President Obama is renowned for his insistence that there is nothing Islamic about the Islamic State, and for his refusal to utter any Islamic religious references when discussing international terrorism. He drove this point home recently when he angrily refused to describe the war against jihadis as a war against “radical Islamic terrorism”. Few realize, however, that the president has definitively and repeatedly contradicted his own statements, and has actually profiled the terrorist enemy with the same words he has criticized others for using – that the enemy attacking the United States is a “violent, radical…interpretation of Islam” and that there is a need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation.
The president has often defended his policy of denying a connection between terrorism and Islam by stating that to do so would bestow legitimacy on the terrorists, insult Islam, and alienate Muslims, but he himself has precisely made this connection in speeches that appear to have been missed by the media and counter terrorism officials and analysts.
In two public statements: one before his Countering Violent Extremism conference, and one before a Muslim audience at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, as well as in statements he made to a journalist from The Atlantic magazine, the president directly contradicted his own statements and actually profiled the enemy as followers of a violent radical interpretation of Islam, an interpretation so ingrained in Islam that there is a need for the whole of Islam to challenge it. Indeed, his description was so accurate, that had it become the foundation of official US counter terrorism policy, the nation’s national security agencies would have been adequately armed to confront the threat.
Note: This paper will use the intelligence analysis format of establishing the relevant facts, in this case, by using only direct quotes from the president that will lead to general findings based on those facts that will lead to a logical conclusion and forecast of future action.
All of the entries in the “FACTS” section are direct quotes from the president taken from two official White House documents: Statement from the President in his closing from the summit on Countering Violent Extremism, February 18, 2015, and Statements by the President at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, February 3, 2016, as well as from his April 2016 one-on-one interviews with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic magazine. As a reference aide, each quote will be highlighted and linked to the proper document by the initials CVE, to denote the Countering Violent Extremism document, ISB, to denote the Islamic Society of Baltimore document, or The Atlantic, to denote the president’s interview with Jeffery Goldberg.
• The Atlantic: “It is very clear what I mean, which is that there is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction—a tiny faction—within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated. There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society…”
• ISB: “…it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam. This is the truth…We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
The enemy’s justification for its actions and its worldwide acceptance:
• CVE: “Al Qaeda and ISIL do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts. They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith, that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that there is some sort of clash of civilizations.”
How the enemy radicalizes and recruits young Muslims:
• CVE: “Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam. That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the “Islamic State.” And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam. That’s how they recruit. That’s how they try to radicalize young people.”
The enemy’s success in the United States:
• ISB: “But, right now, there is a organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror. They combine it with false claims that America and the West are at war with Islam. And this warped thinking that has found adherents around the world — including, as we saw, tragically, in Boston and Chattanooga and San Bernardino — is real. It’s there.”
The enemy’s focus for radicalization and recruitment:
• CVE: “We have to be honest with ourselves. Terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIL deliberately target their propaganda in the hopes of reaching and brainwashing young Muslims, especially those who may be disillusioned or wrestling with their identity. That’s the truth.”
The Muslim Community’s responsibility:
• CVE: “…we’ve got to discredit these ideologies. We have to tackle them head on. And we can’t shy away from these discussions. And too often, folks are, understandably, sensitive about addressing some of these root issues, but we have to talk about them, honestly and clearly.”
• ISB: “Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies that are trying to penetrate within Muslim communities…Muslim political leaders have to push back on the lie that the West oppresses Muslims, and against conspiracy theories that says America is the cause of every ill in the Middle East.”
• CVE: “Faith leaders may notice that someone is beginning to espouse violent interpretations of religion, and that’s a moment for possible intervention
Anti-American elements with the Muslim Community:
• CVE: But if we are going to effectively isolate terrorists, if we’re going to address the challenge of their efforts to recruit our young people, if we’re going to lift up the voices of tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim community, then we’ve got to acknowledge that their job is made harder by a broader narrative that does exist in many Muslim communities around the world that suggests the West is at odds with Islam in some fashion. The reality…is that there’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances…does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values…So those beliefs exist. In some communities around the world they are widespread. And so it makes individuals — especially young people who already may be disaffected or alienated — more ripe for radicalization.
Based on the facts above, it is clear that that:
• Despite his years-long insistence that Islamist terrorism is not Islamic, the president’s statements demonstrate, quite to the contrary, that he full-well understands that the ideology of the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other jihad groups is inextricably connected to Islam. This is nowhere more apparent than when he stated that this violent and radical interpretation requires intervention by the entire religion. Such a requirement reveals just how extensively it permeates the religion, which quite different from the notion the president espouses that describes the Islamic State and other jihad groups as illegitimate Islamic impostors who “portray” themselves as religious leaders. Similarly, when the president told the audience at the Islamic Society of Baltimore that “a small fraction of Muslims propagate” this interpretation, he was admitting to a Muslim audience that the followers of these movements are not outsiders or impostors, but are legitimate followers of Islam – Muslims.
• The president did not name the particular “interpretation of Islam” he described, but it is likely he was referring to Salafi-jihadism, which is how all Sunni jihad groups self-identify. Salafism is a legitimate ultraconservative strain of Sunni Islam. It is not a creation of any Islamist terrorist organization. Quite the opposite is true. Al Qaeda and all Sunni Islamist terrorist organizations emerged from a Salafi religious foundation. Salafis insist that the only sources of Islamic authority are a literal acceptance of Allah’s commands in the Qur’an, and a strict literal acceptance and emulation of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Compared to the world population of 1.6 billion Muslims, Salafism is comprised a small percentage of the total number of Muslims, but this minority is estimated to be in the millions.
• The president’s statements definitively contradict the Countering Violent Extremism initiative because he profiles the enemy as belonging to one particular group – Muslims – and not as separate individuals who for unforeseeable reasons become radicalized and commit random acts of violence. Moreover, he places the responsibility for discrediting and countering this radical Islamist ideology squarely on the shoulders of Muslim communities.
• The president’s admission that there is an anti-American “strain of thought” widespread in many Muslim communities around the world that proselytizes that Islam is incompatible with modernism and tolerance and “makes individuals — especially young people who already may be disaffected or alienated — more ripe for radicalization”, contradicts his general message that young Muslims are primarily radicalized over the Internet, and brings to the fore the role that radical imams, mosques, organizations, and radical speakers play in supporting radical Islamist networks. Again, this places the Muslim community front and center as a locus for Islamist behavior. Although he did not name this anti-American “strain of thought”, it is likely he was referring to the ideology of the worldwide Islamist movement propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The president’s two-faced stance regarding radical Islam is hypocritical at best, and schizophrenic at worst and is best understood by viewing two of the president’s quotes back-to-back.
In the first statement given on June 14, 2016, the president is reacting angrily to Donald Trump’s call for him to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism”. In response, he rhetorically asked the following questions in order to deride Trump’s demand:
• “What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to try and kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this?
The second statement appeared in The Atlantic interview in April 2016, two months prior to his rhetorical derision of Trump, so while the president rhetorically lambasted Trump for his naïve and outlandish demands, he knew Trump was correct. In fact, in his April statement he had described the enemy by using the exact adjective Trump had demanded – “radical”, and he had already answered his own question as to whether there was a strategy that would benefit by using the term “radical Islamic terrorism”:
• “…there is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction—a tiny faction—within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated. There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society…”
For reasons yet unclear and beyond the scope of this analysis, the president ignored all the facts that he marshaled above and created the generic Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative to deal with terrorism instead. The program assiduously avoids all of the issues so far discussed, and is the antithesis and a negation of all of the president’s personal beliefs and his understanding of the jihadi threat as elucidated above. Here, the president, once again demonstrating schizophrenic tendencies, explains why all he has said above should be discounted:
• “We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized. Around the world, and here in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths, by people of different faiths — which is, of course, a betrayal of all our faiths. It’s not unique to one group, or to one geography, or one period of time.”
This self-defeating initiative, based on no sound research or intelligence, and with no foundation in reality, has undermined the national security and safety of the country.
The most likely forecast based on all of the above is that with roughly four months to go until the end of his administration, is that the president will not reverse himself and inaugurate a new counter terrorism policy targeted against the very ideology and threats he says must be discredited and defeated.
Brian Fairchild was a career officer in CIA’s Clandestine Service. He has served in Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and Afghanistan. Mr. Fairchild writes periodic intelligence analyses on topics of strategic importance.