Don't call them jihadists any more. And don't call al-Qaeda a movement.
The Bush administration has launched a new front in the war on terrorism, this time targeting language.
Federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counter Terrorism Center, are telling their people not to describe Islamic extremists as "jihadists" or "mujahedeen," according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. Lingo like "Islamo-fascism" is out, too.
The reason: Such words may actually boost support for radicals among Arab and Muslim audiences by giving them a veneer of religious credibility or by causing offense to moderates.
For example, while Americans may understand "jihad" to mean "holy war," it is in fact a broader Islamic concept of the struggle to do good, says the guidance prepared for diplomats and other officials tasked with explaining the war on terror to the public. Similarly, "mujahedeen," which means those engaged in jihad, must be seen in its broader context.
US officials may be "unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims," says a Homeland Security report. It's entitled "Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims."
"Regarding 'jihad,' even if it is accurate to reference the term, it may not be strategic because it glamorizes terrorism, imbues terrorists with religious authority they do not have and damages relations with Muslims around the world," the report says.
Language is critical in the war on terror, says another document, an internal "official use only" memorandum circulating through Washington entitled "Words that Work and Words that Don't: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication."
The memo, originally prepared in March by the Extremist Messaging Branch at the National Counter Terrorism Center, was approved for diplomatic use this week by the State Department, which plans to distribute a version to all US embassies, officials said.
"It's not what you say but what they hear," the memo says in bold italic lettering, listing 14 points about how to better present the war on terrorism.
"Don't take the bait," it says, urging officials not to react when Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda affiliates speak. "We should offer only minimal, if any, response to their messages. When we respond loudly, we raise their prestige in the Muslim world."
"Don't compromise our credibility" by using words and phrases that may ascribe benign motives to terrorists.
Some other specifics
- "Never use the terms 'jihadist' or 'mujahedeen' in conversation to describe the terrorists. ... Calling our enemies 'jihadis' and their movement a global 'jihad' unintentionally legitimizes their actions."
- "Use the terms 'violent extremist' or 'terrorist.' Both are widely understood terms that define our enemies appropriately and simultaneously deny them any level of legitimacy."
- On the other hand, avoid ill-defined and offensive terminology: "We are communicating with, not confronting, our audiences. Don't insult or confuse them with pejorative terms such as 'Islamo-fascism,' which are considered offensive by many Muslims."
The memo says the advice is not binding and does not apply to official policy papers but should be used as a guide for conversations with Muslims and media.
At least at the top level, it appears to have made an impact. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who once frequently referred to "jihad" in her public remarks, does not appear to have used the word, except when talking about the name of a specific terrorist group, since last September.
The memo mirrors advice distributed to British and European Union diplomats last year to better explain the war on terrorism to Muslim communities there.
It also draws heavily on the Homeland Security report that examined the way American Muslims reacted to different phrases used by U.S. officials to describe terrorists and recommended ways to improve the message.
Because of religious connotations, that report, released in January and obtained by AP this week, counseled "caution in using terms such as, 'jihadist,' 'Islamic terrorist,' 'Islamist,' and 'holy warrior' as grandiose descriptions."
"We should not concede the terrorists' claim that they are legitimate adherents of Islam," the report said, adding that bin Laden and his adherents fear "irrelevance" more than anything else.
"We must carefully avoid giving bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders the legitimacy they crave, but do not possess, by characterizing them as religious figures, or in terms that may make them seem to be noble in the eyes of some," it said.