Obama and “radical Islam”: Denial will not defeat the jihad, Mr. President

Leland Vittert reports from Washington, D.C.


Before delivering his angry lecture June 14 about why he rejects the term, “radical Islam,” President Barack Obama assured us that the Islamic State (IS) is being driven steadily back in Syria and Iraq, and that our campaign against it is “firing on all cylinders.”  The next day, his spokesman, Josh Earnest, bragged--despite what happened the previous weekend in Orlando--that the country “is safer than it was eight years ago.”

But then CIA chief John O. Brennan, speaking to the the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last Thursday, completely shattered those claims.  And June 20, the Department of Justice censored the numerous pledges to IS and its leader in the transcript of a phone call made by the Orlanda terrorist, Omar Mateen, only to quickly backtrack from this Stalinesque act of attempted memory erasure that would hinder our grasp of the killer’s actual motivation, after howls of Congressional and media protest.

IS (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh), Brennan said, is spreading farther and faster than ever before, has up to 5,000 to 8,000 soldiers in Libya, another 7,000 in Nigeria, and now has nearly as many in Iraq and Syria (18,000 to 22,000) as when our air campaign against it began two years ago.  Moreover, it is setting up terror cells and sending its trained fighters all over the world, while inspiring attacks by so-called “lone wolves” everywhere. 

Of course, there are no “lone wolves.” There are only individuals already joined in thought with the Islamist movement, who answer the standing call to launch attacks on their own at home if not abroad--as Omar Mateen evidently did in the Pulse nightclub the night of June 12/13.  “You never walk alone” could well be the motto of the global jihad, which was very quick, as always, to claim him as a martyr.

People can distinguish between radical Islam and the religion overall. Muslims, in fact, call these terrorists Islamists and jihadis--the groups' own descriptions of themselves.

Though Brennan, like Obama before him, nonetheless claimed the group was “on the defensive,” he depicted IS as an enemy aggressively on the march globally, even if it is losing some ground it had previously gained in Iraq and Syria.  In other words, like so many other times in the past, one of his own high-level national security officials shows us that the president is not telling the truth--not to us and probably not to himself—about these issues.

Defending his refusal to name the enemy, Obama sniffed peevishly that “radical Islam” is a “talking point: it isn’t a strategy.”  But the talking point is really Obama’s: all informed analysts of the problem know that IS is not an isolated “extremist” threat, but part of a wave of numerous interrelated movements that have arisen out of the heart, not merely the fringes, of Islamic societies worldwide—even if most Muslims do not support them.

And for all of our recent gains on the ground in Iraq and Syria, our brilliant assassination raids against IS leaders in the area, and the harm to its varied financial empire we are inflicting, it is we, not the terrorists, who are on the defensive.  We, in fact, are losing overall, thanks to a strategy that denies the clear nature of the threat.

It is, after all, both blinding and enervating to fight an enemy you cannot or will not name.  It is even more enervating to fail to commit the kind of military force necessary to cut out what Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has called the “parent tumor” of IS’s claimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq—which, if done early, could have halted the group’s catastrophic global metastasis in the past two years.

In his speech, Obama also insisted that the Orlando killer was simply a disturbed young man with no ties to outside groups, despite his allegiance to IS and his praise for other jihadis. And he repeated his earlier claim that Mateen was radicalized entirely by the Internet, when in fact he grew up in a pro-Taliban Afghan immigrant family and cheered the attacks of 9/11 while watching them on live TV.

Of course, as Obama said, mere use of the phrase would not change the war by itself.  But it would radically change our strategic policy toward Islamism--a movement he himself has aided via the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, by waging a half-hearted military struggle against other elements of the jihad, like IS and al-Qaeda (AQ).  Not to mention his disastrous nuclear deal with Iran, which handsomely rewarded what the State Department has just recertified as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism—while giving it a legal glide-path to building the bomb in a decade.

It would also end the "confusion," as FBI Director James Comey put it in a media appearance of his own the same day, how to interpret terrorist acts like those in San Bernardino and Orlando. If a perpetrator pledges loyalty to multiple Islamist groups, that doesn't raise questions about his or her motives.  Rather, it means the killer correctly sees the jihad as one--despite internal quarreling such as between IS and AQ, or even between Shi`ite Iran and Sunni groups it sometimes fights and sometimes aids--something the current administration sadly (and willingly) fails to grasp.

For example, the Iranians (Shi`a) sometimes harbor and support AQ members (Sunnis), while fighting AQ in Syria. The Iranian regime not only calls for the unity of jihadi groups (both Sunni and Shi`a) in waging the global jihad against unbelief, but actually funds Sunni groups like Hamas and the MB, and arms and finances the fiercely anti-Shi`a Taliban, all for ideological and strategic reasons.

And they accept that help, also for ideological and strategic reasons. AQ and IS members worked together to launch attacks in France and Belgium. And while it is true that Mateen was an obviously unstable person, as Obama noted, that is one of the profiles of the ideal recruit--one who is already a bit marginalized and harbors general anti-social sentiments.

Worse, Obama says that using “radical Islam” (or any term that would link “extremism” with Islam)--words he has had scrubbed from FBI counterterror training manuals, and from the mouth of French President François Hollande in a video on the White House website) would mean we are declaring war on Islam as a whole.  (The removal of these words brings to mind the unprecedented—and secret--excision of several minutes of a December 2, 2013 exchange about the Iran nuclear deal—which involves an Islamist power--between Fox News correspondent James Rosen and State Dept. spokeswoman Jen Psaki from the department’s official video.)

But nothing could be further from the truth: People can distinguish between radical Islam and the religion overall. Muslims, in fact, call these terrorists Islamists and jihadis--the groups' own descriptions of themselves.  The leaders of our three most consistent allies in the fight against IS—Egypt, Jordan and Afghanistan—have each spoken of the need to thoroughly reform—even “revolutionize,” as Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has put it—mainstream Islam from within in order to stop the jihad’s appeal to young Muslims around the world.  (Even in Europe, as shown here.)

In January this year, King Abdalluh of Jordan spoke of the need to defeat IS from “inside Islam” (even while dismissing the it as an “outlaw,” and claiming it represents only “0.1 percent” of Muslims worldwide—which its huge popularity in online polls and websites obviously refutes).

Addressing a joint session of Congress in March 2015, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, while calling Islam a religion of peace, acknowledged that at present there is tremendous hatred raging inside its community today.  “That hatred must be challenged and overcome from within the religion of Islam,” he affirmed.

In fact, IS is made up entirely of Muslims, bases itself on a sophisticated reading of much mainstream Islamic scholarship and a literal interpretation of its sacred texts, and is the fastest growing movement in modern Islamic history.  If you add as well the other jihadi trends in both Sunni and Shi`i Islam, the numbers--while hard to measure accurately because of the fear of responding honestly to polls in Muslim countries—are surely formidable.

Obama also denounced as un-American Donald Trump's proposal to ban all Muslims temporarily from entering the U.S.  And indeed it would be both unconstitutional and impractical.  Trump, consistently inconsistent, has since at times refined it to a more restricted temporary ban on immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries from which there is a higher risk of jihadis infiltrating their ranks—as IS has sworn to do, and even succeeded as shown in last November’s attacks in Paris.

Despite that chilling precedent, Obama has ignored the warning of the FBI, CIA and others that we cannot properly vet them.  In spite of this, he has actually accelerated the entry the rate of entry of Syrian refugees to the U.S. in the past few weeks.

Some of Trump’s statements have truly opened him to charges of bias, against a variety of groups.  Yet this POTUS’ anger, as always, seems reserved entirely for the GOP, not for IS--one of the most barbaric organizations in history--which he invariably discusses with a tone of mild irritation or boredom.

That is the most striking thing of all: he has more genuine rage and resentment for his American political opponents than he ever shows publicly toward the enemies of his country.

Our president made this peculiar appearance to announce what is obviously yet again a wholly inadequate, prevaricating strategy, and to unload his pique at those who call out his denial of both terminological and military reality.  Rather, he should have proved them wrong by declaring, “We are going to end the threat of the Islamic State by taking out their capital Raqqa in a combined air and ground campaign that begins tomorrow. And next we shall cut off the heads of the vast hydra of Islamist organizations wherever they are, without delay.”

Instead, he bragged about having made IS cut its salaries--while IS is still decapitating innocents at will.  Along with the rest of the jihadi alliance against the West and the millions of Muslims who do not agree with them, they are a much greater threat to us all than they were eight years ago.

Raymond Stock, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and Instructor of Arabic at Louisiana State University, spent twenty years in Egypt and was deported by the regime of Hosni Mubarak in 2010 for an article he published in Foreign Policy Magazine in 2009. He is writing a biography of 1988 Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and is a prolific translator of his works.