Obama Team Conflicted on Confronting Radical Islam

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The Obama administration is deeply concerned with stopping the next Faisal Shahzad—the man who, but for another lesson or two on bomb making, might have blown up Times Square on May 1. But in an administration also eager to ingratiate itself with the Muslim world, how far are Obama and his advisers willing to go to confront the radical Islamism that drives men like Shahzad?

Hedieh Mirahmadi, a Muslim community organizer based in Washington, D.C., fears that political correctness has got the better of this administration, to the point where it seems to be almost dissecting radical Islamism out of existence. "You can't start at just violence because the trajectory is so dangerous. You need to start at that radicalism. The ideology," Mirahmadi says. Other critics agree. The Obama team, says Scott Carpenter of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace Policy, "is doing some interesting things on the public diplomacy side [outreach to the Muslim world], and on the counterterrorism side. But in this big fat middle, radicalization, they're doing zero."

There continues to be a sense of confusion about the government's efforts to confront the Islamist ideology that lies at the heart of terrorism—the ideology that makes the messages of a rising generation of English-speaking radical preachers so resonant with disaffected, vulnerable Muslims. As the administration did with its recent National Security Strategy—in which the enemy was identified only as Al Qaeda and any reference to Islamism was left out—the Obama team seems eager to paint the Muslim world as largely blameless for the actions of a few deranged individuals. It is part of Obama's broader strategy of winning back the affections of the Islamic world. But how can the administration interdict would-be terrorists like Shahzad before they strike while studiously avoiding the Islamism that motivates them?

The Obama team, in other words, may be overcompensating for the mistakes made by George W. Bush, who possessed a too-great eagerness to expand the idea of radical Islamism in order to gin up the war against Iraq—though it was unrelated to Al Qaeda—and to connect the "war on terror" to all extremist groups including Hamas and Hizbullah.

Nine years after 9/11, it's about time we got this right. The latest trend in young English-speaking jihadis at home, many of them inspired by Internet preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki, is bound to produce a terrible attack before long, one even worse than the massacre by Maj. Nidal Hasan, who slaughtered 13 people at Fort Hood last November. Obama administration officials insist they are engaging with the U.S. Muslim community and studying ways of intervening before suspects get radicalized. "The president wakes up thinking what he can do to stop attacks," a senior official told me. But he and other administration officials concede they are still grappling with questions of why and how this spate of homegrown threats is growing now. "There was a kind of prevailing view before that the threat of people being radicalized here was less than in the suburbs of London or Paris," the senior official says. But "we've just seen an increased number of these instances."

Hedieh Mirahmadi saw this trend firsthand as part of the steering committee for a conference on radicalization sponsored by the State and Defense departments and the RAND Corporation in mid-May. Throughout the discussions, the draft report on the meeting's minutes was titled a "Defining a Strategic Campaign to…Counter and Delegitimize Radical Islamism." "We made it all the way through the day of printing with that title," Mirahmadi told me. "There were probably 15 drafts." But when the report finally arrived two weeks ago, the title had been changed. The term "radical Islamism" had become "violent extremism," even though the 97-page report itself, which was made public on June 14, deals almost entirely with problems in the Muslim world.

Another new report soon to be out, this one sponsored by Department of Homeland Security , is called "Countering Violent Extremism," and focuses on what it calls "ideologically motivated violent crime." The Homeland Security Advisory Council that produced it was dominated by law-enforcement types, including Bill Bratton and Cathy Lanier, the D.C. police chief, and it was headed by former FBI director William Webster.

Yet both law-enforcement agencies and the FBI have traditionally been ineffective at probing the deeper causes. In order to do that, the FBI and other U.S. authorities need to go beyond their meager contacts with national Muslim groups like ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) and establish liaisons at the grassroots of the various Muslim communities in the U.S. They need to develop relationships at the level of the mosque and the imam and the community organization, as is being done with some success in Britain's "Prevent" program.

During the DoD-State-RAND conference, Mirahmadi says, various senior Obama administration officials, including Dan Sutherland of the National Counterterrorism Center; Arif Alikhan, assistant secretary for policy development for the Department of Homeland Security; and Farah Pandith, the State Department's special representative to the Muslim community, each took slightly different approaches to the problem. Alikhan's view was the more typical, that "communities don't commit terrorism, individuals do," whereas Sutherland* has taken the approach of designing "microstrategies" to deal with various types of Muslim communities. (Sutherland, who personally does a lot of outreach work, is scheduled to appear at a closed session of a conference this week being held by the Pakistani American Association of Connecticut.) Sutherland's "big pitch" at the DoD conference sessions, says Mirahmadi, "was that there are, say, 12 or 18 communities in the world where there are unique experiences that explain why they're producing so many of the total terrorists." But the "common theme that worried me was that we had all these ideas and approaches, yet the pathways to radicalization in the U.S. remained unclear," she says. Nine years after 9/11, she says, "I think we should have that data by now."

Carpenter, who worked on the same problem for the Bush-era State Department, agrees that the Obama administration is falling short, and the Bush administration did as well. "It's a day late and dollar short. If you're countering violent extremism, then by definition you are only relating to the radicalization process after which the person becomes violent," he says. "The way that the administration talks about it is to say we have to identify 'hot spots' of violence and then deploy resources against those hot spots. The problem with that is that it's like treating an outbreak of the epidemic after it's already started. There has to be a recognition that Islamist ideology plays an important role. You can't have an effective prescription without an accurate diagnosis. Part of the problem is, because we haven't figured out a way to talk about this in anything but a politically correct way, we don't talk about it."

The Bush administration, Carpenter admits, "didn't get very far either. Conceptually, in terms of what we were dealing with, our definitions shifted all the time. We weren't consistent. Islamism. Islamo-fascism. And so on." Both Carpenter and Mirahmadi maintain it is wrong to think that violent types like Shahzad or Nidal Hasan can't be identified early if their ideological roots are understood. But the decision has to be taken to do that first.

*Note: An earlier version of this story identified Dan Sutherland as the chief author of a National Counterterrorism Center report about Faisal Shahzad. Sutherland says he has not written such a report.

Michael Hirsh is also the author of At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.