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Counterterror Establishment and the Resistance to Change

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The U.S. struggle with too many counterterrorism experts is this: we value their detailed knowledge on individuals, groups, history, and tactics — but while such experts continue to seek to gather more “information” — their stubborn resistance to any approach other than what we have done in the past handicaps the USA from being able to effectively respond to a changing terrorist threat.

As we have seen with the ISIS terrorist movement, terror suspects can easily come and go, appear and attack without warning, terror tactics and targets can change at random, and the removal of terrorist movement “leaders” have a very limited impact on a decentralized terrorist movement’s activities. But while the highly dynamic terrorist threat has evolved and continues to change, the U.S. counterterrorism establishment remains stubbornly fixed mostly on tactics of the past.

This challenge is compounded by the expansion of a “counterterrorism industry” over 15 years, with well-funded institutions, organizations, and centers that have a mission and focus to largely continue to do what we have already been doing, and a primary emphasis on collecting “information.” Such an industry must consciously ignore that the U.S. government is overwhelmed by “information” at this point, ignore the challenge that the U.S. Government can’t and sometimes won’t act on such information, and ignore the growing realization that the terrorist threat has become so dynamic and unpredictable. Such an Establishment denial on these issues also is driven by preserving existing funding and financial stability for this industry to continue along its current path. The real priority of the Establishment counterterrorism industry has now become a defense of existing tactics to preserve the establishment institutions and resources.

The typical answer remains a retreat to more and new tactics, often counting on: informants, technology, and military tools. Ideas beyond these Establishment counterterrorist tactical areas are met with arrogant derision and scorn, by those who “know better” than the rest of the public. They correlate the concept of “knowing more details” with “having better judgment.” In most areas of specialty research, this is not an uncommon position. When it comes to shared public safety issues, however, the idea that the public should not have a say and a voice in such issues, is an affront to the basic principles of representative democracy itself, especially when such expertise becomes modeled around political, rather than public safety priorities. Part of this challenge with the Establishment counterterrorism community is a “Not Invented Here” (“NIH”) type of thinking on addressing counterterrorism, and basic protectionism of careers and establishment institutions built around such tactics of the past. In general, such focus on self-preservation is natural, normal, and worthy for those institutions that seek to provide protection against terrorist threats.

But the larger question remains what is the cost in ideas on public safety of allowing an entrenched establishment counterterror community to “guide” policy on terrorism, while ignoring the voice of the American public?

Another complication with this establishment community is the potential for corruption in some areas, especially due to a tactical over-dependence on foreign sources, and willingness to “engage” with enemies of human rights, in hopes to gain tactical advantage over “violent extremists.” It is this aspect of the Establishment counterterrorism community which R.E.A.L. will focus on here.

Ignoring the U.S. history of 150 years in the “war of ideas” against white supremacy and white supremacist terrorism, the Establishment counterterrorism community has focused tactics on religious extremist terrorism, with an emphasis of “engagement” with religious communities, and predominantly the Muslim Sunni and some Shia communities. But unlike the U.S. “war of ideas” on white supremacy, the engagement is not in seeking change, but rather mostly in ensuring that such communities are not offended by counterterror activities. To that end, the counterterror community has actively sought to portray itself as partners with the Muslim community, even among extremist groups.

The argument that the Establishment counterterror community makes is that by such engagement, they will build relationships to prevent violence and also to gain informants on such violence to stop future attacks. In addition, the second major argument on such engagement that the Establishment counterterror community makes is that by demonstrating itself as partners with such Muslim communities, it counteracts the argument that counterterror activities are “anti-Muslim” groups with goals to alienate and conflict with Muslims.

On the surface, the argument of the Establishment counterterror community provides an argument which gives the appearance of fairness. But in the implementation of such tactics of engagement, it is another matter altogether. As I have previously written, and will expand on below, the American history on the “war of ideas” in challenging White Supremacy is not incidental, but is vital in understanding the need to change how extremists think, and most of all, the “legitimacy” that supremacist views have about another identity group.

So it is with such religious extremists as well. For the past 15 years and especially the past decade, the Establishment counterterrorism community not only has actively engaged with the Muslim community, but also has engaged with those elements of the community which others would view as supporting extreme views. At least a decade ago, those challenging engagement with extreme views sought to distinguish engagement with the Muslim community versus engagement with those supporting what was then called “political Islam,” “Islamism,” or “Islamist extremism,” as was referenced in the U.S. Commission on the 9/11 Attack Report in 2004.

The 9/11 Report found that the 9/11 attacks were inspired by such extremist versions of such a political ideology. However, these finding (among many others) were expeditiously ignored by too many in the Establishment counterterrorist community who believed that bridges to such political groups offered an ability to “engage” with them and to leverage such relationships to prevent violent attacks.

A fundamental basis for such political outreach, which began aggressively in 2006, included the Muslim Brotherhood, banned by the Egyptian government as “terrorists,” and which provides a political extremist history in support of so-called “Jihad” and calls for transnational infiltration of other countries to change and control their governments. This was documented in May 22, 1991 by a member of the Board of Directors for the Muslim Brotherhood in North America and senior Hamas leader named Mohammed Akram. The linkage of the Muslim Brotherhood to extremism has been literally known for decades, and was documented in a 2008 U.S. federal court case of U.S. v Holy Land Foundation, et al., with a specific court exhibit titled: “An Explanatory Memorandum: On the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America,” Government Exhibit 003-0085 3:04-CR-240-G. The trial against the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) was in regards to financial support for the Hamas terrorist (FTO) group. While the first HLF trial ended in a mistrial, a second trial in 2008 jurors found all the defendants guilty on all counts of helping to finance terrorism. In December 2011, a fifth circuit judicial panel upheld the convictions against HLF and its senior leaders.

But before this trial and while it was ongoing, a bipartisan Establishment group in Congress sought to promote outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood extremist group (whose slogan is “Jihad is our way”). This approach to outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood became a part of Establishment foreign policy within Establishment figures in Congress, the executive branch, and the counterterrorism community in 2008, as what was then known as the U.S. Muslim Engagement Project. This project actually began in 2006, but was officially recognized as a bi-partisan project by Congressional representatives in 2008.

With such government and institutional organizations compromised by engagement with extremist groups, the idea of challenging “extremism” itself evolved into countering only “violent extremism.” As such tactics became officially adopted policy, the idea of challenging “extremism” per se became no longer acceptable, when we could engage with political “extremists” like the Muslim Brotherhood (and of course we couldn’t call them that) to help us combat “violent extremists.” As one senior former high-profile CIA official Evan McMullin recently told a political pundit, we shouldn’t object to the Muslim Brotherhood, because the MB was in favor of a form of “democracy.” This same basic message promoting engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood extremist organization has been published in the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel, and is a fundamental part of Establishment counterterrorism and foreign policy tactics at this point. To challenge such extremist views in today’s Establishment climate, would be to be labeled as an “extremist” yourself.

As early as 2007, the U.S. Government was appearing at Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conferences typically held on Labor Day. This included attendance at such conferences with booths by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In 2007, the DHS booth was next to the booth for the anti-democracy, pro “violent jihad” group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Hizb ut-Tahrir is an extremist group that has been linking to terrorist plots in the U.K., Southeast Asia, and the Greater Middle East. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s U.S. organization seeks to undermine democracy, develop a global Islamic caliphate, and calls for the death of those who leave Islam, as they have documented in pamphlets distributed at their events in the United States. R.E.A.L. has protested Hizb ut-Tahrir events in different parts of the United States, rejecting the extremist group’s attacks on democracy, equality, and freedom, and the extremist group’s threats to those who seek religious freedom (as defined by the UDHR, Article 18). The black flag used by Hizb ut-Tahrir at its anti-freedom events in the United States (protested by R.E.A.L.) is the same flag used by the ISIS terrorist movement.

During the 2008 HLF trial involving funding for the Hamas terrorist organization, ISNA (which has held the conferences attended by both U.S. Government officials and Hizb ut-Tahrir) was named as unindicted co-conspirator, and ISNA was founded by American-based members of the Muslim Brotherhood. ISNA’s history has included a number of links to extremist groups and leaders with support for the FTO Hamas. Based on this linkage of ISNA to such an FTO in the 2008 HLF trial, U.S. Government officials then decided to maintain a lower profile attendance at ISNA annual conferences.

This changed on September 4, 2016, when DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson was a featured speaker at the 2016 ISNA conference. DHS Secretary Johnson stated that he knew about the decision after the 2008 trial to maintain a “low profile” at ISNA conferences, but felt it was time to change this, and hoped that the DHS Secretary would be a part of such conferences in the future. At the 2016 ISNA conference, Jeh Johnson also appeared with Dalia Mogahed, who has presently represented the U.S. White House on Muslim Affairs. As R.E.A.L. has previously reported, while Dalia Mogahed was working for the White House, she appeared on a U.K. television program with the anti-democracy, anti-freedom Hizb ut-Tahrir organization. Dalia Mogahed did not challenge the views of this extremist Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, which flies same flag as ISIS at its events.

We have seen this position of engagement with extremism for over a decade, in numerous reports, as well as many in-person sessions at events throughout official federal government sponsored events, and those on Capitol Hill, which R.E.A.L. has attended in person.

Also in the past week, a renowned university counterterrorist organization hired a “former” terrorist who was convicted and served a partial sentence in prison. This individual continues to maintain online posts in support of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist views, as well as a Facebook site which has flies the flag of ISIS as part of “Islam Policy.” This same individual was reportedly paid thousands of dollars by federal law enforcement.

Over a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “No man who is corrupt, no man who condones corruption in others, can possibly do his duty by the community.” It gives R.E.A.L. no pleasure or satisfaction to point out these challenges in terms of official and institutions, which we have seen (for many, many years) seek engagement with extremists. But if we are to address a dynamic terrorist threat in the future, we need look beyond short-term tactics and legitimization of extremists in hopes that they can somehow defuse “violent extremism” by tolerance and appeasement of “non-violent extremism.”

It is not enough to plead with extremists not to use violent tactics, but if we want to change minds in the long-run, we also need to make it clear exactly what values and standards we will defend. We cannot defend values and standards of human rights, while we excuse and defend ideologies of extremism that attack and denounce such human rights.