WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's recent move to drop rhetorical references to Islamic radicalism is drawing fire in a new report warning the decision ignores the role religion can play in motivating terrorists.
Several prominent counterterrorism experts are challenging the administration's shift in its recently unveiled National Security Strategy, saying the terrorism threat should be defined in order to fight it.
The question of how to frame the conflict against al-Qaida and other terrorists poses a knotty problem. The U.S. is trying to mend fences with Muslim communities while toughening its strikes against militant groups.
In the report, scheduled to be released this week, counterterrorism experts from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argue that the U.S. could clearly articulate the threat from radical Islamic extremists "without denigrating the Islamic religion in any way."
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President Obama has argued that words matter, and administration officials have said that the use of inflammatory descriptions linking Islam to the terrorist threat feed the enemy's propaganda and may alienate moderate Muslims in the U.S.
In the report, which was obtained by the Associated Press, the analysts warn that U.S. diplomacy must sharpen the distinction between the Muslim faith and violent Islamist extremism, identify radicalizers within Islamic communities and empower voices that can contest the radical teachings.
The report acknowledges that the Obama administration has beefed up efforts to work with the Muslim community in the U.S. and abroad and has also expanded counterterrorism operations and tried to erode and divide al-Qaida and its affiliated groups.
As it unveiled its new National Security Strategy last May, administration officials said the shift in emphasis was critical in undercutting al-Qaida's efforts to portray its attacks on the U.S. and the west as a justified holy war.
Terrorist leaders "play into the false perception that they are religious leaders defending a holy cause, when in fact they are nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims," said top administration counterterrorism deputy John Brennan during a May 24 speech explaining the shift. He added that "describing our enemy in religious terms would lend credence to the lie — propagated by al-Qaida and its affiliates to justify terrorism — that the United States is somehow at war against Islam."