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Friday, June 23, 2006

Of jihad networks and the war of ideas

How goes the war on terrorism? On two key fronts – the shifting nature of jihadist networks and the war of ideas – there's plenty to worry about. Here are two reports from our sources in Washington, D.C.

Dutch intel experts give a disturbing picture of jihadist activity. Experts on Islamic extremism from the Dutch intelligence service came to Washington in early June, giving a series of closed-door briefings that offered a disturbing portrait of jihadist activity in Europe generally and in the Netherlands particularly. Since the 2004 Amsterdam murder of film director Theo van Gogh by a jihadist, Dutch intelligence has focused aggressively on Islamic radicalism, and its analysts have produced some of the best work on jihadist networks on the Continent, say terrorism experts.

Dutch officials refused to allow any reporters in the briefings, but U.S. News received a full report from sources in attendance. The group, from the Interior Ministry's General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), spoke at length of how jihadist groups are becoming much more dynamic, fluid, and diffuse, coming together to cooperate on specific goals and targets. Unlike the al Qaeda of old, these are local, autonomous, "self-radicalizing" jihadist cells, not controlled from overseas. They rely heavily on virtual networks and training, through the Internet, and then shift into actual, operational networks. The Internet is "the cement" of these new terrorist networks, the analysts stressed. Another trend seen by Dutch intelligence is a worrisome drop in age among participants, with increasing numbers of teenagers, often with petty crime records. Other trends include the recruitment of women and western converts.

One veteran terrorism expert noted that most of these trends have been noted by U.S. intelligence but said that the Dutch provided a needed, independent voice on what's happening out there. "Their presentation really hit home," he said. "They made it absolutely clear how serious the problem of homegrown terrorism is going to be." Despite the AIVD's closed doors here in Washington, much of the agency's analysis is in fact unclassified and available online.

U.S. effort on war of ideas draws skepticism. Even as jihadist networks become tougher to combat, the United States still lacks a comprehensive strategy to thwart the ideological forces fueling their growth, say critics. In response, the administration recently launched its latest attempt to coordinate the "war of ideas" against radical Islam: The White House's National Security Council has convened yet another interagency committee to develop a strategy aimed at marginalizing extremists. Dubbed the Policy Coordinating Committee on Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, the group is headed by the administration's point person on the ideas war: Karen Hughes, the State Department's under secretary for public diplomacy.

Skeptics abound, as this is at least the fourth attempt at coordinating federal efforts on infowar. The NSC began two ill-fated interagency committees in 2002, one on "strategic communication" and another on "information strategy." Both generated more frustration than results, say participants. Their work was succeeded, in part, by the Muslim World Outreach Policy Coordinating Committee in 2004, which drafted a widely praised plan that was never implemented. Now that committee is being replaced by Hughes's new group. "It's the same old people with a new title," says one insider.

Hughes, the president's former counselor, has won points for crafting a Rapid Response Unit, designed to help U.S. officials abroad respond to the day's news. (For a peek at one of its daily Rapid Response sheets, marked Official Use Only) But critics say the effort is typical of Hughes's quick-hit, political campaignlike approach to what is a years-long ideological struggle. Former State Department diplomat John Brown, editor of the Public Diplomacy Press Review, calls the administration's efforts "naive, provincial, and evangelical" but says the problem ultimately may lie in the very nature of U.S. government today. "It's so complex, with so many bureaucracies, that to get anybody to agree on a single message is almost impossible."
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