, being attracted to this terrorist ideology."
But given the administration’s consistent refusal to call Islamist extremism for what it is, it remains to be seen how the administration will counter a jihadi ideology it has yet to define.