U.S. News and World Report - April 25, 2005
America is spending millions
to change the very face of Islam
By David E. Kaplan
….After repeated missteps since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has embarked on a campaign of political warfare unmatched since the height of the Cold War. From military psychological-operations teams and CIA covert operatives to openly funded media and think tanks, Washington is plowing tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to influence not only Muslim societies but Islam itself. The previously undisclosed effort was identified in the course of a four-month U.S. News investigation, based on more than 100 interviews and a review of a dozen internal reports and memorandums. Although U.S. officials say they are wary of being drawn into a theological battle, many have concluded that America can no longer sit on the sidelines as radicals and moderates fight over the future of a politicized religion with over a billion followers. The result has been an extraordinary--and growing--effort to influence what officials describe as an Islamic reformation.
Among the magazine's findings:
The White House has approved a classified new strategy, dubbed Muslim World Outreach, that for the first time states that the United States has a national security interest in influencing what happens within Islam. Because America is, as one official put it, "radioactive" in the Islamic world, the plan calls for working through third parties--moderate Muslim nations, foundations, and reform groups--to promote shared values of democracy, women's rights, and tolerance.
In at least two dozen countries, Washington has quietly funded Islamic radio and TV shows, coursework in Muslim schools, Muslim think tanks, political workshops, or other programs that promote moderate Islam. Federal aid is going to restore mosques, save ancient Korans, even build Islamic schools. This broad engagement with Islam has raised questions about whether the funding is legal, given the constitutional line between church and state.
The CIA is revitalizing programs of covert action that once helped win the Cold War, targeting Islamic media, religious leaders, and political parties. The agency is receiving "an exponential increase in money, people, and assets" to help it influence Muslim societies, says a senior intelligence official. Among the tactics: working with militants at odds with al Qaeda and waging secret campaigns to discredit the worst anti-American zealots.
Despite the surge of activity, Washington's efforts to win hearts and minds remain chaotic. Staffers on the White House National Security Council have drafted over a hundred papers proposing action against Islamist propaganda and political activity, sources say, yet almost none have been acted upon. To help remedy the situation, the White House is creating a new position, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and global outreach.
The push for hearts and minds comes amid hopeful signs, with a string of successful elections in the Middle East and anti-Syria protests in Lebanon. The events have boosted the Bush administration's hopes for the region, but some experts on terrorism and the Muslim world say the problems are so deep-seated they may be growing worse, not better. A December report by the CIA-based National Intelligence Council predicts that masses of unemployed, alienated youth in the Arab world "will swell the ranks of those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment."
Even as the insurgency in Iraq shows signs of losing steam, anti-Americanism now reaches across every strata of the Muslim world. Rumors that U.S. soldiers harvest organs from dying Iraqis or that Washington caused the tsunami to kill Muslims appear in major Arab media. Slick jihadist music videos and recruiting CD s sell briskly on the streets of Arab capitals. Many of the region's leaders believe America is at war with the Arab world, or with Islam itself, according to a March report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "U.S.-Arab relations," the report concludes, "are at their lowest point in generations."
The tools with which to fight back are varied. To the CIA, they are covert operations involving political influence and propaganda. At the Pentagon, they are called psyops or strategic-influence efforts. At the State Department, it's called public diplomacy. All seek to use information to influence, inform, and motivate America's friends and enemies abroad. Many of these tools have fallen into disuse. Many are controversial, particularly in light of recent revelations that administration officials have peddled fake video news reports and paid columnists to boost policies here at home. But to those toiling on the front lines against terrorism, the war of ideas--and the tools to fight it--are essential. How those tools have come back into use, and what Washington is doing with them, is a story that begins a half century ago, in the heyday of Soviet communism.
At the peak of the Cold War, the U.S. government fielded a worldwide network of propagandists, publicists, and payoff artists. The United States Information Agency (USIA) ran hundreds of information specialists abroad and produced enough films to rival Hollywood's top studios, all to sell the world on the goodness of America--and the evils of communism. There were USIA-run cultural centers and libraries in foreign capitals, Fulbright Scholarships and other exchange programs from the State Department, plus the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The CIA's covert payoffs, for better or worse, bought the allegiance of entire political parties in Italy and Japan. Other funds went secretly to sympathetic journalists, scholars, and labor leaders.
Exposes of CIA funding and abuses took their toll starting in the late 1960s, curtailing many of the secret programs. With the implosion of communism, Congress set about searching for a "peace dividend" and pared back what programs of influence remained. Convinced that USIA was a Cold War relic, conservatives in 1999 forced the Clinton administration to collapse the agency into the State Department. Hundreds of staffers were let go or retired, cutting the nation's public diplomacy corps by as much as 40 percent. American libraries abroad were shuttered, and exchange programs and foreign broadcasting dropped by a third. By the time al Qaeda's pilots flew their hijacked planes into Lower Manhattan, the U.S. government had ceded management of America's image abroad to Hollywood producers and rap musicians.
"Spring chickens?" After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. officials began to ponder how to get their message out. The Taliban, for all their backwardness, were scoring propaganda successes, and much of the Muslim world refused to believe that Arabs were even behind the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. To fight back, officials set up Coalition Information Centers in Washington, London, and Islamabad, Pakistan. But the centers focused largely on breaking news, putting out fires in a 24-hour news cycle the likes of which the Cold War had never seen. Responding to the world's media, including the often-inflammatory new Arab satellite network called al Jazeera, left little time to formulate a strategy that got at the roots of Islamic terrorism.
Approved by President Bush, the Muslim World Outreach strategy is now being implemented across the government. But it has stirred controversy. "The Cold War was easy," says a knowledgeable official. "It was a struggle against a godless political ideology. But this has theological elements. It goes to the core of American belief that we don't mess with freedom of religion. Do we have any authority to influence this debate?" The answer, for now, appears to be yes. "You do it quietly," says Zeyno Baran, a terrorism analyst at the Nixon Center who advised on the strategy. "You provide money and help create the political space for moderate Muslims to organize, publish, broadcast, and translate their work." Baran, an expert on Islam in central Asia, says the dilemma for Americans is that the ideological challenge of our day comes in the form of a religion--militant Islam, replete with its political manifestos, edicts, and armies. "Religion is just not an issue American policymakers are comfortable discussing," she says. "But we're talking about a fascist ideology."
In crafting their strategy, U.S. officials are taking pages from the Cold War playbook of divide and conquer. One of the era's great successes was how Washington helped break off moderate socialists from hard-core Communists overseas. "That's how we're thinking. . . . It's something we talk about all the time," says Peter Rodman, a longtime aide to Henry Kissinger and now the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. "In those days, it was covert. Now, it's more open." Officials credit publicly funded programs like the National Endowment for Democracy, which have poured millions into Ukraine and other democratizing nations.
Another strategy being pursued is to make peace with radical Muslim figures who eschew violence. At the top of the list: the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist society, founded in 1928 and now with tens of thousands of followers worldwide. Many brotherhood members, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, are at serious odds with al Qaeda. "I can guarantee that if you go to some of the unlikely points of contact in the Islamic world, you will find greater reception than you thought," says Milt Bearden, whose 30-year CIA career included long service in Muslim societies. "The Muslim Brotherhood is probably more a part of the solution than it is a part of the problem." Indeed, sources say U.S. intelligence officers have been meeting not only with the Muslim Brotherhood but also with members of the Deobandi sect in Pakistan, whose fundamentalism schooled the Taliban and inspired an army of al Qaeda followers. Cooperative clerics have helped tamp down fatwas calling for anti-American jihad and persuaded jailed militants to renounce violence. These sensitive ties have led to at least one breakthrough--the July arrest in Pakistan of al Qaeda's Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, whose computer held surveillance files of the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank, and other financial targets. Khan's capture led to a dozen arrests in London. "Engagement," says one official, "is absolutely key."
"Blowback" The emergence of the Muslim World Outreach strategy comes as America's frontline troops in the war of ideas may finally be hitting their stride. Despite its slow start, the CIA has received dramatic increases in money, people, and assets. It still lacks an integrated approach to attacking the roots of Islamic terrorism, insiders say, but individual CIA stations overseas are making some gutsy and innovative moves. Among them: pouring money into neutralizing militant, anti-U.S. preachers and recruiters. "If you found out that Mullah Omar is on one street corner doing this, you set up Mullah Bradley on the other street corner to counter it," explains one recently retired official. In more-serious cases, he says, recruiters would be captured and "interrogated."
Intelligence operatives have set up bogus jihad websites and targeted the Arab news media, but they are being exceedingly cautious. Unlike the good old days of the Cold War, spreading propaganda in the Internet age can easily result in "blowback," with stories ending up in the U.S. media. "They're a bit sheepish," says a CIA veteran. Indeed, some of the acts seem decidedly minor league. "The biggest that I heard about was a large banner at a major soccer game," adds the former spook. "They considered it a rousing success." Getting talented officers and linguists into the field also continues to be a problem, made worse by the drain of the Iraq war. "In Iraq," jokes a former top spy, "we have 300 there, 400 ready to go, and 400 just back" --virtually the entire overseas staff of the clandestine service.
Many of the shock troops for America's new war of ideas are coming not from the CIA, nor from the State Department, but from the low-profile U.S. Agency for International Development. In the three years since 9/11, spending by the government's top purveyor of foreign aid has nearly tripled to over $21 billion, and more than half of that is now destined for the Muslim world. Along with more traditional aid for agriculture and education are the kind of programs that have spurred change in the former Soviet Union--training for political organizers and funding for independent media. Increasingly, those grants are going to Islamic groups.
"Muppet diplomacy." Records drawn from the State Department, USAID, and elsewhere reveal a striking array of Islamic projects bankrolled by American taxpayers since 9/11, stretching to at least 24 countries. In nine of them, U.S. funds are backing restoration of Muslim holy sites, including historic mosques in Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. In Kirgizstan, embassy funding helped restore a major Sufi shrine. In Uzbekistan, money has gone to preserve antique Islamic manuscripts, including 20 Korans, some dating to the 11th century. In Bangladesh, USAID is training mosque leaders on development issues. In Madagascar, the embassy even sponsored an intermosque sports tournament. Also being funded: Islamic media of all sorts, from book translations to radio and TV in at least a half-dozen nations. Often the aid doesn't need an explicit Islamic theme, as in what boosters are calling Muppet Diplomacy. An Arabic version of Sesame Street has become one of the most popular shows on Egyptian TV, and along with lessons on literacy and hygiene, the program stresses values of religious tolerance. Among the show's key backers: USAID, which is helping bring out a pan-Arab satellite edition this year.
In no country is the effort more pronounced than Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, with 240 million people. A bastion of moderate Islam, the nation has nevertheless given birth to several radical Islamic groups that include al Qaeda offshoot Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202. Working behind the scenes, USAID now helps fund over 30 Muslim organizations in the country. Among the programs: media production, workshops for Islamic preachers, and curriculum reform for schools from rural academies to Islamic universities. One talk show on Islam and tolerance is relayed to radio stations in 40 cities and sends a weekly column to over a hundred newspapers. Also on the grants list: Islamic think tanks that are fostering a body of scholarly research showing liberal Islam's compatibility with democracy and human rights.
The grants, technically, aren't secret, but they are, as one official put it, "done in a subtle manner." Open ties to U.S. funds could spell the end of programs in volatile regions and even endanger those who work in them. Indeed, security is such a factor for USAID workers that the agency now relies largely on local hires. In Pakistan, where the agency once fielded hundreds of employees, it now has only two dozen.
Sisyphus. Elsewhere, U.S. officials are working quietly through third parties to train madrasah teachers to add math, science, civics, and health to their curriculum. The most ambitious program is in Pakistan, where sensitivities run so high that allegations of U.S. funding are enough to prompt parents to pull their children from schools, USAID staffers say. The agency is working through private foundations and the Pakistan Ministry of Education on what officials call a "model madrasah" program that may eventually include over a thousand schools. Drawing the line on engagement, though, can be tough. In January, the U.S. Embassy there ordered an abrupt end to a $1 million contract to supply Internet access to scores of madrasahs and other schools in Pakistan's most restive provinces. The reason: an arrest of a militant mistakenly thought to be tied to one of the schools.
U.S. taxpayer dollars going to Islamic radio, Islamic TV, Islamic schools, mosques, and monuments--no wonder some officials find the strategy controversial. USAID staffers argue that as long as they offer assistance to all groups and their grants are meant for secular activities, they are allowed to fund religious organizations. "We structure our programming to be in compliance with 'establishment clause' case law," says Jeffrey Grieco, a USAID spokesman, referring to the First Amendment's church-state divide. But some legal experts question whether America's growing involvement with Islam is legal, given that American courts have found that tax dollars may not be used to support religion. "For us to be doing this is probably unconstitutional," says Herman Schwartz, a constitutional law professor at American University. In 1991, Schwartz and the American Civil Liberties Union won a case against USAID to stop it from funding 20 Catholic and Jewish schools overseas. "But that seems a long time ago," Schwartz adds. "I don't know if anyone would support that kind of suit today." …..