Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 15, 2010

Framing the counter-terrorism (violent extremism) challenge

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on July 15, 2010

Earlier this week the Washington Institute for Near East Policy released a report entitled, Fighting the Ideological Battle: The Missing Link in US Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism.

The report has gotten more than its share of attention by being framed as “challenging the administration’s shift in its recently unveiled National Security Strategy…”  (Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press and others) 

This framing has encouraged long-time administration critics to renew charges that this White House — and John Brennan, in particular — is soft on terrorism. (Andrew Bostrum, Washington Times)  Without the fuss I probably would not have seen the report, so — however tawdry and misleading — marketing has its benefits. The product is better than the marketing.

I perceive the report less a challenge than a constructive contribution to the tough task of effectively targeting how we should confront violent extremism. Most aspects of the Washington Institute report are entirely coherent with key elements of the speech Mr. Brennan gave at CSIS in August last year. (Please see a prior post: An Exegesis on the Words of John (Brennan))

To encourage you to download and read the full report, here are three contiguous paragraphs from the close of the analysis, just before the recommendations.

Unfortunately, despite the sharp rise in terrorist plots and cases of homegrown radicalization, specific policies and programs aimed squarely at countering the radical narrative remain few and far between. The Obama administration’s efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, eliminate certain interrogation techniques, and change the tone of U.S. engagement with Muslim communities worldwide have met with a generally positive response abroad. According to the June 2010 Pew survey, confidence in the U.S. president increased 43 percent from 2007 to 2010. Yet such efforts do little to address the immediacy of violent extremism. Even the targeted killings of al-Qaeda leaders plotting attacks today may in the long run create new recruits hungry for revenge. It is axiomatic that the United States cannot simply kill its way out of the problem; it must find ways to take on the extremist ideology directly. To date, however, official policy as articulated in the National Security Strategy limits U.S. efforts to “combating violent extremism”— which, although necessary, is not sufficient for creating an acceptable end-state in which both the violence and the ideology that fuels it are taboo within Muslim majority nations around the world, and are no longer animating the global terrorist threat of most concern to the United States. Once individuals cross over into violence their radicalization is complete; the last step in a process has been reached. Even as law enforcement, military, and intelligence successes against al- Qaeda grow, the ideological challenge, unless actively confronted, will continue to metastasize.

The National Security Strategy states that America is “fighting a war against a far-reaching network of hatred and violence,” going on to refer exclusively to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Recognizing that the more “kinetic” side of counterterrorism gets the lion’s share of the administration’s attention—especially with U.S. troops still deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorists trying to attack us at home—the White House needs to direct more attention to combating the ideology that animates the violent groups. The government should assign bureaucratic priority to this endeavor and raise public consciousness of the need to stem the spread of radical extremist ideology. To be sure, officials need to make very clear that they do not consider Islam itself a danger, only the distorted version of Islam perpetrated by radical extremists. But they— and, in particular, the president—must also come to terms with the fact that individuals implicated in each of the recently exposed plots in the United States were imbued with a common radical ethos.

Counterradicalization in all its forms is an essential complement to counterterrorism. The latter we do relatively well, the failure to connect the dots prior to the attempted bombing of Flight 253 notwithstanding; the former we barely do at all. The result: a group of middle class Muslim Americans from northern Virginia videotape a militant message, leaves for jihad at the advice of a Taliban recruiter, and is arrested in the home of a known militant in Pakistan. “We are not terrorists,” one of them said as he entered a Pakistani courtroom, “We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism.” All elements of national power should be used to counter this proposition and its myriad implications, so that the very notion that Muslims have a religious duty to commit acts of terror is challenged and debunked. There are no guarantees that if the United States had been fully engaged in this effort for the past ten years, the young Virginia men would not have boarded that flight to Pakistan. But unless we accelerate and expand our efforts now, we can be assured that others will follow in their footsteps.

The recommendations which follow are entirely sensible.  With more time than I have  it would be possible to find administration documents, speeches, and such saying almost the same.  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are much more differentiated than the Washington Institute’s report is from the National Security Strategy.

I can, however, imagine at least one  senior administration official taking serious exception to one of the report’s specific recommendations: “Designate a single address for the coordination of U.S. public diplomacy, strategic communication, and counterradicalization strategy within the White House. Empowering someone close to the president to orchestrate the overall effort to combat radicalization both at home and abroad is critical to maintaining strategic focus over the longer term.”

I’m pretty sure  John Brennan considers that his address. He is in the midst of a significant refurbishment.  I don’t think he intends to move any time soon.


Much of the fussing over the report focused on whether the term “Islamic terrorist” or “Jihadist” should be used in referring to some violent extremists. This week the blog On Faith has aggregated a diverse set of opinions around the question, “What to call terrorists?”  You can access the site at: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/2010/07/what_to_call_terrorists/all.html

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 15, 2010 @ 1:26 am

Tell US more about John Brennan? He seems to be the key player in shaping much domestic WH policy even outside of HS and EM? Is that overstretch or a compliment to his skills? Clearly he is a bureacratic survivor and first gained entree with President Obama when during the Obama Presidential campaign became the key INTEL guy? Who exactly has the BP catastrophe management position? Is that a HS issue? Is the BP Catastrophe in fact a National Security issue?

Comment by John Comiskey

July 15, 2010 @ 6:50 am

Islam –the answers to countering Islamic extremism lie within womankind.

USA Today July 14, 2010: France’s lower house passes burqa law:

Legislator Berengere Poletti said face-covering veils “are a prison for women, they are the sign of their submission to their husbands, brothers, or fathers”

Poletti’s words are strong and in consonance with the French ideal of women’s equality and France’s secular tradition. I applaud that notion and argue that the democratic elements of Islam and an emergence of global women power to include Islam are key to counter terrorism and particularly counter radicalization.

NSS 2010 cites the role of women no less than 19 times. Noteworthy are the following words:

Women should have access to the same opportunities and be able to make the same choices as men. Experience shows that countries are more peaceful when women are accorded full and equal rights as men.

Women represent roughly 50% of the Islamic population –The WH and John Brennan might consider that in their strategic focus. The UN too!

The overall effort to combat radicalization must be a global effort and it must play both hard and soft ball at the same time –not an easy task. Counter terrorism is a package with some nasty collateral damage without remedy. We must all come to terms with this.

Let us not talk so much about women. Let us empower them –my money is on Oprah and Oprah-like advocacy. I understand that Obama (O) enjoys a special relationship with Oprah (O). Might that be a counter terrorism paradigm –O &O –a government-citizen partnership and particularly moms, wives, sisters, and daughters to do the work that men cannot and should not do alone. I hope O & O are listening!

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 15, 2010 @ 8:10 am

During the decade of the 90’s I was still employed by FEMA [retired October 1st, 199]!
A young lady who was the lead receptionist in the Office of the General Counsel was employed beneath her capacity since she was a graduate of Howard University in Washington DC. After over a year in that job she was engaged and then married to a Black Muslim. One day she showed up in a full Burqa. You could not identify her as male or female or even our employee. This went on for several days while I watched the tensions rise in the office. I was no longer a principal manager in that office at that point. Finally I approached the then General Counsel of FEMA and said the following:

I am getting ready to report to the FEMA Security Office a violation of security by the person wearing the Burqa. Do you want my memo to go through you or directly? I choice I always gave the GC’s since for almost 20 years I apparently was the percieved rival of the GC’s for the affections, attention, and hatreds of those dealing with the GC’s office. Perhaps because I most often flashed a green light to ops as opposed to a redlight. By the way FEMA Directors were delegated vast discretion in various statutes and Executive Orders but hey some see forests and some see trees.
Anyhow I told the GC that if nothing had happened by the end of the week I was going to hand carry my memo through the system. The employee resigned before the end of the week. Too bad because otherwise an excellent employee. Was this political incorrect of me? I don’t think so but then I had made a huge issue of building security in the 80’s and 90’s and nothing was done. Also a HAZMATS train ran almost daily with large chlorine supplies right next to FEMA HQ. And the FBI had flunked FEMA many times on both building location and security and COMSEC issues. Well I did my best. But the Burqa blew my lid since I believe as Mr. Comiskey states Women’s Issues are huge in anti-terrorism. But remember always only in American history and life have the best, brightest and most competent of the female of the species succeeded and that success is not yet complete. Perhaps when women consitute 80% of College Grads instead of 55% and when they constitute 90% of master degree recipients instead of 65% someone will notice. All I know is that I personally know 7 women who did not pass their orals because their “Masters” had been sleeping with them and they did not want their “girlfriends” to have the independence of having a doctoral degree. Hey the demise of the all Women’s college might be almost complete except in anothe 100 years perhaps the males will need the protectio of single sex ed.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 15, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

Having only read the recommendation section of the report, I’m left with the feeling that the U.S. government (even a whole of government approach) can have little positive affect on the internal discourse of a major world religion.

If anything, many of the recommended activities could be seen as heavy handed and feed the “war against Islam” narrative that Al Qaeda utilizes.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 15, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

RAND’s Brian Michael Jenkins contributes some perspective to this issue in a recent report “Would-Be Warriors
Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001”

In one particularly interesting section, he writes:

“The 1970s Saw Greater Terrorist Violence
While radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism are cause for continuing concern,
the current threat must be kept in perspective. The volume of domestic terrorist activity was
much greater in the 1970s than it is today. That decade saw 60 to 70 terrorist incidents, most
of them bombings, on U.S. soil every year—a level of terrorist activity 15 to 20 times that
seen in most of the years since 9/11, even counting foiled plots as incidents. And in the nine year
period from 1970 to 1978, 72 people died in terrorist incidents, more than five times the
number killed by jihadist terrorists in the United States in the almost nine years since 9/11.
America’s perception of the terrorist threat today differs greatly from what it was 35 years
ago. It is not the little bombs of the 1970s but fear of another event on the scale of 9/11 or of
scenarios involving terrorist use of biological or nuclear weapons that drives current concerns.
In response, the country has conceded to the authorities broader powers to prevent terrorism.
However, one danger of this response is that revelations of abuse or of heavy-handed tactics
could easily discredit intelligence operations, provoke public anger, and erode the most effective
barrier of all to radicalization: the cooperation of the community.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 16, 2010 @ 1:17 am

Again reference John Comiskey’s comment–Jessica Stern in January/February mag FOREIGN AFFAIRS beginning p95 called “Mind over Martyr” discussing ways to deradicalize terrorists. Hoping those drafting and implementing new efforts read that article and its important suggestions.

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