Spinning the War on Terror

In a 2003 memo, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was clear that the fight against terrorist organizations could not be won solely by killing or capturing every terrorist.

"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," Rumsfeld wrote. "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

As Michael Jacobson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy pointsout in his recent report, a key part of "deterring and dissuading" potential terrorists is developing an effective counter-narrative to those propagated by extremist groups. Jacobson notes that in 2008, speaking at a WINEP event, then-undersecretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis Charles Allen warned that "no Western state has effectively countered the al Qaida narrative."

Both the attempted underwear bombing on Christmas Day and Osama bin Laden's subsequent propaganda tape taking credit for the attack are evidence of al-Qaeda's operational decline since September 11. Al-Qaeda has proved to be its own worst enemy when it comes to justifying its existence -- a recent study showed that only 15 percent of al-Qaeda's victims have been foreigners, meaning that the vast majority of those killed have been Muslims. But recent terror-related incidents point to the importance that terrorist narratives, when they resonate, have in inspiring or radicalizing the disillusioned, even in the United States.

The Bush administration recognized the importance of countering terrorist narratives, even when its policies -- torture, rendition, the use of black sites, a two-tier system of justice for suspected terrorists, and the prison at Guantánamo Bay -- made it seem otherwise. Bush proclaimed that America "didn't torture" and said Guantánamo Bay should be closed as early as 2006, admitting that the prison provided fodder for extremists to argue "the United States is not upholding the values that they're trying [to] encourage other countries to adhere to."

Even as Republicans have embraced counterproductive policies such as racial profiling and torture, Bush administration officials like former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden have sought to counter them. Speaking on Meet The Press in early January, Chertoff argued that "relying on preconceptions or stereotypes is actually kind of misleading and arguably dangerous." When the Obama administration announced that it would be trying alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators in civilian court, John Bellinger III, a former legal adviser to Condoleezza Rice, praised the decision.

Recent terrorism-related incidents such as the attack at Fort Hood, the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, the failed underwear bombing, the arrest of five Americans in Pakistan who were allegedly trying to join the Taliban, and the indictment of seven Americans who were allegedly conspiring to support the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab group in Somalia have caused considerable alarm because in each case, the perpetrators seemed to come from families of stable economic means. Except for Abdulmuttalab, the accused were all American. They were soldiers, students, college kids. In some cases, it's possible that their distance from al-Qaeda's actual deeds, including its wholesale slaughter of Muslim civilians, may have made its extremist worldview more appealing. But instead of drawing further attention to America's failure to counter extremist narratives, Republicans have responded to the attacks by seeking short-term political gain -- and Democrats have failed to effectively respond. The call for a heavier hand also ignores the vital role Muslims play in foiling terror plots -- how many parents would attempt to warn the proper authorities, as Abdulmutallab's father did, if they believed their child would be tortured or denied a fair trial?

For the most part Republicans appear to have abandoned the notion that fighting extremist narratives is even worthwhile; occasionally, they have actively bolstered them. Republicans seized on incidents like the Fort Hood shooting and the underwear bombing to inflate al-Qaeda's operational capabilities. Several prominent Republicans, including Bill Kristol, Brit Hume, and Pete Hoekstra, called the failed underwear bombing, in which alleged bomber Umar Abdulmuttalab set himself on fire before being subdued by a group of unarmed passengers, a "success," turning an embarrassing operational failure for al-Qaeda into a public-relations victory.

Republicans have become brazen in their support for counter-productive policies that would effectively render American Muslims second-class citizens. Sen. James Inhofe, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Fort Hood shootings, simply declared, "I believe in racial and ethnic profiling." As a federal judge, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey ruled in court that reading terrorism suspects Miranda rights didn't harm intelligence collection. Now he is demanding that Umar Abdulmuttalab be held "for a time in military custody, regardless of where he is ultimately to be charged." Scott Brown, the freshly elected senator from Massachusetts and new GOP superstar, has said he doesn't believe waterboarding is torture.

Part of the reason Democrats have failed to respond effectively is that their own record on the rule of law is mixed. While the Obama administration has largely mastered the "atmospherics" of reaching out to Muslims throughout the world, not being Bush only goes so far. At the dawn of the administration's second year, many of the Bush-era policies Obama criticized have been kept in place. Obama has preserved the "hybrid" legal system for suspected terrorists and has announced he will continue to hold 50 Guantánamo Bay detainees indefinitely. The administration failed to close the prison by its self-appointed deadline, but once it does, it will be essentially moving the entire lawless system north to the Thomson correctional facility in Illinois. Through instituting a system of "racial profiling lite" by subjecting passengers coming from a list of mostly Muslim countries to extra screening, the Obama administration is capitulating to domestic pressure for retribution against Muslims as a community without actually making America safer. Democratic Sens. Jim Webb and Blanche Lincoln have demanded that the alleged 9/11 conspirators be tried by military commission, which the Council on Foreign Relation's Steve Simon has said would look to the Muslim world like "the worst form of pseudo-judicial regime justice."

Other areas where success would severely undercut extremist narratives but where progress has been slow, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aren't entirely the fault of the administration. But given the spate of recent terrorism incidents, it seems that the warning about Western nations' inability to counter al-Qaeda's narrative is more relevant than ever. As the president himself saidMonday in an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer, "America has to be perceived as a country that is a force for good," so that "some lonely teenager, in some Muslim country, doesn't think that the way to belong is to engage in attacks against the United States." It's a sound argument, one Republicans used to understand.

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