Published: Jul 12, 2010 12:13 PM EDT
Updated: Jul 12, 2010 9:14 AM EDT

      WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration's recent move to drop
references to Islamic radicalism is drawing fire in a new report
warning the decision ignores the role religion can play in
motivating terrorists.
      Several prominent counterterror experts are challenging the
administration's shift in its recently unveiled National Security
Strategy, saying the terror threat should be defined in order to
fight it.
      The question of how to frame the conflict against al-Qaida and
other terrorists poses a knotty problem. The U.S. is trying to mend
fences with Muslim communities while toughening its strikes against
militant groups.
      In the report, scheduled to be released this week,
counterterrorism experts from the Washington Institute for Near
East Policy argue that the U.S. could clearly articulate the threat
from radical Islamic extremists "without denigrating the Islamic
religion in any way."
      President Barack Obama has argued that words matter, and
administration officials have said that the use of inflammatory
descriptions linking Islam to the terror threat feed the enemy's
propaganda and may alienate moderate Muslims in the U.S.
      In the report, which was obtained by The Associated Press, the
analysts warn that U.S. diplomacy must sharpen the distinction
between the Muslim faith and violent Islamist extremism, identify
radicalizers within Islamic communities and empower voices that can
contest the radical teachings.
      Militant Islamic propaganda has reportedly been a factor in a
spate of recent terror attacks and foiled attempts within the U.S.
Maj. Nidal Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood, Texas, mass
shootings last year, is believed to have been inspired by the
Internet postings of violent Islamic extremists, as was Faisal
Shahzad, who tried to detonate a powerful car bomb last May in New
York's Times Square.
      The report acknowledges that the Obama administration has beefed
up efforts to work with the Muslim community in the U.S. and abroad
and has also expanded counterterrorism operations and tried to
erode and divide al-Qaida and its affiliated groups.
      As it unveiled its new National Security Strategy last May,
administration officials said the shift in emphasis was critical in
undercutting al-Qaida's efforts to portray its attacks on the U.S.
and the west as a justified holy war.
      Terror leaders "play into the false perception that they are
religious leaders defending a holy cause, when in fact they are
nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon
thousands of Muslims," said top administration counterterror
deputy John Brennan during a May 24 speech explaining the shift. He
added that "describing our enemy in religious terms would lend
credence to the lie - propagated by al-Qaida and its affiliates to
justify terrorism - that the United States is somehow at war
against Islam."
      But the administration's two-pronged approach of stepping up
counterterror operations while tamping down its rhetoric, the
critics argue, needs to also include an ideological counteratteck
with policies and programs that empower moderate Islamic voices and
contest extremist narratives.
      "There is an ideology that is driving al-Qaida and its
affiliates," said Matt Levitt, one of the authors of the study on
countering violent extremism.
      The administration, Levitt said, has to separate discussion of
Islam as a religion from the radical Islamic ideology that is
producing and fueling global insurgencies. The study is due out
next week, but the authors, Levitt, a former FBI and Treasury
official, and co-author J. Scott Carpenter, were to preview it
Monday.
      Juan Zarate, a former top counterterror official in the Bush
administration, added that the U.S. government has always been
uncomfortable dealing with ideological battles. Zarate, who also
participated in the report, said there are a number of
non-governmental groups already speaking out against violent
preachings.
      The report follows the public disclosure of an exchange earlier
this year between Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Brennan over the
effort to scale back the Bush administration's portrayal of Islamic
extremism as a root cause of terrorism.
      Lieberman raised the issue in a letter to the White House,
saying that "the failure to identify our enemy for what it is -
violent Islamist extremism - is offensive and contradicts thousands
of years of accepted military and intelligence doctrine to 'know
your enemy."'
      In a response to Lieberman, Brennan said the administration
hasn't specifically issued any directive barring the use of
specific words or phrases. But he said it is important to
accurately define the enemy and assess the threat.
      "In my view, using 'Islamic extremist' and other variations of
that phrase does not bring us closer to this objective," Brennan
said in a letter to Lieberman. "Rather, the phrase lumps a diverse
set of organizations, with different motivations, goals,
capabilities and justifications for their actions, into a single
group in a way that may actually be counterproductive."