The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Ending al-Qaeda

Now that Osama bin Laden is no more, we should push our advantage. We have a most unusual source to show us how.

Published on July 1, 2011

If anyone had said shortly after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks that, almost ten years on, the U.S. government and the American people would be both apathetic and divided about the terrorist threat, he would have been dismissed as having a poor grasp on reality. And yet now, heading toward the tenth anniversary of the attacks, that is the reality. Today, some experts believe the problem was exaggerated from the start, that we misinterpreted the implications of a one-off sucker punch. Others argue that we have escaped subsequent devastation only because we have been beating the hell out of the bad guys, overtly and covertly, from 9/12 on. Whoever is most correct, the fact that we have not suffered an additional major attack, combined with other enduring headline grabbers like economic crisis and revolution on the Arab “street”, has driven al-Qaeda off the front pages now for several years running. News of the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of American Special Forces on May 2 has, if anything, even deepened the sense of the general irrelevance of the Islamist terrorist threat.

On one point, however, there is no significant disagreement: Since the chance of another major attack is not zero, we would be irresponsible to pass up an opportunity to essentially put an end to al-Qaeda and its main affiliates if one were at hand. As it happens, one is at hand, and it is an opportunity arguably made more enticing by bin Laden’s demise. We have the perfect formula for all but putting an end to al-Qaeda and the threat it represents, courtesy of al-Qaeda’s own behavior during the Iraq War.

We will be debating the Iraq War writ large for a generation or more. There is enough blame for what went wrong and counterfactual confabulations about what might have gone right to keep us busy for years. But again, we should readily be able to agree on one basic fact: The Iraq War was a disaster for al-Qaeda.

The center of gravity in our struggle with Islamist terrorism concerns al-Qaeda’s legitimacy in the context of Muslim perceptions of the West. Muslim support for al-Qaeda has plummeted because its tactics in Iraq overwhelmingly killed Muslims. Al-Qaeda’s core narrative—that the West is waging war against Islam—got flipped on its head: It was al-Qaeda that seemed to all appearances to be waging a war against Muslims, and not just in Iraq. During those same years, al-Qaeda operatives murdered many scores of their coreligionists in Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and elsewhere.

Al-Qaeda thus inadvertently created ideal counter-narratives that have the potential to destroy the organization’s credibility, legitimacy, mystique, celebrity and appeal for disaffected Muslims. Skillfully wielded, these counter-narratives can enable Western and allied Middle Eastern governments to convince potential al-Qaeda recruits that violent extremism is both intellectually corrupt and politically counterproductive. If we combine these messages with a concerted effort to contest al-Qaeda’s strategic communications mastery of the Internet, we can end recruitment. We can thus destroy al-Qaeda as a self-regenerating worldwide proselytizing organization.

Alas, we are not doing this very well. In some respects, we’re not doing it at all. We need to change our ways lest we come to regret an opportunity missed.

Learning from al-Libi

When things did not go exactly as planned in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden may have thought that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was what he needed to trick the West into his version of a rope-a-dope insurgency. At first, the war did rally thousands to confront the West within Iraq. But al-Qaeda leaders could not restrain their natures. They acted with overweening arrogance and contempt for those Iraqi Sunnis in whose midst they lived, thus foolishly stimulating the Sunni uprising. At the same time, they fought their war with brutal, indiscriminate, wanton, chaotic, purposeless terrorism.

Al-Qaeda terrorists and other religiously driven insurgents killed 95,000-105,000 innocent Iraqis between March 2003 and the end of 2009, according to the Iraq Body Count 2010 (an independent U.S.-U.K. group), out of a total civilian death count of 110,600. These deaths contrast starkly with the roughly 5,000 civilian deaths inadvertently caused by Coalition forces. Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership understood the problem. In 2005, al-Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote to the then-leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, imploring him to curb the killing of Iraqi civilians. Zawahiri knew that the wanton murder of Muslims would hinder al-Qaeda’s ability to attract recruits and support. The pattern was not limited to Iraq. In a Terror Free Tomorrow survey from 2005, the year suicide bombings first peaked in Pakistan, the number of Pakistanis who believed that suicide bombing was justified dropped from 73 percent to 46 percent.1 A Pew poll similarly showed that support for suicide bombings in Pakistan dropped from 41 percent in 2004 to only 25 percent in 2005.2

Things did not start out this way. At its inception, al-Qaeda afforded immunity to noncombatants and considered Muslim civilians especially inviolable.3 But after declaring war on the West in 1998, al-Qaeda ended up essentially extending that declaration to the world, especially including Muslims. Under al-Zarqawi’s leadership, it opened up hostilities against the Shi‘a in Iraq in 2005, then on those Muslims it considered apostates in 2006, and then on fellow Sunnis who cooperated with the new Iraqi Government in 2007.4 This escalatory trajectory is typical of chiliastic movements, Muslim and otherwise, that use religious imagery for political mobilization without understanding or binding themselves to religion itself.

What is remarkable in the al-Qaeda case is that one of its best and brightest has taken the trouble to teach Westerners how al-Qaeda organizes its campaigns.5 In a September 2007 video, al-Qaeda’s third-highest leader, Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi, published a strategy, largely based on al-Qaeda errors in Iraq, showing how the West can fight and win its “war of ideas.” Why would he do this? That is unclear. Al-Libi may have believed that the United States lags so far behind the global jihadist movement that al-Qaeda has little to fear.6 In any event, his six-part strategy for the West focuses almost exclusively on countering al-Qaeda’s narrative:

1. amplify cases of ex-jihadis who have renounced armed action;
2. fabricate stories about jihadi mistakes and exaggerate actual mistakes;
3. prompt Muslim clerics to issue fatwas that incriminate the jihadi movement;
4. support Islamic movements that disavow terrorist violence, particularly those with a democratic approach;
5. aggressively neutralize or discredit the jihadi movement’s guiding thinkers; and
6. spin minor disagreements among jihadi leaders into major doctrinal or methodological disputes.

First, al-Libi argues that the United States should fight its ideological war with al-Qaeda by noting the backsliding and counter-proselytizing of some of its former adherents. Jihadis abandon their cause for many reasons. Some flee because of their disdain for violations of the Quranic tenet of non-combatant immunity. Others disagree with the designation of the United States as the primary target instead of their more proximate source of anger: their own “apostate” Muslim regimes. Still others are disillusioned with the harsh and primitive conditions of jihadis in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq, where they live in constant fear of Coalition soldiers. Whatever their reasons, the critical step, al-Libi tells us, is the publication of their stories.

The following are only two among many examples in which al-Qaeda confederates have turned on the organization. The first is the ideological godfather of al-Qaeda and Zawahiri’s mentor, Sayyid Imam al Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), who published the first canon of modern jihad, The Basic Principles in Making Preparation for Jihad. In November 2007, however, Fadl withdrew his support for al-Qaeda in his blistering book entitled Rationalization of Jihad (written while in an Egyptian prison). Fadl subsequently called bin Laden and Zawahiri “extremely immoral” and cautioned Muslim youth against being “seduced by them.”

The second example is Saudi scholar Sheik al-Oudah, the founder of the Islamic Awakening Movement in the 1980s, known as Sahwa. He began criticizing bin Laden in September 2007, claiming that bin Laden had “hijacked Islam.”7 Although al-Oudah doubted that he could influence bin Laden himself, he wanted to tell bin Laden’s followers about al-Qaeda’s problems.

Al-Libi’s second piece of advice for defeating al-Qaeda is revealing jihadi mistakes, not least those involving tactics that have harmed Muslim civilians. He notes that increased suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan helped lead to an exodus of supporters in those places.

Third, al-Libi states that, “among the greatest methods used in the ideological war is the issuing of fatwas, which criminalize jihad and the mujaheddin and brand them with repulsive terms such as extreme fanatics.” Since al-Qaeda lacks the religious credentials to issue its own fatwas, it has been forced to seek outside clerics such as the Jordanian-Palestinian scholar Abu Qatada to issue fatwas in accordance with its views.8 Abu Qatada’s fatwas could be easily outnumbered and overwhelmed by those of other clerics.

Fourth, al-Libi advises al-Qaeda opponents to support competing movements within Islam. He knows that the competition for recruits is often fierce among the multiple suitors for young, impressionable and religious Muslims. For example, in Gaza, Hamas and al-Qaeda-like start-ups such as Fatah al-Islam have often stepped on each others’ toes. Al-Libi argues that the West could destabilize al-Qaeda by strengthening and backing Islamic movements far removed from jihad. He knows that Ayman al-Zawahiri has attacked both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood because they experimented with democracy. Though neither is pro-Western, they compete with al-Qaeda, narrowing its recruiting pool and forcing it to redefine its platform and message. As al-Libi noted, when more mainstream groups demonstrate that they are more balanced and reasonable than al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda leadership will be forced to spend precious resources countering their message in the eyes of both sympathizers and potential supporters.

Fifth, al-Libi suggests that the West should be “killing, capturing, incapacitating or defaming the guiding jihadi symbols, isolating them and preventing their voices from reaching the people.” Decapitating the senior members and guiding thinkers of al-Qaeda would leave remaining members of the movement “without an authority in which they can put their full confidence and which directs and guides them, allays their misconceptions, and regulates their march with knowledge, understanding and wisdom.” Capturing is preferable to killing, of course, given that killing affords them the mantle of martyrdom. There is nothing romantic, mystical or heroic about sitting in a jail cell for the rest of your life.

Al-Libi’s final suggestion is to spin even minor disagreements between leaders of jihadi organizations into doctrinal arguments. He imagines a “war of defamation” against al-Qaeda that provides “a safe-haven for rumormongers, deserters and demoralizers, [where] the door is left wide open for defamation, casting doubts and making accusations and slanders.” Exacerbating internal and external rifts, he suggests, could dissolve the glue that holds the organization together.

Putting al-Libi to Use

This is all very good advice. We should use it as a basis for a counter-messaging strategy to put an end to al-Qaeda recruitment. But obviously, messaging alone will not put an end to al-Qaeda recruiting. Some would-be recruits are motivated by psychological factors that are immune to argument. But while there is no single, invariant definition of susceptibility to al-Qaeda recruitment, experts agree that we are not talking about crazy or aberrant people for the most part. Recruits are not drawn from the impoverished or uneducated masses; most are professionals, young, married (often with children), college-educated and middle- or upper-class men with no pattern or history of mental illness.9 They are not deranged in seeking personal gain or glory. Most are convinced that they are fighting a righteous defensive battle. (This is why, by the way, kinetic solutions to terrorism beyond targeting key leaders often exacerbate the radicalization problem; such violence supports al-Qaeda’s narrative that the West is at war with Muslims.) Most recruits are not obviously violent personality types. They are instead sucked into a subculture that provides a sense of community that is missing from their lives. Once recruits connect with the group, they adopt a new social and psychological identity within a context of physical and financial security.

It follows, then, that the best way to undermine the recruitment process is to attack the formula for success at its front end. Once the sense of radical community envelops new recruits, logic may not avail in extracting them from a terrorist network. De-programming Islamist radicals is difficult, expensive and uncertain. But al-Qaeda needs Muslim support to continue, and we can deny that support by inoculating potential recruits before they are sucked into a condition of radical groupthink. Taking al-Libi’s advice to heart, that inoculation consists of pressing seven counter-messaging themes.

The first theme concerns the killing of innocents. In reaction to the large number of Muslim civilian deaths and Muslim outrage caused by al-Qaeda behavior in Iraq and elsewhere, al-Qaeda leaders have mounted an intellectual defense of its position on killing innocents. They concurrently adopted several conflicting and equally lame defenses. In a 2006 essay, “Tatarrus [human shields] in Modern Jihad”, al-Libi himself claimed that the laws of the Prophet Muhammad were in need of updating to reflect “modern” guerilla warfare. He cited no jurisprudential authority for this updating. In December 2009, the al-Qaeda publishing organization, al-Sahab, posted an 18-minute video by U.S. citizen and al-Qaeda media spokesman Adam Gadahn (a.k.a. Azzam al-Amriki) entitled, “The Mujaheddin Do Not Target Muslims.” Gadahn averred that al-Qaeda and its affiliates had nothing to do with the large-scale bombings in Pakistan that year. Governments were behind the attacks, he claimed, and the media collaborated with these governments to blame jihadis. Hardly anyone took him seriously.

The second theme concerns al-Qaeda’s threat to the tribal construct. Al-Qaeda’s goal is an imagined transnational caliphate of citizens who are all equal under a ruling caliph. This aim, by definition, precludes tribalism. Al-Qaeda is therefore a threat to tribal social authority. This precisely is why some Anbar province tribes rose up to oppose al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006. At least three quarters of those who live in Iraq are bound to one of 150 tribes, and al-Qaeda’s attempt to subjugate Iraqi tribes was a strategic mistake. As in Iraq, tribes are important cultural and social constructs in Somalia, North Africa (to include the Sahel), Yemen, Afghanistan and western Pakistan, all areas with a significant al-Qaeda presence. Efforts to undermine tribal power will weaken al-Qaeda and give the West an opportunity to make important tactical allies.

A third theme concerns al-Qaeda’s heretical devotion to certain people. Despite claims by al-Qaeda’s senior leadership that they adhere only to the original texts of Islam, al-Qaeda glorifies a cadre of Islamic ideologues that even includes some of their own members. In many messages al-Qaeda has opened with the phrase, “Praise and may God keep Osama bin Laden”, as if bin Laden had been more than a leader. Such praise strikes almost any Muslim as heresy. The fact that bin Laden allowed this blasphemous obsequiousness demonstrates both his narcissism and his impiety. Similarly, by interpreting how Muslims must act, radical authors are guilty of a form of forbidden innovation (bid’a). They essentially follow tawassuf, the practice of revering religious figures who act as intercessors with God. Such saint cults are anathema to strict Sunni Islam.

The fourth, closely related theme is that al-Qaeda practices a form of religious charlatanism. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda’s core leaders lack the religious credentials to command Muslims or issue fatwas, as bin Laden and Zawahiri have nevertheless done time and again. Both are essentially practicing theology without a license. Bin Laden first worked for his family’s construction business and later became a financier and then a militant. Ayman al-Zawahiri is a medical doctor. Neither they nor any other al-Qaeda leader possesses credible religious training. Some extremists argue, in rather Protestant terms, that “true” Salafis only need the Quran and Hadith texts themselves—sola scriptura in Muslim form. This is very un-Islamic and persuades very few, which is why al-Qaeda tries to recruit as many theologians as possible to justify its actions.

Fifth, and again closely related to the third and fourth themes, there is the matter of unholy certainty. Serious Muslims know that both the Quran and Hadith contain disputed and unclear language. Muslim scholars have traditionally ended their assessments with the words “God knows best” to emphasize both the limits of human reason and the inherent uncertainties concerning some of the original texts of Islam. While they do not countenance doubt about basic principles or see any positive value in doubt, they nevertheless acknowledge the need for interpretation and consider disputes that are in the interest of truth to be noble pursuits. Interpretation, good Muslims know, gave rise to Islam’s capacious literary traditions. But this is not how al-Qaeda sees things. Its leadership quotes difficult passages, including ones about jihad, without evincing critical thought. It does not engage in learned dispute with real scholars because it cannot. It does not exhibit the common reverence and modesty that mainstream religious leaders and scholars display.

A sixth theme we can derive from al-Libi’s counsel is to stress the inevitable failure of the al-Qaeda cause. Few Muslims want to support a lost or losing cause, so one stream of anti-al-Qaeda messaging should note that al-Qaeda’s efforts are in vain. Violence doesn’t work; peaceful protest does. The Iraqi elections underlined this point some years ago. Recent demonstrations throughout the Arab world drive the point home.

Al-Qaeda has consistently justified terror attacks as the only means for success, and its members have written extensively on the necessity and obligation of perpetrating violence in reaction to criticism that it serves a lost cause. Al-Qaeda ideologues spend their careers justifying violence as the only means to attain a caliphate. Anwar al-Awlaki, in his lecture “Constants on the Path of Jihad”, encourages Muslims to conduct violence in no uncertain terms. His “44 Ways of Supporting Jihad” commands every Muslim to focus every resource and effort toward violence against Western and secular governments at all times, without reprieve. Al-Qaeda’s narrative stresses that its violent cause will continue long after the death of its leaders. Fighters die with the belief that success is certain, even if it takes generations. But take away any chance of victory and potential recruits are likely to entertain persuasive doubts about dying for an impossible goal.

The seventh and final theme concerns failed governance. Al-Qaeda’s top ideologues and tactical leaders lack any clear vision of the future. While they claim that “Islam is the answer” and say they want an “Islamic state” guided by “Islamic law”, al-Qaeda militants and spokesmen fail to define these concepts. Moreover, al-Qaeda proved that it did not know how to run anything when it momentarily held sway in a handful of areas in Iraq. Before U.S. forces rid the city of terrorists, al-Qaeda “rulers” in Fallujah ordered the destruction of music CDs, beheaded rumored secularists and grew beards instead of offering any semblance of a working government. Al-Qaeda’s sister organization, the Taliban, governed Afghanistan by destroying graves, stoning women and cutting off the hands of thieves rather than providing useful education, usable roads, agricultural aid or any other legitimate government function. It is easy to show potential recruits that al-Qaeda cannot govern.

Message Delivery

It’s no secret that the U.S. government did not do a very good job of strategic communications after 9/11. It was not well organized to do so, having foolishly folded the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) into the State Department some years before. The burden seemed to fall to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the Department of State, which is where USIA’s assets, and presumably its residual budget, were redirected. The Under Secretary’s office proved inadequate for the task, not just because it lacked resources but also because it got the basics wrong. It saw strategic messaging as a form of public relations, in which the key aim was to sell the American image. It failed to see that counter-messaging is a weapon that should target “them”, not sell “us.”

The past decade was not a total loss. Congress sponsored Radio Sawa and the Arab satellite television station Al-Hurra to compete with the advent of Arab satellite television stations. Al-Hurra has not achieved the success it aspires to; Radio Sawa has fared better because it keeps to more balanced and subtle programming. By not trying to do too much, it has made headway in creating a credible countervailing voice to al-Qaeda.

America has also made progress in identifying its mistakes. A major commission chaired by Ambassador Edward Djerejian identified most of the problems and recommended sensible fixes in 2003.10 But these fixes were slow to come at State, so other parts of the government saw no alternative but to pick up some of the slack themselves. The White House Office of Strategic Communications did good work keeping different U.S. government agencies on the same sheet of music, but it was far too small to marshal a coherent cross-governmental effort. The Department of Defense also tried to pick up the task with a fairly massive effort, with uneven results. But these efforts lacked unity of command and even, to be frank, much unity of purpose. Agencies argued about tactics and competed for scarce resources.

The U.S. government still needs to reconfigure itself to make public diplomacy a top priority. We have a design problem, and until we solve it we will never be able to implement genuinely new and better policies. There are several ways to do this. We might designate a new office in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) as the lead for government-wide strategic communication, vesting that office with the requisite authority, accountability and resources to do its job properly. But the EOP is already overcrowded, and it is not clear that Congress would approve such a solution.

We could instead turn the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs into a semi-autonomous agency within the State Department, rather than leave it as just one of six undersecretariats. We could provide such a semi-autonomous entity greater discretionary resources, greater control over the existing public diplomacy budget and greater power over all public diplomacy appointments, in embassies and as well as the regional bureaus in the State Department. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs would have to change its mission definition to focus on national security instead of diplomacy as such. It is not clear that the culture of the State Department would allow this to happen.

Some have suggested outsourcing the strategic communications function through creation of a public-private partnership after the model of the Eurasia Foundation. The advantage of this idea is that it would enable entrepreneurially minded officials to tap into the vast talent for public diplomacy that exists in the private sector. The drawbacks to this option concern accountability and oversight, as well as the integration of its efforts into a whole-of-government concept encompassing not only the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department but also the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community and, of course, the Congress.

We do not presume to solve the design problem; we merely insist that there is one, and that someone with duly constituted authority needs urgently to address it.

Internet Wars

In addition to organizing ourselves properly to get Western counter-messages out to the world, we should also tilt the table by preventing al-Qaeda from getting its messages out. Above all, al-Qaeda uses cyberspace to attract recruits, so we must not let the enemy find sanctuary in cyberspace. At present, al-Qaeda enjoys its most uncontested presence by far in this realm. Al-Qaeda bases its efforts partly amid its geographic safe havens in Pakistan, but the most popular locations to host militant websites for the very jihadis we are at war with is often inside the United States and other Western countries!

How is it that the U.S. Department of Defense can physically target individuals within al-Qaeda but not shut down its websites? Al-Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, Hizballah and many other terrorist groups have developed websites to recruit, to train and to inspire violence against the West. The U.S. government does next to nothing to shut them down. It does not even confront the Internet service providers who host them. It turns out that well-meaning professionals argue that these websites, which post videos of beheadings and IED attacks, weapons recipes, exaltations to violence and endless re-postings of al-Qaeda’s narrative, are valuable sources of intelligence about prospective jihadis and the groups they seek to join.

Alas, no study or metric supports the notion that the costs of shutting these sites down outweighs the benefits. Indeed, that kind of thinking privileges tactical uses over the central strategic goal, which is to end the threat from al-Qaeda, not write reports about it.

Many in the media, intelligence and defense communities assume that contesting al-Qaeda websites is somehow technically challenging. Although al-Qaeda web administrators can pop up new sites quickly, U.S. Department of Defense, other U.S. government, allied and host nation elements can just as quickly put them out of commission. In this whack-a-mole competition, the West owns an overwhelming advantage. Viewership will drop precipitously if forum members have to re-acquire al-Qaeda sites day after day. Vast numbers of people would quickly give up.

Further, it is a myth that all al-Qaeda websites come back quickly when taken down. In the past, when Internet service providers or host countries contested websites, many never came back at all. And those that did often came back in diminished form, with far fewer members and more limited exposure. And since most militant sites merely post content from the top al-Qaeda sites, a whole network of sites would be starved of content (non-militant content, in turn, might enjoy more readership).

Given that the West has marginalized and physically isolated al-Qaeda leadership, the battleground is now primarily at the local level. Al-Qaeda is therefore increasingly dependent on the Internet to convey a clear and coherent message. If al-Qaeda comes across as contradictory, weak or inept at delivering that message, then its appeal will crash and burn.

There are other secondary, but still important advantages to contesting al-Qaeda’s message on the Internet. Curtailing the aggregate number of militant websites allows more moderate and credible Muslim voices to rise above the din of militant ones. Contesting al-Qaeda websites forces the adversary to expend valuable time, resources, infrastructure and technical expertise on what is ultimately a losing proposition. Finally, it will make it much harder for al-Qaeda to inspire violent acts in recruits who are already abroad. (Recent attempts by al-Qaeda to attack Americans or Europeans have all involved using the Internet to recruit individuals who are already located abroad.)

Again, we do not presume to tell the U.S. government exactly who should be shutting down al-Qaeda Internet sites or how. Let us note, however, that U.S. law allows those who post on U.S. Internet service providers content that calls for targeted violence to be prosecuted for material support to terrorism, conspiracy, or “seditious conspiracy.” Seditious conspiracy is the law the government used successfully to prosecute and convict the “Blind Sheik”, Omar Abdel Rahman, for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government.

There is also Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code, which states that it is unlawful for any person to

provide material support to terrorism (any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safe houses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel, and transportation…).

Title 18 also makes it unlawful to teach or demonstrate the manufacture or use of an explosive with the intent that that information be used to commit a Federal crime.

Why is the Department of Justice reluctant to enforce this law? Why not invoke the law and leave it to the courts to discern the line between free speech and unlawful activity? Indeed, the courts need to clarify what speech is protected (such as anti-American rhetoric) and what is an illegal threat (such as intent to recruit militants to kill someone). At present, the Justice Department simply demurs from using Title 18 to prosecute content providers for militant websites. Free speech has never meant that “anything goes”, even before Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. made his famous comment about crying “fire” in a crowded theater.

USCYBERCOM conducts “activities to direct the operations and defense of Department of Defense information networks and conducts military cyber operations to enable actions in all domains, ensure U.S. and allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries.” In other words, USCYBERCOM contests the messaging space between U.S. information and our adversaries. Our political leadership must recognize that information operations are a key element of our war with al-Qaeda. There is a role for the Department of Defense to play in contesting al-Qaeda on the Internet, and such a contest does not threaten our fundamental defense of speech worldwide.

The Department of Homeland Security should become the U.S. government’s window to the private sector, informing U.S. Internet service providers of content that may violate companies’ own “Terms of Use agreements.” Nearly all of them ban content that is “unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.” Nothing prevents the private sector from protecting itself from charges that it supports or is indifferent to violent messages, and nothing prevents the U.S. government from sending the industry lists of websites that it thinks are in violation of such terms of use.

Other democracies are well ahead of us in this regard. Germany already has guidelines to help its industry keep violent content off of German Internet service providers. The United Kingdom, too, has laws that prohibit such content.11 These provisions pioneered by other democracies deserve our careful study.

If the U.S. government can organize itself to devise and propagate the right message, from the right voices, to the Islamic and Arab worlds, while at the same time diminishing al-Qaeda’s voice in cyberspace, then there is a good chance we can end al-Qaeda’s recruiting success. As things stand today, voices for moderation and non-violence are still being drowned out by the overwhelmingly larger number of militant voices in cyberspace and elsewhere. We need to remind ourselves that al-Qaeda and its affiliates represent a minority within a minority within a minority in the Islamic world. Their numbers are very small—so small, in fact, that a concerted effort on our part, together with our regional partners, should be able to take down any communication strategy that that tiny minority can muster.

Of course, we can always hope that Islamic terrorism will burn itself out like the anarchist terror of an earlier epoch. But we shouldn’t sit back and count on that eventuality. Opportunities don’t often jump into our lap; when they do, they must be seized.


1“Poll: Dramatic Change in Public Opinion in the Muslim World”, Terror Free Tomorrow (The Center for Public Opinion, 2005).
2Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Support for Terror Wanes Among Muslim Publics”, Pew Research Center, July 14, 2005.
3Carl J. Ciovacco, “The Erosion of Noncombatant Immunity within Al-Qaeda”, Small Wars Journal (June 2008).
4This escalation proved so damaging that al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly rebuked al-Zarqawi.
5See Carl J. Ciovacco, “Could Al-Qaeda’s Own Strategy to Defeat Itself Actually Work?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence, and Counter Terrorism (December 2009).
6See Jarret Brachman, “Abu Yahya’s Six Easy Steps for Defeating al-Qaeda”, Perspectives on Terrorism (September/October 2007).
7Quoted in Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “The Unraveling: Al Qaeda’s revolt against bin Laden”, The New Republic, June 11, 2008.
8See Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror (I.B. Tauris, 2003), p. 166.
9See Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
10Djerejian, Changing Minds, Winning Piece: A New Strategic Direction for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab & Muslim World, submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, October 1, 2003.
11The Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 in the United Kingdom make it illegal to have or to share information that could be useful to terrorists, share information that urges people to commit or help with acts of terrorism, or glorify terrorism. The Acts bar information that is intended to be useful to terrorists, including bomb-making instructions, guides to making poisons, instructions on how to make weapons, and guides to targets. Some extremist content is also illegal, including videos of beheadings with messages of “glorification” or praise for the attackers, speeches or essays calling for racial or religious violence, messages intended to stir up hatred against any religious or ethnic group, and chat forums with postings calling for people to commit acts of terrorism.

Carl Ciovacco, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, currently works as a counterterrorism expert in Washington, DC. A graduate of West Point and Harvard University, he served as a military officer in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Howard Gambrill Clark is a counterinsurgency instructor, an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, and president of the counter-radicalization nonprofit Seventh Pillar, Inc. He previously served as a senior intelligence analyst for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security counter-radicalization branch. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine, is a graduate of Yale University and is the author of Revolt Against Al-Qa‘ida and How You Can Kill Al Qaeda. James Van de Velde, a former lecturer of political science at Yale University and a former lieutenant commander in United States Naval Intelligence (Reserves), is a counterterrorism and WMD expert in Washington, DC.