The Importance of Language in Winning the Battle of Wills & Ideas

The Importance of Language in Winning the Battle of Wills & Ideas

The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) community lost a battle when President Obama chose to believe the words of terrorists over the words of his own citizens who have repeatedly said “jihad can never be used to justify terrorism.”

The usage of language is of critical importance in trying to win this “battle of wills and ideas” as President Obama referenced in his Counterterrorism Strategy address at NDU on May 23, 2013. For the first time since President Obama took office, he publicly used the words “violent jihad” and “violent jihadists” as a synonym for terrorism & terrorists; not once but twice in reference to home grown violent extremism (HVE). Let us leave aside for the moment the glaring issue that despite the spectrum of homegrown terrorism examples he gave, the solutions he mentioned only referenced the Muslim community.

Some people wonder why the labels we use are important. Others stress the importance of calling a spade a spade if we want to truly address the threat. There are three main issues why the usage of “violent jihad” as a synonym for terrorism is inappropriate, and none are about American Muslim sensitivities.

1) Accuracy. Our terrorism statutes are covered under 18 USC Chapter 113b Sections 2331-2339 and describe in detail what constitutes terrorism and the penalties within our legal system. Not surprisingly, there is no mention of “jihad” – violent or otherwise.

Just as it is imperative for the US Attorneys’ Offices and the FBI to use accurate terminology in indictments, criminal complaints and press releases, based on our legal codes and not on mainstream-media driven language, it is critical for the President of “the world’s most powerful nation” to be accurate in his public addresses that are heard around the globe.

Unless there are amendments to 18 USC Chapter 113b, there is NO occasion when any member of the US government should be using “violent jihad” as a synonym for terrorism.

2) Undermining Domestic CVE Efforts. In the world of CVE, the largest battle we wage daily, for the sake of our national security, is delegitimizing terrorism narratives that are used to incite and recruit members. One such front is over the meaning and scope of the word jihad.

Al-Qaeda and its associates falsely claim that the US is at war with Islam and therefore attacking civilians in a bid for revenge and bombing/murdering/beheading people for their cause is sanctioned under the label “jihad.” This is terrorism, not jihad, and American Muslims unequivocally condemn all forms of terrorism. When the US President starts interchangeably using the term “violent jihad” for terrorism the efforts of CVE practitioners, as well the voices of American Muslims, are being undermined.

As this struggle between co-religionists continues, legitimate religious leaders are actively seeking to correct the misuse and abuse of the word by extremists. CVE researchers are creating counter-narratives for social media and practitioners are annually training hundreds of youth, parents and imams on countering online radicalization.

It is unfortunate that the Administration would jump into this milieu and choose sides on the definition of the religious concept of jihad. It behooves our government to believe its citizens and billions of Muslims around the globe on their faith rather than terrorists like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

3) Legitimizing Terrorist Narratives. As the President alludes to principles of jus ad bellum in our own counterterrorism strategy, he is inadvertently conceding that so too are the terrorists. Violent extremists inspired or associated with Al-Qaeda ideologues consider the epithet “jihadist” to be a badge of honor that validates their misguided notion that they are fighting a good war for a just cause. We need to use our own value framework and legal system to create labels for perpetrators of violence, not accept the language coming from our enemies who are intent on creating a veneer of legitimacy to recruit our youth. Anglicizing the Arabic term “mujahid” to “violent jihadist” does not serve our ends. Let us remember that terrorists are barbaric murderers and do not deserve to be glorified or honored within their corrupted framework. As we continue to work towards preventing violent extremism, we cannot give an inch on this front. Let us remember that the victims and survivors of terrorist attacks are the true heroes and honor them instead.

From the perspective of national security research and practitioners of CVE, our job of countering extremist ideology and narratives has just become harder as we now also have to convince our own President that terrorism can never be justified as “violent jihad” and the two are not synonyms.

Ferhani and Mamdouh- Hate Crime or Terrorism?

The recent arrest of Mohamed Mamdouh and Ahmed Ferhani on charges of plotting to attack a New York synagogue has received much media attention, not because of the crime being planned, but because the FBI NY JTTF opted to not be involved in the case. There is much speculation about the politics of the FBI/NY JTTF/NYPD working relationship, and anonymous law enforcement sources have suggested that the case will not hold up to terrorism charges in federal courts.

This speculation is extremely interesting because of the FBI’s definitions of international and domestic terrorism (excerpts below taken from .

FBI definitions

There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
The FBI further describes terrorism as either domestic or international, depending on the origin, base, and objectives of the terrorist organization. For the purpose of this report, the FBI will use the following definitions:

  • Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.
  • International terrorism involves violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any state, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or any state. These acts appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping. International terrorist acts occur outside the United States or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to coerce or intimidate, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.

It is important to note that terrorism by definition requires “furtherance of political or social objectives”. This means hate crimes (like anti-Semitic attacks, plans to bomb synagogues/churches/mosques) or attacks by clinically crazy people are not considered terrorist acts; they get prosecuted under hate crimes and various other criminal statutes instead, and carry softer sentences than anything related to terrorism. The meager information released about the case so far, along with the FBI/JTTF (in)actions raise the possibility that these two individuals were driven by sheer hate, and not terrorism. This would make it similar to the Sandlin Mathews Smith case, where the suspect was not charged with terrorism even though he had bombed a Florida mosque in 2010.

The second aspect of note is its completely domestic nature; there does not appear to be any foreign influence in this particular case. If there had been inspiration or involvement with any foreign organization, like the Shabab, Al Qaeda (central) or any of the Al-Qaeda affiliate/partner networks, the international terrorism statutes could/would have been applied.

A detail to remember is that this incident should not be considered a “lone wolf” terrorism case as it involved two individuals, even if they are not affiliated with any groups. Parallels are also drawn to Faisal Shahzad (Times Square bomber) however he too was not a lone wolf; whereas he implemented the bombing attempt by himself, he was actually affiliated with TTP who were part of the training, planning and funding of the operation (a true lone wolf case is the Unabomber).

The case of the make-up salesman/aspiring model Ferhani and taxi dispatcher Mamdouh on state terrorism charges (rather than federal), has the potential to dissolve into an entrapment case about terrorism because the perpetrators are Muslim and it involves the NYPD, rather than being treated as a hate crime like the Sandlin Smith case. Once again, we will have to wait and see what plays out.

9/11 Family Statement on Osama bin Laden Death

Statement by Carie Lemack, founder of the Global Survivors Network on the death of Osama bin Laden, on May 1, 2011.

"While we are still in shock and need time to digest the news that we have waited far too long to hear, my family can only express relief that the man who murdered my mother, Judy Larocque and thousands others can no longer harm another living soul.  We hope that the attention of the news media is on those whose lives he took and to whom he caused immeasurable pain, and not on him, as he is not worthy of the airtime. "

Muflehun Chairman Speaks at Aspen Institute: “Integration as a National Security Asset”

Muflehun Chairman Speaks at Aspen Institute: “Integration as a National Security Asset”

Suhail Khan, Board chairman of Muflehun spoke on a panel about “Integration as a National Security Asset” at a day long conference on “America the Inclusive: Building Robust Community and Interfaith Partnerships.” The event was hosted by Aspen Institute’s Justice and Society Program and the Interfaith Youth Core, led by Eboo Patel.

Keynote speakers at the event included the Honorable Jane Harman and Director Michael Leiter (NCTC). Several speakers made special mention of Imam Magid, Muflehun board member, for his work.

More information on the event can be found here.

Muflehun Board Member Addresses ADL’s Young Professionals Division

Muflehun Board Member Addresses ADL’s Young Professionals Division

Imam Magid, Board member of Muflehun, spoke on the topic of “Islamophobia: The Rise of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Muslims” to members of ADL’s Young Professionals Division on March 24, 2011. Issues covered included homegrown radicalization and his trip to Auschwitz and Dachua in 2010.

More coverage of the event can be read at the ADL website.

Mohammed Junaid Babar- Donnie Brasco or Frank Lucas?

In 2004, Mohammed Junaid Babar was arrested for helping set up an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan and logistical support. He pled guilty and cooperated with law enforcement agencies. Acting as a witness in indictments of ten more people in the US, UK and Canada, he was finally sentenced in December 2010 to time served (a mere 4 years 8 months), 10 years supervised probation and a $500 fine; he could have been sentenced up to 70 years.  Junaid Babar, who has expressed remorse for his prior actions, was actually released on bail some 2 years ago in 2008.

There are many unanswered questions around this case as most of the court documents are sealed.

Judge Marrero mentioned that Babar was cooperating with law enforcement before his 2004 arrest. Was Babar a Donnie Brasco, working undercover for law enforcement, to catch terrorists?

Alternatively, if reports about Operation Crevice and Hassan Butt by Shiv Malik and Jon Gilbert have any credibility, Babar was looking for a way out, while avoiding spending the rest of his life in jail for his al-Qaeda activities. Given his incarceration for almost 5 years it is more likely that this was a Frank Lucas style deal or a David-Headley-style-informant-operation (1) that actually worked. 

Are some of the 10 people that were indicted because of Babar’s testimony in the same boat as Niazi in the Monteilh/FBI fiasco in California, or were they all genuinely involved in terrorism? At least two of the accused have had all charges against them dropped.

Assuming that Babar was really a terrorist and not acting in an undercover capacity, does cooperating with law enforcement count as an expression of de-radicalization or is it merely a self-preservation tactic? Can a man who helped set up a training camp for al-Qaeda be de-radicalized because of fear of a 70 year sentence?

The questions swirling around Babar’s conduct and sentencing have been dealt with by the courts, and it seems they will remain unanswered for the rest. Even his lawyer had not seen all the documents and notes from the prosecution side related to his case as Babar pled guilty and there was no discovery needed! 


(1) In the David Headley case, he was a paid informant who actually got radicalized during his sting activities, and was involved in the Mumbai bombing. Even when reports of his radicalization were coming in, the law enforcement community gave him free rein  because they assumed that it was part of his cover.