While television news organizations began hosting debates concerning the (im)prudence of the Obama administration’s response to recent terrorist attacks in France, officials at CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center were asking a rather telling question about America’s counterterrorism posture: How can we boost the public’s interest in terrorism? This, so as to attract the next generation of counterterrorism analysts, while also bolstering support for sound counterterrorism policymaking.
Presently, these officials are soliciting input from graduate students who possess little, if any real world marketing experience — let alone experience prompting national discussions about national security concerns. Concurrently, they are no doubt overpaying for ideas about ways to increase interest in terrorism among local, state and federal governmental employees from the same stable of national security consultants and “experts” who have helped America render al Qaeda no less of a threat to the United States than it was a decade ago.
Yet, as they pursue “out of the box” input on ways to expand interest in terrorism these officials would be remiss in not weighing the toxic effects of this issue: The dearth of leadership demonstrated by the commander-in-chief of the United States. The nation which is the top target of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or Daesh, and many other terrorist groups whose agendas are also informed by Salafiya Jihadiya — the ideology fueling the global jihad movement.
When asked to lecture on Salafiya Jihadiya at a military college last year, I encountered the fruits of the very problem that intelligence officials are endeavoring to reverse. This, while, of all things, lecturing for a course titled “Global Terrorism” offered to undergrad and graduate criminal justice students. Many of them either employees of, or hoping to land jobs with, various components of the United States intelligence community.
A growing body of research indicates most criminal justice students possess authoritative personalities, and academicians concerned with improving pedagogies tailored for them recommend interactive engagement styles. Given that, I began by presenting images of major terrorist attacks conducted by al Qaeda and asking students what came to mind. Next, I presented photos of influential jihadist ideologues like Sayyed Qutb and Afghan Jihad leader Abdallah Azzam, as well as photos of prominent al Qaeda figures, and asked students to identify them.
A thought leader in the Muslim Brotherhood who also became the chief formulator of the ideology that guides the actions of al Qaeda, Daesh, Boko Haram, et al, Sayyed Qutb was accused of committing treason and executed by Egypt’s Nasser government in 1966. So it is little wonder he was not recognizable to any of the students.
The same might be said for Osama bin Laden’s aforementioned mentor, Abdallah Azzam: A high profile figure in the Brotherhood prior to becoming the leader of the Afghan Jihad, Azzam was assassinated in 1989. A little more than a year earlier, he provided a mandate for the creation of al Qaeda in an article published in Al Jihad magazine titled “al Qaeda al Subah” (The Solid Base). Azzam also helped establish Hamas.
As expected, everyone raised their hands to indicate they knew his name when I presented a famous photo of bin Laden, in which he was seated alongside another key figure in the global jihad movement. But then came the shocker: A number of young former military members were unable to identify the man in the photo seated adjacent bin Laden, al Qaeda’s current emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“Hey, I spent about five years loading and unloading planes in Iraq — not chasing al Qaeda members in Afghanistan,” one of them explained in a chat after class.
If you have been keeping abreast of news reports on the recent attacks in France and asking how events like these can materialize when “we” — as in, U.S. government personnel — know so much about individuals responsible for them, then your question is flawed. Indeed, very few of this “we” really do know much about these elements.
If you think your average government employee is more attentive to news reports on terrorist groups than your average civilian, you should think again. Moreover, if you think many among this “we” are sufficiently equipped to digest the jargon-intensive “scholarly” reporting on and analysis of terrorist organizations commissioned by various intelligence and law enforcement organizations, well, that’s an assumption that continues to blow up in our faces.
If anything, vesting academic elites with ownership of the study of terrorism is but one of many missteps that have likely served to deter your average government employee’s interest in this costly issue. In their quest to say something new in order to garner interest in their work from publishers, many PhDs describe the issue of terrorism with such complexity that deciphering their work is an awful lot like wading through a quantum mechanics textbook. And by making rich knowledge of terrorist elements like al Qaeda so inaccessible for the average person, “we” are also dissuading both the average government employee and civilian alike from seeking more informed understandings of terrorist groups that seek to destroy our way of life.
Plus “we” are achieving the same results by denying the public access to unclassified taxpayer-funded translations of terrorists’ statements and other such primary source materials that Americans could use to learn more about these elements by reviewing their batshit crazy, often apocalyptical propaganda in full — not just snippets of it contained in news reports.
Amassed in databases like CIA’s Open Source Center, which one needn’t possess a security clearance in order to gain access to — merely a local, state or federal governmental email address — all such materials should be made available to the public. For, if this had been the policy all along, President Obama probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable about making the United States look utterly foolish before the rest of the world with his portrayal of al Qaeda as a band on the run. And the terms al Qaeda and Daesh would almost certainly have been iterated during yesterday’s State of the Union address.
Ultimately, in the United States, the public’s understanding of an issue is the mother’s milk of sound policymaking. Presently, however, the public’s shallow understanding of group’s like al Qaeda means that politicians like the president can get away with organizing their priorities in a manner that downplays the relevance of issues like terrorism. That, in turn, reduces the perceived gains to be had by both current government employees and civilian aspirants to government jobs for developing expertise with the foremost threats to America’s security today, and likely tomorrow: Terrorists comprising the global jihad movement. And that, in turn, diminishes your government’s capabilities to defend our interests.
Michael S. Smith II is COO of Kronos Advisory, a senior analyst with Wikistrat, and founding editor of DOWNRANGE (InsideTheJihad.com).