President Donald Trump's deputy assistant condemned the Obama administration Monday for refusing to mention religion in its counterterrorism strategy, particularly when dealing with the Islamic State.
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist who now serves as a senior White House aide, said the United States has had "serious problems" over the past eight years identifying the nature of an enemy engaged in a religiously inspired war.
"The Obama administration in 2011 prohibited discussion of religion, expressly Islam, in all counter-terror training for federal agents and military," Gorka said during an event at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
"That's like saying in 1944 you can't say the word Nazi because you'll offend a German. It's absurd, it's in fact asinine. You have to be able to talk about the enemy and the words that they use. When they say they're a jihadist, you can't say, ‘Well they're just misguided nihilists.' No, they think they are holy warriors," he continued. "Our labels must reflect reality, otherwise we will misdiagnose."
Gorka said it is imperative for U.S. officials to understand that 80 percent of the fight against ISIS and jihad-inspired terrorist groups will be fought in the domain of information and media operations rather than in military operations.
A report published last year by IntelCenter, a counter-terrorism research firm, found that between June and July 2016 there were significant terrorist attacks every 84 hours directed or inspired by ISIS outside the war zones in Iraq and Syria. Gorka said the findings underscore America's overemphasis on a "whack-a-mole" strategy that targets individual terrorists while ignoring the root of the problem: ideology.
"For them, it's not just a caliphate of the ground, it's a caliphate of the mind," Gorka said.
"We're not going to capture all the jihadists, we're not going to kill all of them … they're going to move. They may go North, they may go West, they may come across the Atlantic," he continued. "We must understand, ISIS's battlefront begins when you leave your house in the morning. There is no battlefront like World War I or World War II, there are no trenches."
Gorka said the United States during the Obama and Bush administrations focused too heavily on physical battlefield actions, like death tolls, as the metric of success in the war on terrorism. Meanwhile, the information war fell behind, he said.
Bill Gertz, senior editor at the Washington Free Beacon and author of the newly released book iWar, called for the Trump administration to reestablish a U.S. information agency that can both "promote American ideals" and counteract "lies and deception."
Obama signed a defense bill in December requiring the State Department to engage in countermeasures, including counter-disinformation, to combat the spread of adversarial ideologies, but Gertz said the bill did not go far enough.
"We need to retool for the information age," Gertz said at the Heritage Foundation. "We really are deficient in this area of promoting the American ideal and we're facing competing narratives."
Unlike al Qaeda, ISIS has been able to adapt and redefine its mission, even as it continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria. The group has had particular success spreading disinformation and propaganda, Gorka said. He suggested the Trump administration combat the terrorist group's efforts by establishing an information operation that is driven directly by the White House.
"We will have won when the black flag of jihad, when the black flag of ISIS, is as repugnant across the world as the white peaked hood of the Ku Klux Klan and the black, white, and red swastika of Hitler's Third Reich," Gorka said.