The Pentagon Still Doesn’t Know How to Fight Jihadists on the Battlefield of Ideas

on December 30 | in 9/11, Terrorism, War of Ideas

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The New York Times recently ran a rather disheartening article for those concerned with civilization’s “war of ideas” against jihadist organizations. It quotes unclassified but confidential conference calls between Major General Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, and a number of academics on the ways that ISIS can be defeated in the battlefield of ideas. According to the minutes of one summertime call, MG Nagata said, “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it…We do not even understand the idea.” In early October, MG Nagata reiterated, “I do not understand the intangible power of ISIL.”

The statement “We do not even understand the idea [of ISIS],” made by a leading general, is nothing short of flabbergasting. It suggests the Pentagon, for over a decade after 9/11 and wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, remains in the dark about the internal structures and nature of the ideology that drive radical organizations. This is indeed surprising, since the U.S.—and the Department of Defense especially—has spent a great deal of money over the years examining this particular issue. The Pentagon’s claim that we’ve now arrived back at square one seems to ignore the work that has been done over the last decade.

It’s not like the U.S. Government has been sitting on its hands in countering violent extremism and fighting the “war of ideas” against murderous Islamic organizations. (Here’s a CRS report from February 2014 on this topic.) The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) has a whole group, the “Radicalization and Extremist Messaging Group” (REM) that does nothing but analyze and push back on, well, extremist messaging. NCTC, by the way, is also the organization, as required by law, dedicated to “strategic operational planning for counterterrorism”—so maybe it has devised a few off-the-shelf plans over the last several years to win the ideological conflict.

Let us not forget that other arms of the U.S. government are actively working on this issue. For example, the State Department has the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications that fights extremist messaging. State also has a whole Bureau working on the counterterrorism subject, and has been doing so since 1972. DARPA has been working on countering propaganda for a long time as well. And of course, the Central Intelligence Agency has been in the covert influence business for several decades now. If you don’t think there’s a great deal of analytical and operational muscle dedicated to countering violent Islamic ideology, then I’ve a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

To be sure, MG Nagata’s comments on this particular conference call might have just been one effort to buttress a thoughtful, systematic effort to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS, as well as other jihadist groups. It’s certainly refreshing to know that top policymakers are seeking creative solutions to difficult challenges. And there just might be a classified, whole-of-government effort to defang these organizations that has yet been publicly disclosed.

Of course, it’s also unclear whether the U.S. can significantly alter the civilizational struggle currently taking place within a major religion. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are currently engaged in a multi-generational conversation about how their faith copes with secular modernity and with an ever-interconnected world. It’s an agonizing struggle, especially when small bands of the religion’s adherents hijack elements of the faith to create brutal little pseudo-nations in the Middle East and elsewhere. As bystanders to these tectonic socio-political shifts currently taking place, the best the U.S. Government can do is to try to move the needle away from the extreme, industrial violence that ISIS, al Qaeda, and other groups are trying to foist upon the world.

Nonetheless, it’s uncomfortable to think the Pentagon truly believes that the U.S. is starting from scratch in its conflict against ISIS. It’s as if we’ve learned little over the last 15 years about countering violent Islamic groups and its social media-savvy wings. If that’s indeed the case, I’m glad that MG Nagata is asking these basic, basic questions—but it means the Department of Defense has learned little about jihadist ideology since 9/11. This is despite the dozens of published books, hundreds of conferences, and thousands of articles on this topic.

What a pity.

Photo: From ISIS’ Dabiq magazine #4. 

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