The Magazine

Don’t Mention the War

Why does the Obama administration find it so hard to utter the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘jihad’ and ‘Islamic extremism’?

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Late last week, ABC News added a new twist: Shahzad “had contact with” al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Citing law enforcement and intelligence sources, ABC reported that Shahzad’s “web of jihadist contacts” included “the figure who has emerged as a central figure in many recent domestic terror attempts—radical American-born Muslim cleric Anwar Awlaki.” 

That may be somewhat overstated. According to a source with knowledge of the investigation, Shahzad has acknowledged downloading Awlaki’s sermons from the Internet and, more generally, supporting Awlaki’s efforts to take the jihad to America. But this source says it’s unclear that Shahzad and Awlaki had any two-way communications.

Whatever his role—whether direct and operational or distant and inspirational—Awlaki’s reach cannot be disputed. And it is yet another element of this attack that echoes the other two attacks on the U.S. homeland in the last six months. 

The first of those came on November 5, 2009, when Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. Almost immediately after that attack, administration and law enforcement officials downplayed the possibility that Hasan, a practicing Muslim, was motivated by a radical ideology. One FBI official told Fox News that the bureau was not even discussing the possibility of Hasan’s connections to terrorist groups.

But we quickly learned that Hasan had email contact with Awlaki in the months leading up to his attack. At first the FBI dismissed the contents of those emails as “benign.” But that claim became hard to defend when details of the emails were leaked. (In one, Hasan asked whether it was permissible under sharia law to kill U.S. military personnel. And in another, Hasan told Awlaki that he could not wait to join the cleric in the afterlife.) The bureau revised its assessment, claiming only that the emails were consistent with Hasan’s research as an Army psychologist. 

It was not until months after the Fort Hood shooting that the Obama administration would label it an act of terrorism. “Violent Islamic terrorism .  .  . was part and parcel of the Ft. Hood killings,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in February. But, astonishingly, the report that came out of a Pentagon review of the attack did not even mention Hasan’s radical views or his contacts with Awlaki. 

The second attack came on December 25, 2009, when a Nigerian al Qaeda recruit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, boarded a Detroit-bound plane wearing an underwear bomb. Months earlier, Abdulmutallab’s father had let the U.S. embassy in Abuja know that his son had adopted extremist views and disappeared into Yemen, an al Qaeda hotspot. Other intelligence demonstrated that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is headquartered in Yemen, was preparing to use a Nigerian recruit in an attack. Indeed, AQAP was training Abdulmutallab at the time. Abdulmutallab was also a known friend of Islamic extremists living in England, where he had studied for years.

As in the case of the Fort Hood attack, federal authorities failed to connect the dots beforehand. And, as was the case in Times Square, America simply got lucky. Abdulmutallab’s underwear bomb failed to ignite. Vigilant passengers pounced on him to make sure he did not get another chance to bring down the airliner.

From the outset, the Obama administration downplayed the attack and Abdulmutallab’s connections to terrorists. Despite the fact that the U.S. government did nothing to stop Abdulmutallab, Napolitano and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs claimed that the “system worked.” 

Napolitano said that there was “no indication” the Christmas plot was “part of anything larger.” And three days after the attack, in a statement on December 28, President Obama called Abdulmutallab an “isolated extremist.”

Even at the time they made these comments there were indications in the press that Abdulmutallab had been dispatched by al Qaeda. Abdulmutallab told interrogators on Christmas Day that he had been trained in Yemen and that other terrorists would follow.

So, three attacks in six months, by attackers with connections to the global jihadist network—connections that administration officials have gone out of their way to diminish.

The most striking thing about all three attacks is not what we heard, but what we haven’t heard. There has been very little talk about the global war that the Obama administration sometimes acknowledges we are fighting and virtually nothing about what motivates our enemy: radical Islam. 

This is no accident. Janet Napolitano never used the word “terrorism” in her first appearance before Congress as secretary-designate of Homeland Security on January 15, 2009. Shortly thereafter, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration had dropped the phrase “Global War on Terror” in favor of “Overseas Contingency Operations.” And just last month, we learned that the White House’s forthcoming National Security Strategy would not use religious words such as “jihad” and “Islamic extremism.”

When asked why she did not utter the word “terrorism” in the course of her testimony, Napolitano explained that she used “man-caused disaster” instead to avoid “the politics of fear.” 

The Department of Homeland Security was created after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history to prevent further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. And the head of that department is worried that using the word “terrorism” is playing the politics of fear.

The White House is very sensitive to criticism that Obama does not understand the United States is at war. “I don’t think anyone realizes this very hard reality more than President Obama,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, in a statement after the Christmas Day attack. Pfeiffer went on: “In his inaugural, the President said ‘our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.’ ” 

It is true. Obama said this. But in that same speech, Obama offered another view of the source of our security. “Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” 

And the president’s mention of the war came not as a bold declaration of strength, but as an entry in a much longer list of national maladies—most of which were domestic in nature. 

That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

It is not enough for the president to recognize that we’re at war. He has to lead us in the fight.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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