The State Department’s counterterrorism office is facing pushback after promoting recent remarks by a Muslim cleric who blamed regional unrest in the Middle East on what he called a "conspiracy" by a "new global colonialism allied to world Zionism."
The State Department’s official anti-terrorism Twitter account last week tweeted out remarks made by a leading Muslim cleric who, during a speech in Mecca, linked terrorism by the Islamic State (IS) to a plot by supporters of Israel around the world.
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Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, a leading voice in Sunni Islam, made the comments during a counter-terrorism rally held in the Muslim holy city last week, according to AFP.
Al-Tayeb "blamed unrest in the region on a conspiracy by what he called ‘new global colonialism allied to world Zionism,’" according to the AFP report, which was linked to by the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC).
Al-Tayeb went on to say that the "plot has exploited ‘confessional tension’ in conflict-hit Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya," according to the report.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei communicated the same view as al-Tayeb on Monday, when he tweeted that all of the Western world’s problems "stem from Zionist domination over governments."
Al-Tayeb also said in his remarks that educational reform in Arab countries could help stem the spread of terrorism, a point that was mentioned in isolation by the State Department in its tweet related to the speech.
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A similar sentiment was expressed by State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf, who came under fire from critics for suggesting that Islamic State terrorists could be lured away from the jihadi group with better paying job opportunities.
Multiple State Department officials did not respond to requests for comment on al-Tayeb’s comments about Zionism and the reasons why the CSCC tweeted the article referring to the speech.
The State Department’s counter-terror organs have faced criticism in recent months for linking to and endorsing controversial clerics, as well as materials that have called jihad "noble."
The State Department’s Counter Terror Bureau (CT) was forced to apologize in May for promoting a controversial cleric who runs a group that backed Hamas and endorsed a fatwa authorizing the murder of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
That cleric, Sheik Abdallah Bin Bayyah, is the vice president of a Muslim scholarly organization that was founded by a Muslim Brotherhood leader who called "for the death of Jews and Americans."
CT apologized multiple times for giving publicity to the cleric and deleted a tweet that related to him.
CSCC came under fire several months later for promoting a controversial anti-terror handbook that called jihad "noble" and urged law enforcement agencies to stop using the term "Islamic extremism."
"Do not refer to terrorists as ‘jihadis,’" the manual states. "This only emboldens them and gives them a legitimate status in the eyes of the vulnerable. Terrorism is not jihad. Jihad is a noble concept in Islam."
CSCC at the time claimed that it "was simply sharing information about a new product related to counterterrorism" in linking to the manual.
Patrick Poole, a national security reporter and terrorism expert who has long tracked the State Department’s public struggles to promote Muslim leaders it views as more moderate, said that the episodes on Twitter suggest a delicate balancing act.
"I think many of us can appreciate the wishful thinking that the State Department is engaged in here," Poole said. "But this isn't a standard case of double-speak, where they get caught between one of these guys saying one thing for Western audiences and then turning around and saying the opposite when talking to his own people. Here we have Sheik Tayeb's quote about ‘global colonialism allied to world Zionism’ in the very same article that they tweeted out. It's as if they didn't read past the first few graphs."
"Then you look at Tayeb's statement immediately after the burning of the Jordanian pilot [by IS], and he invokes the Koranic punishments of crucifixion or beheading for burning the pilot alive," Poole added. "Would the ISIS killing of the pilot have passed muster if they had used another mode of execution?"
"It seems the State Department can't get beyond a BuzzFeed listicle view of what's actually happening in the Middle East," he said.