WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – For the sixteenth year, Americans marked a 9-11 anniversary. The occasion is always somber. The rhetoric is always lofty, and the affirmations of resolve and purpose are always firm—as they were on Monday.
But Monday’s speeches by senior Trump administration officials—from the President on down—were unexpected in a key respect.
None used the word “Islam” in any form, including “radical Islam,” to describe the 9/11 attacks or those who carried them out.
For their circumspection, Trump and his senior aides were lambasted by Breitbart News, the conservative website that former White House advisor, Steve Bannon, ran before he joined the Trump team, and whence he returned after the new White House Chief-of-Staff, retired Marine Corps general, John Kelly, had him fired.
As Breitbart complained, “Donald Trump did not once mention the terms ‘radical Islam’ or ‘Islamic terrorism.’” Rather, he “seemingly went out of his way,” to use much vaguer language, like “barbaric forces of evil and destruction,” it lamented.
Vice-President Mike Pence was lambasted for saying, “evil terrorists,” while Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was slapped for “maniacs disguised in false religious garb.”
Conversely, establishment media, like The Washington Post, welcomed Trump’s new tone.
Breitbart attributed the change to Bannon’s departure, along with that of his aide, Sebastian Gorka, who believed it was so important to describe the enemy as “radical Islam,” that he said so as he left the White House.
Bannon regularly clashed with National Security Adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, who objected strongly to using that term and otherwise making the war on terror appear a religious conflict.
After all, America’s closest allies in places like Iraq and Syria are Muslims, as Kurds who have done much of the fighting in those two countries know well. The same is true in Afghanistan, where it is mostly Afghans who are fighting the Taliban and its allies.
Doubtless, McMaster’s ascendancy, boosted by Kelly’s presence, goes far in explaining the Trump administration’s new language regarding America’s war on terror.
But is there more? Since 9/11, and even before, the US has defined the enemy only vaguely and primarily in terms of ideology.
It is assumed that the “global jihad” consists entirely of Islamic extremists and that no intelligence agencies (or agencies from regimes that have been overthrown) are involved in the violence.
A different view exists, however. Two years ago, the highly-regarded German magazine, Der Spiegel, published an authoritative account of the structure of the Islamic State (IS.) Based on captured documents, the article, a leak from German intelligence, argued that IS’ core is the former Iraqi regime.
If so, the US approach remains self-defeating and dangerous: Self-defeating because its emphasis on ideology provides cover for the brutal and ruthless men who really run IS. The focus on the ideology of radical Islam makes IS seem attractive to a small fraction of the world’s Muslim population—often troubled individuals, often young. As there are one billion Muslims, a small fraction can be a large number.
It is also dangerous because Saddam Hussein’s old regime is far more capable than ordinary fighters. US officials, basing their assessments on what they have seen so far, describe IS’ Chemical Warfare (CW) capabilities as “rudimentary.”
But if IS includes Saddam’s old CW cadre, that could change suddenly.
British authorities are now concerned about CW terrorism and have begun a major program to provide first responders the antidote to sophisticated nerve agents, like VX and sarin, as British press recently reported.
On Monday, not only did some of the most senior US officials—Trump, himself; Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis; and Chief of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford—avoid using “Islam” to describe the enemy, they also eschewed other terminology that had become customary since 9/11 in describing the enemy.
They did not refer to “networks.” They did not refer to “groups”—whether as a general category, or specific organizations, like IS, al Qaida, and the like. And they did not refer to ideology.
The result was the vagueness that so infuriated Breitbart. But is it possible that the abstract language reflects some serious thinking?
Twenty-five years ago—before Bill Clinton’s inauguration as president, followed by the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center a month later—Americans believed that most major acts of terrorism were state-sponsored.
Clinton changed that, however. He dealt with terrorism primarily as a law enforcement issue, with the focus on arresting and convicting individual perpetrators.
But, maybe, the older understanding was correct? Could the Trump administration be reconsidering that key point?
We don’t really know. However, it would explain the unusual vagueness of senior US officials on Monday as they described the enemy in America’s long war on terrorism.
Editing by G.H. Renaud