U.S., Allies See Progress in Selling Al-Qaeda As an Enemy to the Muslim World

By Walter Pincus
Monday, April 28, 2008

The top White House terrorism expert thinks some gains are being made in the worldwide public relations battle against al-Qaeda, as the administration and its overseas allies press efforts to show that Osama bin Laden's network is killing Muslim civilians rather than defending its interests.

"More and more Muslim and Arab populations -- [including] clerics and scholars -- are questioning the value of al-Qaeda's program," Juan Carlos Zarate, deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, said Wednesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The efforts he described are in line with plans that Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, discussed in February before the same organization. Leiter, who is responsible for strategic communications planning in the fight against terrorism, said the goal is "to prevent the next generation of terrorists from emerging."

One approach, he said, is "to show that it is al-Qaeda, not the West, that is truly at war with Islam."

Last week, Zarate echoed that theme. He said al-Qaeda "should be revealed as themselves being at war with Muslims, especially those who do not believe as they do or subscribe to the al-Qaeda agenda."

Zarate cited an Egyptian Islamic group, which includes former jihadist leaders, that recently published a series of books "highly critical of jihadists and al-Qaeda." He did not say who promoted or paid for the books, but in undertaking this program, Zarate said, "credible voices, outside of the U.S. government," had to carry the messages.

Another example is a widely circulated letter to bin Laden from a leading Saudi cleric, Sheik Salman al-Ouda, released last September, in which the religious leader asked: "How much blood has been spent" by al-Qaeda attacks?

In October 2007, Zarate said, the Saudi grand mufti, Abdulaziz Al-Sheik, warned Saudis against unauthorized jihadist activities and lectured wealthy Saudis against "funding causes that 'harm Muslims.' "

To illustrate the impact of these actions, Zarate noted a recent question-and-answer session on the Web with al-Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al- Zawahiri, who responded to some of the issues raised by the campaign against al-Qaeda. Asked about the book written by a former leading Egyptian jihadist, Said Imam al-Sharif, Zawahiri tried to minimize the author's credentials, according to an analysis by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Zarate said Zawahiri "sidestepped" the issue of killing innocents "by claiming al-Qaeda does not target civilians and arguing the loss of innocent Muslim life was either accidental or the Muslims mixing with non-Muslims were fair game."

Zarate said that is a hard sell to Muslims in Baghdad, Riyadh, Algiers and Amman, where bombings attributed to al-Qaeda have occurred. He added that "victims of al-Qaeda terrorism are beginning to organize and are exposing the human toll of al-Qaeda's tactics."

He said "former extremists" had begun a campaign to discredit violent extremism through the Quilliam Foundation, a London think tank, and, according to the organization's Web site, to "help foster a genuine British Islam, native to these islands, free from the bitter politics of the Arab and Muslim world."

These attacks on al-Qaeda's legitimacy not only have an impact among Arabs but also affect the terrorist network's senior leadership, Zarate said. "They care about their image because it has real-world effects on recruitment, donations and support in Muslim and religious communities for the al-Qaeda message," he said.

Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Middle East who now teaches at Georgetown University, called the strategic communications program described by Zarate "worthwhile" and a "useful tool in our tool kit." But he warned that it is an approach that takes time, and said it "is difficult to identify specific benefits when they occur." He also agrees with Zarate that competing with al-Qaeda by attacking its activities "makes more sense than trying to sell pro-American ideology.

Zarate is more positive.

"These challenges from within Muslim communities and even extremist circles will be insurmountable at the end of the day for al-Qaeda," he said.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to fineprint@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company