Surrender in the War of Ideas

Constitutional religious clause prevents Obama administration from countering Islamic State ideology

Islamic State militants pass a checkpoint bearing the group's trademark black flag in the village of Maryam Begg in Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq
Islamic State militants pass a checkpoint bearing the group's trademark black flag in the village of Maryam Begg in Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq / AP
October 7, 2014

The Obama administration is failing to wage ideological war against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) terrorists over fears that attacking its religious philosophy will violate the constitutional divide between church and state, according to an in-depth inquiry by the Washington Free Beacon.

Instead, the task of countering what President Obama called the "warped ideology" of ISIL is being farmed out to foreign states and Muslim communities that often share some of the same goals as the groups the administration calls violent extremists. This approach allows the administration to avoid identifying links between terrorism and Islam.

"While the government has tried to counter terrorist propaganda, it cannot directly address the warped religious interpretations of groups like ISIL because of the constitutional separation of church and state," said Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former White House counterterrorism strategist for the Obama administration.

"U.S. officials are prohibited from engaging in debates about Islam, and as a result will need to rely on partners in the Muslim world for this part of the ideological struggle," he said in an email interview.

Is ISIL Islamic?

Obama announced last month for the first time that his new counterterrorism strategy includes programs aimed at countering ISIL’s ideology. But a review of administration efforts shows very little—if anything—is being done to defeat or destroy the terrorist group’s religious ideology in a war of ideas.

At the United Nations on Sept. 24, the president asked the world body to come up with a plan over the next year designed to counter ISIL and al Qaeda’s ideology. He said ending religious wars through an ideological campaign in the Middle East will be "generational" and led by those who live in the region. No external power, the president insisted, can change "hearts and minds," and as a result the United States would support others in the unspecified program of "counter extremist ideology."

The administration’s so-called soft power approach to countering Islamist terrorism also appeared to have difficulty with clearly defining the religious doctrine behind the ideology of the resurgent al Qaeda offshoot now rampaging its way across Iraq and Syria.

Obama stated in a speech on Sept. 10 that ISIL is "not Islamic" despite the group’s use of a fundamental Islamic precept of jihad, or holy war, in expanding its reach and imposing anti-democratic, hardline Islamic sharia law in areas it now controls.

Analysts and statements by the president and other administration spokesmen also indicate the administration may not clearly understand ISIL ideology, a required first step in developing a counter to it.

Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist, said the major problem for the administration in countering ISIL ideology is that most senior officials hold "post-modern" and "secular" views.

"As a result, they have almost no ability to understand the drivers of violent terrorists which are religious," said Gorka, the Horner chairman of military theory at the Marine Corps University.

"When you don’t take religion seriously, it’s almost impossible for you to comprehend the philosophy of a suicide bomber, or someone who cuts off the heads of people in the name of jihad," Gorka said.

Senior State Department officials have expressed the view that ideology plays no role in Islamist terror and is spawned instead by "local grievances" such as poverty or other economic and social privation, Gorka said. "That is utterly fallacious. If that were true, half of India would be terrorists," he said.

The latest issue of the ISIL English-language magazine Dabiq reveals some of the group’s ideology, using references to Islamic practices of jihad and sharia law. "The Islamic State has long maintained an initiative that sees it waging jihad alongside a dawah [proselytizing campaign] that actively tends to the needs of its people," the magazine said, adding that the group "fights to defend the Muslims, liberate their lands, and bring an end to tawaghit [the evil corrupt system]."

The magazine also sought to legitimize its mass executions, beheadings, and other atrocities as religiously justified responses to all opponents who refuse to submit to its ideology.

The president stated in his Sept. 10 speech announcing the anti-ISIL strategy that the group is "not Islamic" because it kills Muslims and innocents, something he asserted no religion condones, and a claim disputed by many experts on Islam.

"I’ve studied Islam and I did not find a very peaceful religion," said a current senior U.S. counterterrorism specialist who disagrees with the administration’s approach of not directly addressing the Islamic nature of terrorism in counter-ideology efforts.

Wictorowicz, the former counterterrorism strategist, defended the State Department approach. "Having spoken to them at length about this, their position is that Islam, as a religion, is not the issue," he said. "It is particular interpretations of Islam that are, in part, driving support for violence."

Not fighting a war of ideas

The Obama administration, under pressure from domestic Muslim advocacy organizations, has adopted a politically correct approach toward Islam and terrorism that has resulted in removing mentions of Islam from its current policies and programs. Instead, counterterrorism programs and policies are carried out under the less-specific rubric of "countering violent extremism" (CVE).

Discussing Islam also has been placed off limits in many government and intelligence community counterterrorism programs as a result of pressure groups and Muslim advisers who insist such topics would violate constitutional separation of church and state issues.

That pressure has inhibited the U.S. government from addressing Islamist ideology in a significant way, critics say. Instead, the government has been forced to indirectly counter claims by terrorists, such as the false notion that the United States and the West are at war with Islam. It used public diplomacy programs and global "messaging" campaigns whose effectiveness has been questionable, to try and counter such claims.

James Glassman, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said "absolutely," that the administration is hampered by concerns over First Amendment constitutional religious issues from conducting aggressive counter-ideology efforts against groups such as al Qaeda and ISIL.

"There is reticence, especially at State, to criticize a noxious political ideology based on a religion," said Glassman, now with the American Enterprise Institute.

Glassman said from the start, Obama has played down the war of ideas in the struggle against terrorism.

During the transition from the Bush to Obama administration, "I was told by the Obama operatives assigned to State that the term ‘war of ideas’ was not to be used," Glassman said.

"The war of ideas had been my focus at State, but the administration had no interest in continuing the work we were doing," he said. "Ideology provides the environment and the justification for the activities of al Qaeda and ISIL. It must be dealt with—just as we dealt with communism from 1945 to 1990. It's a long battle."

"The way around the problem is leadership," Glassman said. "The president needs to make clear—as President Bush did immediately after 9/11—that the terrorists have constructed a phony ideology and that they are trying to take over an entire religion."

Obama appears to be in the early stages of doing that "but it is very late in the game and he needs to devote resources, not just words, to the war of ideas," Glassman said.

Looking for allies

Obama told the United Nations in a speech to the General Assembly Sept. 24 that "extremist ideology" has spread despite more than a decade of military and intelligence efforts to kill al Qaeda leaders. Groups such as ISIL and al Qaeda have "perverted one of the world’s great religions," he said.

The world, and specifically "Muslim communities," the president said, must now take steps to "explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL."

However, most of the Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, so far have not denounced the ISIL ideology and do not appear to be engaged in counter-ideological campaigns designed to discredit the motivating force behind the group.

The president elaborated in the U.N. speech on his administration’s approach to countering ISIL’s message, but not its Islamist ideology. He called for a "new compact" among civilized peoples to stop the "corruption of young minds by violent ideology."

He called for cutting off funding and contesting terrorists’ use of social media to recruit and propagandize. Additionally, he called upon religious leaders of all faiths to join together and propagate the Christian concept of "do unto thy neighbor as you would have done unto you."

"The ideology of ISIL or al Qaeda or Boko Haram will wilt and die if it is consistently exposed, confronted, and refuted in the light of day," Obama said.

Wiktorowicz said he agrees more needs to be done. "Not enough resources are being devoted to the counter-ideology component of the administration's strategy," he said. "The long war is the war against violent ideologies and there hasn't been the resource investment since 9/11. As a result of this and other factors, we're seeing the reincarnation of al Qaeda as ISIL in Iraq and Syria."

Wiktorowicz also said the administration is working with partners in the Muslim world "who can push back against the ideology."

"The Salafi jihadists, however, have assassinated and intimidated Islamic scholars and others who have spoken out against violence, increasing the danger for the brave individuals involved in the counter-ideological struggle," he said.

A hashtag campaign

To date, the allied campaign against ISIL is limited to U.S.-led missile, drone, and air strikes against vehicles and command posts of the group in territories it controls in Iraq and Syria. The bombing has slowed but not reversed territorial gains by the group.

The Obama strategy as outlined last month will involve four elements: Air strikes; support for local forces on the ground; counterterrorism efforts to prevent ISIL attacks; and humanitarian assistance to deal with the mass of refugees fleeing ISIL control.

Under the counterterrorism program, the president declared: "Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East."

Asked for specifics on what the White House is doing to counter ISIL ideology, White House and National Security Council spokesmen declined to discuss the matter. Ned Price, an NSC spokesman, provided a recent White House "fact sheet" that contains no reference to counter-ideology efforts.

Price said White House counterterrorism coordinator Lisa Monaco was "too busy" to discuss the counter-ideology campaign.

The fact sheet mentions various steps being taken, including the adoption of a "whole-of-government-approach," cutting off funds to ISIL, and preventing foreigners from joining the group. An international group called the Global Counterterrorism Forum and other, non-government organizations also are said to be focusing on unspecified efforts to prevent foreign fighters from joining ISIL.

At the State Department, a State-led interagency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications is engaged in "messaging" on social media and elsewhere. But those efforts appear limited to a counter-terror Twitter feed with few followers and limited reach.

A glimpse into the center’s activity was disclosed in February by a Saudi national who said he was paid to use Twitter in an online campaign to discredit Syrian jihadists.

The Saudi said he was unemployed when he was approached with an offer of money to attend a U.S. workshop with instructors who schooled him on the covert campaign against both al Qaeda and rival ISIL in Syria. The goal was to use Twitter to link both groups to Iran and its Lebanese surrogate, Hezbollah, he said.

The training included the use of hashtags designed to expand the reach of tweets to the largest number of people, particularly women. Instructions were relayed to the Saudi from a special iPhone application downloaded from the State Department web site.

State Department spokesmen ignored repeated emails seeking comment on the counter-ideology campaign, and the department’s public affairs office blocked the Free Beacon from speaking to officials in the center, without explanation.

Ideology as the center of gravity

At the Pentagon, spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters two days after the president’s speech that a "purely military solution" would not be enough to destroy ISIL.

"It also is going to take the ultimate destruction of their ideology," Kirby said.

Ideological destruction, Kirby said, will be done through "good governance" in Iraq and in Syria. "And in a responsive political process so that the people that are falling sway to this radical ideology are no longer drawn to it," he said. "That’s really the long-term answer."

Because ISIL is not a formal military organization but a terrorist group, its center of gravity, in military terms, is the group’s ideology, Kirby said, adding that one non-military goal is delegitimizing ISIL while using U.S. and allied forces to destroy its ability to conduct attacks and control territory in the region.

Kirby did not elaborate and referred questions to the Central Command, the military command in charge of military operations against ISIL.

Lt. Col. Steven Wollman, a Central Command spokesman, said the command’s counter ideology efforts against ISIL are focused on exposing al Qaeda and ISIL "fallacies, particularly their incongruity with Islam and their penchant for violence, crime, and terror."

"We demonstrate that despite their claims of creating a Caliphate for the good of the Muslim world their sole method is violence and only violence which has no positive short term or long term impact on the population," Wollman said in a statement to the Free Beacon.

"To do so we highlight their total disregard for basic human needs and desires such as education, medical care, a free press, use of tobacco, and an expectation of freedom of choice."

Additionally, the command said ISIL’s use of extreme violence such as beheadings, mass executions, and rape are "totally out of line of any Islamic teachings," an aspect highlighted to local and regional audiences.

Terrorist groups also are using all forms of communication, including social media to recruit, fundraise, and spread violent ideology, Wollman said.

"It would be inappropriate to disclose all the specifics of what we are currently doing to counter the al Qaeda and ISIL fallacies campaign, but I can tell you that this command's information operations activities are focused on foreign audiences across the region," Wollman said, adding that message dissemination includes website, social media, print media, radio, and television in local languages.

"We align our efforts with other U.S. government agencies, and often are in direct support of U.S. ambassadors and with the knowledge of our partnered nations," he said.

Additionally, "all of this is conducted by, with, and through our partner nations, often with our partner's face on the message," Wollman said.

"We also conduct training on how to combat extremist ideologies with our regional partner nations, as part of Foreign Internal Defense, Security Force Assistance, Building Partner Capacity, and other State Department-led activities."

‘We won that battle already’

The administration’s point man for propaganda and so-called "soft power," Rick Stengel, a former Time magazine reporter who is now undersecretary for public diplomacy, said in a recent speech that the administration is not trying to wage a war of ideas against ISIL.

"I would say that there is no battle of ideas with ISIL," Stengel said. "ISIL is bereft of ideas, they’re bankrupt of ideas. It’s not an organization that is animated by ideas. It’s a criminal, savage, barbaric organization—I feel like we won that battle already."

However, ISIL and its supporters are using social media effectively both to promote their Islamic-centered ideology and to recruit both foreign and regional fighters to their cause.

Twitter and Facebook have cracked down on ISIL supporters since the new counterterrorism campaign began last month. But the group has found ways to circumvent the crackdown, through innovative ways of creating new social media accounts.

In fact, the group has been so successful online that U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies have been able to use information publicly available on the Internet to track and identify ISIL targets for bombing. In response, ISIL supporters on Twitter and Facebook have launched a campaign to limit the information about the group online to undermine the bombing strikes.

ISIL also uses social media to link to recruitment videos and publications that, according to U.S. officials, have gained wide circulation.

All the videos and publications highlight the group’s adherence to Islamic principles.