The U.S. government is buckling in response to a yearlong assault on its counterterrorism training programs for law enforcement, which critics say promote anti-Muslim sentiment and feature bigoted guest lecturers. Not only is the FBI now conducting a “top-to-bottom review” of its programs, but federal agencies have taken the perilous step of looking to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) for help.
Though Islamists and their allies have long complained about alleged bias among trainers, the campaign to cleanse content related to radical Islam kicked into high gear in early 2011 when the left-leaning Political Research Associates (PRA) issued a report titled Manufacturing the Muslim Menace, which highlights instances of counterterrorism trainers describing Islam as inherently violent and drawing connections between Muslims’ piety and their likelihood of committing violence. The study claims that there is a “cottage industry” of fraudulent experts promoting an anti-Muslim agenda to the counterterrorism community. The PRA also legitimizes Islamist groups like MPAC, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), while delegitimizing their critics.
For example, the report risibly suggests that one of the criteria for knowing if a speaker is an anti-Muslim bigot is the belief that the Muslim Brotherhood has fronts operating in the U.S. It paints the Brotherhood as a benign, nonviolent organization that rejects violent jihad and supports democracy. Furthermore, the report says it “makes little sense that the Muslim Brotherhood would use front organizations in the United States” and accuses those who spotlight the aforementioned groups’ extensively documented ties to the Brotherhood and even Hamas of employing “McCarthy-era” tactics.
Speakers named in the report reject charges of bias and emphasize the importance of understanding the threat from radical Islamic ideology. Robert Spencer, a scholar of Islam, explains, “The correlation is not that every devout Muslim will engage in jihad terror, but that all jihad terrorists are devout Muslims who invoke Islamic texts and teachings as their inspiration and justification.” Tawfik Hamid, a former member of the terrorist group al-Gama‘at al-Islamiyya, states, “The fact that not every cigarette smoker develops lung cancer does not negate the fact that lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking. Similarly, the fact that not every follower of Islamic ideology develops violent attitudes does not negate the fact that the ideology could be the cause of violent attitudes that develop in some Islamic societies.”
Nonetheless, the thesis of Manufacturing the Muslim Menace quickly gained traction among policymakers. On March 29, Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Senator Susan Collins, its ranking member, wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, expressing concern about “self-appointed counterterrorism training experts … engaging in vitriolic diatribes and making assertions such as ‘Islam is a highly violent, radical religion.’” They demanded answers on how federal money has gone to what they see as “ineffective or poor counterterrorism training” that is “actually detrimental to our efforts to combat homegrown terrorism.”
The controversy over training escalated during the summer and early fall, when the website of Wired magazine published a series of pieces documenting how instructional materials employed in some counterterrorism programs criticize Islam as a religion. Writer Spencer Ackerman took particular issue with the use of William Gawthrop, an FBI intelligence analyst, as an expert. In addition to tying Islamic devotion to violence, Gawthrop gave an interview in 2006 where he suggested that the West should point out “soft spots” in Islam, such as by raising questions about the credibility of its scriptures. Gawthrop also warned against focusing on individual jihadist entities like al-Qaeda and urged concentrating instead on the ideological roots of jihad during a June 2011 seminar for FBI agents, in which he likened Islam to the “Death Star.”
Senators Lieberman and Collins demanded immediate changes to what the former described as “inaccurate or even bigoted” sentiments. Citing the Wired reports, Islamist groups piled on, with ISNA calling the materials a violation of Muslims’ rights, CAIR insisting that the FBI “take swift and transparent action to reform a system that allows bias to influence training,” and Muslim Advocates requesting that the Justice Department “launch an immediate investigation into the … use of grossly inaccurate, inflammatory, and highly offensive counterterrorism training materials.”
The months of pressure have borne fruit. Testifying before Congress on October 6, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that the agency had “undertaken a review from top to bottom of our counterterrorism training” and gotten outside help to ensure that “offensive content does not appear” in its materials. During a conference at George Washington University Law School later that month, Deputy Attorney General James Cole stated that he had “recently directed all components of the Department of Justice to reevaluate their training efforts in a range of areas, from community outreach to national security.” Similar orders were circulated at the Pentagon.
The outside help referenced by Mueller and others apparently includes Islamists. In October, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) produced a document, “Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Training Guidance & Best Practices,” for federal, state, and local law enforcement to use in designing their own training programs. In addition to evidence that the interagency working group behind the guidelines included Islamists, MPAC boasts that one of its policy papers from 2010 is used as a reference in the report. In fact, MPAC is one of only nine references cited and is one of only two sources that are not government websites. One of the government websites cited is that of the department of the Los Angeles County sheriff, Lee Baca, who is a prominent apologist for CAIR. Words like “Islam,” “Muslim,” and “jihad” do not appear in the DHS/NCTC document.
MPAC, whose founders were ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, has a history of downplaying the threat from homegrown Islamic extremism, while its conferences feature radical speakers. The Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) states that MPAC “routinely speaks in defense of designated terrorist organizations, as well as individuals and charities that are supporters of terrorism; opposes U.S. counterterrorism measures as part of a consistent knee-jerk reaction claiming bias and discrimination behind law enforcement efforts; and reflects a blatant and conspiratorial anti-Semitism.”
Beyond the promises and documents emanating from Washington, there is evidence that Islamists have already succeeded in using the controversy over trainers to scare the government away from experts on jihad. Specifically, a conference on homegrown terrorism was scheduled for August 10-12, to be hosted by the CIA Threat Management Unit. After some Muslim “advocacy groups” learned that the speakers would include IPT executive director Steven Emerson and Stephen Coughlin, a former expert on Islam for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they protested to the DHS and White House. The event was abruptly canceled.
The Islamists present themselves to the government as the solution to the controversy and warn that if training materials are not properly edited, the Muslim-American community will be alienated and counterterrorism cooperation will be undermined, as Salam al-Marayati, MPAC’s president, suggested in an October op-ed. In reality, however, these groups have been a barrier to cooperation by constantly telling their constituents that the government is systematically discriminating against them and that U.S. political leadership is waging a war on Islam.
CAIR, like MPAC, has offered its help in preventing anti-Muslim bias in counterterrorism training in the past. The FBI ended outreach programs with CAIR because of its failure to address concerns about its ties to Hamas, but the FBI field office in New Haven, Connecticut, did not let that stop it. In October 2010, the office accepted an offer from the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut to train FBI and law enforcement personnel. The leader of the organization used to be a spokesman for CAIR and CAIR’s branch in the state helped put on the event, but the field office circumvented the ban by not listing the FBI as a sponsor. The sessions included teaching about “Islamophobia.” Islamist organizations will undoubtedly use ongoing controversy to pressure governments into accepting their offers of training.
All is not yet lost, however, as the events of the past few months have inspired pushback against the campaign to neuter counterterrorism training under the guise of simply eliminating bias. Congresswoman Sue Myrick, who chairs the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis, and Counterintelligence, recently asked her colleagues to sign on to a draft letter addressed to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Attorney General Eric Holder, warning that “the political nature of these reviews might inadvertently weaken our law enforcement and military counterterrorism training programs by censoring certain language that is used to objectively identify the asymmetrical threats that are present in today’s world.” She wants to know the details of the currently vague review process.
The government should be careful not to promote prejudice against Muslims and should remove any materials that are factually incorrect. However, it also has a responsibility to do what is anathema to Islamist pressure groups: teach counterterrorism professionals about the Islamist ideology, the theological roots of Islamic terrorism, and the Muslim Brotherhood network that the government has identified and prosecuted. The last thing it should do is give preference to components of those same Islamist networks over the experts who are exposing them.
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