Confusing Narratives 18 Years After 9/11
Last week, we honored the memories of heroes, first responders, and loved ones lost on September 11, 2001.
It was a clarion call to remember not only what happened, but who was responsible. Yet many seem to have forgotten, including the venerable New York Times. They put out a story and a tweet describing 9/11 as a day when “airplanes took aim” at the World Trade Center towers. Talk about confusion.
Who did they leave out of the story? The terrorists.
Some months back, US Representative Ilhan Omar, (D-MN), in a speech honoring the pseudo-civil rights organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), falsely claimed that CAIR was formed as a result of the 9/11 attacks, which she described as “some people did something.” Again, who was left out of the narrative? The terrorists.
Thankfully, Nicolas Haros, whose mother was killed on that day, spoke at a memorial honoring the victims of 9/11, and set the record straight: “We know who and what was done. There is no uncertainty about that. … On that day, 19 Islamic terrorists, members of Al-Qaeda, killed over 3,000 people.”
Sadly, these are not isolated mistakes or omissions. Over the last decade, there has been a deliberate effort to remove the terms “terrorism” and “Islamic radicalization” from the public narrative when describing violent acts committed against innocent people by deranged ideologues who think they are fulfilling their religion’s call to jihad.
Instead, the preferred descriptive is now “violent extremist,” as in “Countering Violent Extremism.” It’s a generic catch-all phrase that offends none, but confuses all.
For example, the FBI Office of Intelligence put out a bulletin in 2004 — classified as “law enforcement sensitive” — regarding the threat of prison radicalization. During the time, I was assigned to work with the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division on a case involving a terrorist recruitment cell operating in the prison system.
In the document, the Bureau described the threat as inmates being converted to “radical Islam,” and warned that the process could be used to recruit individuals into a “terrorist” organization. That definition has since been sanitized.
The definition now being used by most analysts and policymakers goes something like this:”prison radicalization [is] the process by which detained or incarcerated individuals increasingly adopt violent ideas and goals.”
The Bureau now uses the term “Homegrown Violent Extremism” to describe cases in which American citizens have joined or attempted to join terrorist organizations like ISIS. The law in this case, 18 U.S.C. 2339, makes it illegal to provide material support to a “terrorist” or “terrorist organization” — not violent extremists.
As an example of the confusion caused by conflicting narratives, consider the case of Edward Archer, an ex-con who opened fire on Philadelphia police officer Jeff Hartnett in 2016.
“I follow Allah and I pledge allegiance to the Islamic State,” Archer told police after his arrest. “That is the reason why I did what I did.”
At a subsequent news conference, Police Commissioner Richard Ross said a police officer was targeted because, “According to [the shooter], the police defend laws that he believes are contrary to Islam.”
Somehow, though, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney went to the podium after Ross and said, “In no way, shape or form does anyone in this room believe that Islam or the teaching of Islam have anything to do with the shooting.”
Talk about doublespeak!
I believe that conflicting narratives like this harm the public’s perception of what motivates terrorist acts. It obscures the lines that differentiate between violent acts in which the motives remain undetermined and directed attacks with specific agendas. Groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda direct their followers to commit violent acts against specific targets (infidels) for a specific reason.
More recently, I learned that the military was also moving away from describing groups like Al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and ISIS as terrorist organizations in their training curricula. I was told it was an attempt to be more inclusive of all violent groups that pose a potential threat to our military personnel. They are now referred to as Violent Extremist Organizations, or VEOs for short.
We seem to have forgotten that, according to Federal law, it is the State Department’s responsibility to designate certain groups as foreign “Terrorist Organizations,” not VEOs.
It’s quite simple: terrorist organizations are made up of terrorists who commit terrorist acts. And the goal of terrorism is easily understandable. It was best put by a colleague of mine, terrorism researcher Brian Michael Jenkins: Terrorism “is … violence — actual or threatened — calculated to create fear and alarm or, in a word, terror.”
And when a person commits such an act believing it is justified by the Koran, he or she is an “Islamic Terrorist.” That’s who attacked us on 9/11.
Think about December 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy.” To this day we still acknowledge that it was the Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbor. We don’t say, “Well maybe this offends the people of Japan, so let’s change the narrative to a more palatable term.” September 11 should be the same. We were attacked by radical Islamic terrorists, not violent extremists.
Words matter when it comes to countering the threat and assigning responsibility. Changing the name accomplishes nothing other than dishonoring the memory of the victims.
Patrick Dunleavy is an Investigative Project on Terrorism Senior Fellow, the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections, and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently lectures a class on terrorism for the United States Air Force’s Special Operations School.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.