Information operations

Improving America’s Domestic Counter-Terrorism Narrative

Didn’t like the way the Obama Administration handled terrorism in the US? Me neither. Think the Trump Administration can do better?  Uhh…..


Improving America’s Domestic Counter-Terrorism Narrative

Having spent many years deploying across the Middle East and Central Asia and then spending many more years educating defense students and crafting information policy, I became frustrated witnessing the United States’ grapple with the domestic counter-terrorism narrative.  Over the last two years, America has seen an increase of radical Islamic terrorist attacks and a decrease in its government’s ability to consistently synchronize credible government messages and actions.  In particular, the Obama Administration struggled to consistently message the threat imposed by radical Islamic terrorists and to unify the country behind government efforts to limit it.

The previous administration cited mental illness and hate although the US courts have yet to sentence any convicted radical Islamic terrorist to a mental institution or levy a stiffer sentence for committing a hate crime. It blamed guns, often too quickly, which didn’t apply when radical Islamic terrorists used pressure cookers and knives. Also, the nuanced ‘that is not Islam’ message lost its effectiveness in print or second hand repetition without the accompanying sarcastic voice inflection and dismissive hand wave.  This American and probably many others scratched our heads wondering in disbelief if their government understood the challenges it faced, but seemingly didn’t want to confront.

Before I go further, President Obama is right on a couple of points. First, neither the US nor the West nor Democracy nor Christianity is at war with Islam. Second, most Muslims want to live in peace with others – more on these points later.  After that, I doubt I’d agree much with the previous administration on how to synchronize a narrative that the US could use to help Muslim partners defeat radical Islamic terrorists. Yes, it is mostly Islam’s issue and no, the US cannot do it alone.

If I was concerned President Obama wouldn’t confront the situation, presidential candidate Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric concerned me about his ability to build necessary partnerships with American Muslims.  From verbally jousting with the surviving parents of a US Soldier to recommending a Muslim registry, Mr. Trump didn’t win me over on his approach. This campaign issue was a wash for me as Mrs. Clinton’s acceptance of funds from Middle East nations, especially Saudi Arabia, belied any concern for American security.

As a start, President Trump emphatically stated during his inauguration speech that he sees the problem as radical Islamic terrorism – a welcome change – and pledged to eradicate it – a very tall order. Then, political amnesia sets in and the Trump Administration fails to coordinate and justify the latest executive order banning immigration from many African and Middle East countries.  Internally, the Trump Administration didn’t know how to apply the executive order.  Externally, it didn’t effectively communicate why the President signed the order and why he selected those countries.  Sean Spicer and team played message catch up to what is essentially recycled policy from the previous two presidents.  This is Communication 101 and the Trump Administration failed. It needs to step up its game.

To successfully defeat radical Islamic terrorism, President Trump will have to unify America with a coherent narrative that builds upon where his successor succeeded and understanding where he failed. He will have to be a more effective communicator. President Trump can succeed by delivering credible messages that acknowledge the complexity of the Muslim situation, integrate with the American experiences, synchronize consistently throughout government policy and display strategic patience.

President Obama’s Communication Successes

While I am critical of the previous administration, it did have successful moments in conveying its message.  President Obama’s final national security speech last month in Tampa had mixed communicative moments yet there were some positive excerpts.  He discussed the importance of partnering with Muslims and eloquently captured the essence and importance of religious freedom in America, “We are fighting terrorists who claim to fight on behalf of Islam… (sic), and they do not speak for American Muslims, including many who wear the uniform of the United States of America’s military. If we stigmatize good, patriotic Muslims, that just feeds the terrorists’ narrative.  It fuels the same false grievances that they use to motivate people to kill.”

This speech complemented a belated response to radical Islamic terrorist attacks in September when President Obama’s spokesperson, Josh Earnest, admitted the US is in a daily-newswar of the narratives with ISIS and other terrorist groups.  Mr. Earnest said the US wants to counter the terrorists “poisonous, empty, bankrupt mythology” and the ISIS message that “every Muslim is responsible for this type of terrorism”.  Mr. Earnest stated that the United States is not at war with Islam as ISIS would like all Muslims to believe.

Before scoffing at the notion of a battle of narratives, the Trump Administration needs to recognize the importance of synchronizing the United States’ words with its actions even if the action isn’t dropping bombs. The Trump Administration should understand the narrative must support the counter-terrorism national strategy.  For instance, the campaign gimmick line of ‘extreme vetting’ is neither a narrative nor a strategy. America’s new leadership is already struggling to explain its new immigration orders and will also struggle to get message traction should the US endure another domestic terror attack by radical Islamic terrorists. It will want to have American Muslims on its side.

Many Muslims Love Freedom

During my deployments to Afghanistan and, most notably, fourteen months in Iraq, I met many Muslim Americans and Iraqis who would never fight for ISIS. Translators Sam and Ollie are Muslim Iraqi Americans whose families came to the US after the Shia uprising following Desert Storm.  Without the permission to carry a weapon, these men subjected themselves to the same hardships I did on and off the Forward Operating Base.  In so far as I could observe, Sam and Ollie are loyal US citizens who enjoy freedom and don’t impose their religion on anyone. After I returned to the US, I’ve written employment recommendation letters for them.  Sam spent much more time in Iraq than I did. He has since returned to his home in the southwest United States where he remains concerned about undue persecution of Muslims in America.

After the 2003 Iraq invasion, Ollie took the surname of a US President. After the Surge, he and I shared quality Alwazah tea – not the cheap tea dust in a bag – trading war stories of our time in Iraq. He recently returned to Iraq to serve as a translator and to finish his degree at Baghdad University. He joined a Baghdad motorcycle club, a new and unique freedom for Iraqis, which gives me a glimmer of hope something worthwhile may come of the US involvement in Iraq.  Unfortunately, Ollie reports that Iraq is still quite violent and that the Iraqis are dissatisfied with their politicians and religious leaders. Many Iraqis, he says, wish the US had stayed longer.

Then, there is Zaineb the soft spoken Iraqi Shia woman who served as a media analyst. During the height of fighting in her Adel neighborhood, Zaineb was unable to make it to work at Camp Liberty. I had to be inventive in finding ways for her to telecommute.  After I endorsed her emigration to the US, she settled in Tennessee. She sent me a congratulatory email when the Seals killed Osama Bin Laden, writing, “finally myself as a Muslim really feel relieved that hopefully the innocent people regardless what kind of religion they believe in, can live in peace, and without of fear from Al Qaida terrorist attacks against them.”  She also reminded me of the many Muslim victims to Al Qaida.

Another acquaintance, Mayada, a Sunni Iraqi woman, endured hiding in the Baghdad University basement during the 2003 invasion of Iraq while vandals trashed her father’s career work. She continues to work for the US as a contractor supporting public relations campaigns overseas. All of these people now live in the US. I would recommend any of them without hesitation. They epitomize the translation of the word Islam – Peace. Yet, the harsh contrast of the Al Qaida and ISIS version of Islam still exists and these groups thrive on the passivity of the majority of peaceful Muslims.

The Radicals Exploit The Peaceful

The Clarion Project, which includes experts, scholars, activists and Muslims to promote tolerance and moderation and to challenge extremism, estimates that up to twenty elizabethpercent of Muslims believe it is acceptable to conduct violence on behalf of Islam.  This doesn’t mean that all of these twenty percent will conduct violence, but that the twenty percent will at least enable the scant few who actually become terrorists. While the true percentage of Muslims that tacitly support terrorism is likely lower, this template parallels the American experiences in Iraq.

After the 2003 Iraqi invasion, Sunni tribal leaders first allowed Al Qaida to come into their villages and fight beside Sunni insurgents against the common enemy: the United States and Iraqi Shia led government forces. Eventually, Al Qaida overplayed its hand and overstayed its welcome, demonstrating its trademark brutality on their Sunni hosts and forcing the Sunni tribes to turn instead to the US Coalition to help defeat Al Qaida in 2007.  Unfortunately, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ mantra prevailed when the Sunni tribes allowed ISIS to reform in Iraq circa 2014 because the Shia led national government refused to build an inclusive government with Sunni involvement.

ISIS returned to Iraq with Sunni tribal complicity some of whom may be part of the alleged
twenty percent who support violence on behalf of Islam. The cycle will continue to perpetuate. To wit, the  ongoing historic Battle for Mosul, which Iraqi security forces are currently fighting with assistance from US military and intelligence, is at least the third historic Battle for Mosul since 2003 and there will likely be a fourth, or more, without apt political solutions between the Sunni-Shia sects. The enabling of radical Islamic terrorists will continue through the minority Muslims who support the even smaller radical minority’s violence on behalf of Islam. The same relationships can occur in the United States so the Trump Administration has to understand this to identify radicals hiding among or holding hostage the peaceful.

Integrate the message consistently with policy and American experiences

President Trump has already cited radical Islamic terrorists as the problem. Blaming radical Islamic terrorists may be accurate, but may not garner the support of Muslims domestic and abroad. It may also lead to the unwanted persecution of American Muslims as the Obama Administration claimed, although this causality is unproven. I’m inclined to offer some caution.

President Trump stated America comes first, yet the American experience might lead to differing conclusions on who to blame for an attack. In the 1960s, murderers in the Ku Klux Klan hid behind the church crosses, yet the nation didn’t blame Protestant Americans for the KKK.  Eventually, the Department of Justice investigators, many of whom were Protestant, prosecuted and jailed criminals within the KKK. La Cosa Nostra hid amongst the Italian immigrants, specifically the Sicilians, yet my great grandfather who immigrated to America had nothing to do with the mafia.  Again, Italian Americans working for the police and FBI infiltrated the mob and helped jail the criminals. suspectAmericans should expect Muslim Americans within the local and national law enforcement and security apparatus to help infiltrate the mosques and virtual sites that perpetuate radicalism within America.  The Trump Administration will need these domestic partners to stop the attacks by identifying the terrorists before the attack.

The domestic and international narratives should not be separate since radical Islamic terrorism is a trans-national problem. If anything, the domestic narrative can draw from the international narrative where the US is partnered with regional Muslim nations and others to defeat ISIS. Simultaneously, the narrative must indicate a pressure to change. The US alone cannot defeat the terrorists and the enablers who manipulate Islam. This is just one of many steps the next Administration must take to bolster the narrative.

Next, the Trump Administration should integrate the message consistently with other policy.  For the past generation, the US has pressed for women’s rights and equality. When the Obama Administration discussed Syrian refugees, it referred to Syrian women and children as helpless victims. It seemingly forgot that a woman was part of the San Bernardino massacre and that the US learned during its time in Iraq and Afghanistan that Muslim wives know when their husbands are involved in terrorism. As a recent example, the FBI arrested the wife of the Orlando attacker for obstruction of justice as she went to the store to buy ammunition with her murdering husband.  Thus, the Syrian refugee crisis offers other opportunities to synchronize the message.

Be consistent to the positive American historical experiences. Earlier, I mentioned how Shia Muslims immigrated to the US after the Shia Uprising following Desert Storm. The US also accepted many Muslim Bosniac immigrants during the Bosnia-Herzegovina civil war because they were the most oppressed.  Consider how this applies to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Given the nature of the Syrian conflict and the threat, it is prudent to screen the refugees, but, as mentioned, the ‘extreme vetting’ mantra isn’t necessarily helpful. Perhaps ‘smart vetting’ is a better message.  Furthermore, the demographics of the refugees should reflect the most oppressed which would be the religious minorities. A recent report stated that the religious minorities, like Christian and Yazidis, are poorly represented in the Syrian refugees designated to live in the US. While accepting mostly Syrian Muslims may play well to the global Muslim crowd, it was not consistent to the American experience and created a domestic anti-Muslim counter-current in the United States.

Thirdly, treat all Muslim Americans like, well, Americans.  Muslim Americans have children and raise them as Americans, some Muslims immigrate to America and some Americans convert to Islam.  Still, the Trump Administration can draw upon the American immigrant experience to assimilate Muslims and protect religious freedoms as opposed to promoting policy and messages which either unduly perpetuates or blames enclaves. Historically, first generation Americans may marry outside the base ethnicity then second generation Americans start to marry outside the religion.  Eventually, future generations Americans build diverse inter-racial and inter-denominational families.

Avoid the Mixed Messages

The Obama Administration created a perception of treating the Muslim diaspora with a special dispensation especially in the public sector.  Media reports, presuming they are accurate, have shown numerous anecdotes where the public education system and media outlets have created unusual exceptions for Islam ostensibly to promote understanding, but in reality causing mixed messages.

Some of the American public education community treats Islam as a culture but doesn’t treat Christianity or Judaism as a culture.  A public school teaches Arabic script – a wonderful educational opportunity – but with the phrase ‘there is no God but Allah’.   A public school wouldn’t teach there is no God but Jesus Christ or Levi’s God is the only God. Likewise, some schools are providing prayer rooms for Muslim students yet nothing comparable for other religions.  If anything, the prayer rooms could be ecumenical and time-shared to promote mutual tolerance.

During my time in Iraq I used women’s fashion as an indicator as to the influence of terrorists and militias.  Not all Iraqi women wanted to wear wore abayas and hijabs. The less I saw women dressed as such the more freedom they had from terrorists and militias. In the US, public schools show American school girls how to wear a hijab, or head scarf, to cover themselves. Meanwhile, a media correspondent advocates American women wear hijabs in support of Muslim women without understanding its full meaning.  Same goes for those non-Muslims who thought it was hip to wear a hijab at a march. In toto, this abuts against female empowerment and equality and is one small step from showing women to walk behind the men like many Muslim women do in my former Springfield, Virginia neighborhood.  Again, the best intentions are only creating a counter-current of distrust which leads to the final recommendation.

Be patient and rise above the epithets

This may be the most difficult part for President Trump, but where he can really do better. He doesn’t need to jump on Twitter after an attack and quickly blame radical Islamic terrorists without knowing the facts.  Allow the situation to develop and be certain before making an accusation. Also, skip the urge to verbally attack a dissenting opinion.

It is so rare right now for Americans to have a discussion about anything important without resorting to epithets and name calling.  If one disagreed with the Obama Administration on this matter, the person was instantly brandished an Islamophobe. In any other discussion, the opposition will call the dissenter a right-wing extremist, a leftist, a racist, a narcissist or whatever ‘ist’ might tangentially apply.

These epithets are as intellectually bankrupt as the idea of registering all Muslims. Dismissing those who disagree is only fomenting the polarization of the nation.  Mr. Trump should not be involved in verbal conflicts with Muslim Americans like he was with Mr. Kahn during the campaign. The President can use the bully pulpit for policy, especially with Congress, but should not use it for defaming Muslim Americans and other dissenters.  While these verbal jousts make for great media theater, easier to identify the political opposition and unfriend your social media peeps, the wanton mockery of dissent is denying the country of its true greatness: the ability to civilly disagree, adjust course, and perpetuate a free republic.


The American counter terrorism narrative, like many other political efforts in the US, is out of kilter and is polarizing the nation.  The message must be synchronized with competent action like maintaining accountability of refugees, proving why an immigration restriction is needed, treating all religions consistently in our public schools, and acting swiftly and justly to the leads on potential terrorists. Meanwhile, most Muslim Americans cherish freedom and must be part of the counter terrorism solution just as other American groups helped defeat other violent organizations.  Radical Islamic terrorism may continue to occur in the United States for some time and President Trump will have to rally all Americans to a common understanding of domestic security and a mutual resilience to terrorist attacks.

The author retired as a US Army Colonel after 29 years of service to include fourteen months as the Multi-National Division Baghdad Information Campaign Manager during the 2007 Surge.