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Assessing the true terror threat

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Immersed in a war against terrorism, the United States is in crisis because it has been unable to reach a consensus about the true nature of the threat it faces. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the contrasting ways in which the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have described the central military challenge confronting the United States.

The Bush administration characterized the challenge in its 2006 document National Strategy for Combating Terrorism: “America is at war with a transnational terrorist movement fueled by a radical ideology.” Its recommended strategy to combat this movement entailed “destroying the larger al-Qaida network and also confronting the radical ideology that inspired others to join or support the terrorist movement.”

Declaring that the United States was in a global struggle, a long war, against opposing concepts of civilization, the Bush administration addressed the issue of jihad while respectfully mentioning Islam: “The terrorists distort the idea of jihad into a call for violence and murder” against those who have beliefs different from theirs.

John Brennan's statements, made in the summer of 2009 when he was assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, are a clear articulation of the administration's position: Al-Qaida poses “the most serious terrorist threat we face as a nation,” not the broader movement of distorted jihad.

In fact, Brennan said, “President Obama … (does not) see this challenge as a fight against ‘jihadists.' Describing terrorists in this way — using a legitimate term, ‘jihad,' meaning to purify or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal — risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself.”

The Obama administration has realized the importance of understanding various meanings of jihad but has dismissed the idea that some form of jihad — as well as radical Islamic elements beyond al-Qaida — pose a threat to the United States and the West.

President Obama made his most comprehensive statement about terrorism since taking office in a speech at the National Defense University on March 23. He cautioned against seeing “our effort ... as a boundless ‘global war on terror' — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” He reported that “Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants. There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure.”

Yet the recent decision to close nearly two dozen embassies in the greater Middle East because of a threat from al-Qaida in Yemen reveals that the war is far from over.

Declaring that the United States is in a long war or stating that the war is nearly over does not address the deeper issue of the role of distorted jihad in geopolitics. The most immediate threat to the United States is al-Qaida. But there are other distorted jihadists at work. Just look at Egypt and Syria.

In a way, America's divided outlook on the nature of the threat it currently faces makes the war against terrorism seem even more dangerous and deeply disturbing than the Cold War.

Kiron Skinner is director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for International Relations and Politics and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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