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Experts Grapple with Proper Definition of Terror Threat Against US - 2004-07-27

On numerous occasions, U.S. officials have spoken of the "war on terrorism." However, the final report of the 9/11 Commission criticizes the government for its vague definition of the threat. But, there is concern about publicly defining the threat too precisely.

All available evidence nails responsibility for the attacks of September 11, 2001, squarely on Osama bin Laden and his cadre of Islamic radicals, dubbed al-Qaida. But U.S. officials, including President Bush, generally speak only of the "war on terrorism" and usually shy away from more specific references.

In its report, the 9/11 Commission investigating the attacks in the United States says the enemy is not just some generic evil dubbed "terrorism." The report says such vagueness blurs the strategy for fighting the threat.

In a VOA interview, 9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick says the commission concurred that the threat facing the United States is specific and should be clearly defined.

"We feel very strongly that to date our government has ineptly defined the enemy as terrorism. Terrorism is a tool. It is not an enemy in and of itself," she said. "And our problem is not any kind of terrorism. It is Islamist extremist terrorism."

Ms. Gorelick says the commission felt that mislabeling the enemy can mean using the wrong tactics to fight it.

"And we focus very carefully on that enemy because if you misappreciate [do not appreciate] who the enemy is, your tactics will be wrong," she said.

But the word "Islamist" rarely creeps into official U.S. statements. U.S. officials have time and again said that the United States is not fighting the Islamic faith, only a relatively small group of fanatics who exploit the Muslim faith for political goals.

Speaking to VOA on the condition that his identity not be revealed, a senior U.S. intelligence officer says U.S. officials are afraid of being labeled anti-Muslim.

"If you don't want to say, which our politicians and our senior bureaucrats don't want to say, if you don't want to say that we're at war with Islam, you certainly have to argue that part of Islam is at war with us," he said. "And I think a growing part of Islam is at war with us. 'War on terror' is just a convenient way to avoid being politically incorrect."

Ms. Gorelick says officials, and that includes the 9/11 commission members, are very conscious that discussing the specific threat as Islamic radicalism instead of just "terrorism" risks being characterized as anti-Muslim by bin Laden sympathizers.

The intelligence official, who under the pen name "Anonymous" has written a critique of U.S. anti-terror efforts called "Imperial Hubris", says that Osama bin Laden has been able to win support in the Islamic world because he has portrayed U.S. policies toward places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as "anti-Islamic."

"Perhaps his greatest genius is to focus on a limited number of American policies that are viewed in the Muslim world and across the Islamic spectrum, across from liberal Muslims to militant Muslims, if you can use those terms, as an attack on Islam, as an attack on Muslims," he said. "And until we get that, I really don't know how we're going to emerge victorious in this struggle."

But 9/11 Commissioner Gorelick says, the threat has to be labeled for what it is in order to fight it correctly.