State Dept. Still Downplaying Religious Element in Terrorist Threat Advisory

Patrick Goodenough | February 21, 2013 | 4:27am EST
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Like jihadist terrorists from Pakistan to Central Asia to North Africa, these Hamas fighters in Gaza are motivated by a certain interpretation of Islam, and they use the Qur'an and other Islamic writings to justify their acts. (AP Photo, File)

( – A State Department “worldwide caution” updating U.S. citizens about potential terror threats has little to say about the fact that most of the terrorist groups targeting Americans profess themselves to be inspired by Islam.

The 2,000-plus word memo released this week does not use the word “Muslim” at all. “Islam” is used only where it appears in the actual name of a militant group (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), and in reference to “anti-Islamic videos and cartoons,” which the department says were linked to some anti-Western violence last September.

The memo uses the term “Islamist” only once – to describe extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba that are active in South Asia.

Elsewhere the advisory is silent on the religious/ideological motivation driving the majority of anti-Western terrorist groups.

Yet, of the terror organizations it refers to, all but one are Islamist-oriented. They are al-Qaeda and “affiliated organizations,” including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabaab in Somalia; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Hezbollah in Lebanon; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement in Central Asia; and in South Asia,  Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami, Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Indian Mujahideen and unnamed “indigenous sectarian groups” – which could refer either to Islamic groups (such as the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi), or possibly radical Hindu groups.

The sole non-Islamic entity among the groups listed is the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), a secular, far-left organization that claimed responsibility for a bomb at the entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey on February 1.

The department’s worldwide caution also does not specifically mention the fact that in some countries, such as Nigeria and Iraq, Christians and churches repeatedly have been picked out as terrorists’ targets.

(Where potential terror targets are named, there is a reference to “places of worship” – no religion indicated – along with others such as hotels, clubs, restaurants, schools, sports venues, business offices, public areas and tourist destinations.)

In Nigeria, it says, “[t]he loosely organized group of factions known as Boko Haram continues to carry out significant improvised explosive device and suicide bombings in northern Nigeria, mainly targeting government forces and innocent civilians; attacks have increased since their attack on the U.N. building in the capital of Abuja last year. The president of Nigeria declared a state of emergency in certain areas in response to activities of extremist groups.”

The worldwide caution does not note that Christians have been the primary target of Boko Haram, which has vowed to cleanse northern Nigeria of Christians in its “jihad” and has also demanded that Nigeria’s Christian president convert to Islam or resign.

More than 700 Christians were killed in violent attacks in the West African country last year.

The Obama administration has resisted calls to designate the group as a “foreign terrorist organization,” and U.S. officials have underplayed religion as the main motivation for the violence, citing other, local grievances. Last June it did designate three Boko Haram individuals under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists.

The trend in the worldwide caution is in keeping with the administration’s emphasis on “al-Qaeda and its affiliates” as the main enemy, rather than radical Islamists or jihadists driven by a particular interpretation of their faith.

Its current National Security Strategy (NSS) uses variations of the phrase “al-Qaeda and its affiliates” multiple times in identifying the enemy.  The word “Islam” appears just twice – the U.S. was not fighting a war against Islam, it says, and “neither Islam nor any other religion condones the slaughter of innocents.”

Released in 2010, the NSS updates the one produced by the Bush administration in 2006, which said that “the struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century.”

After the current NSS was published, Washington Institute for Near East Policy experts argued in a report that not acknowledging religious motivation behind Islamist terrorism was not helping the effort to fight it.

They said the administration should recognize Islamism as “the key ideological driver” behind the threat, and prioritize an effort to combat the ideology.

“To be sure, officials need to make very clear that they do not consider Islam itself a danger, only the distorted version of Islam perpetrated by radical extremists,” the experts said. “But they – and, in particular, the president – must also come to terms with the fact that individuals implicated in each of the recently exposed plots in the United States were imbued with a common radical ethos.”
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