U.S. Kills Jihadists with Stroke of Pen, Creating Violent Extremists as Byproduct

The war against Jihadists and Islamo-Fascists has been won; each and every last one of these vermin has been eradicated courtesy of the United States Government. Unfortunately, the victory is quite literally in name only.

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. U.S. 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 U.S. 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-Qaida 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.”

Michael van der Galien initially thought this was “silly” but came around once he thought about it.

Because I’ve seen this argument unfolding for years, I mostly share the bemusement of Steve Benen, who points out, “it took the Bush administration more than six years to figure this out?” And he’s also right that, “if a President Clinton or President Obama had issued the identical directive to administration officials, what do you want to bet they’d be slammed as politically-correct terrorist coddlers?”

Interestingly, one of the more prominent voices pushing for this policy change was Dave Kilcullen, a key member of David Petraeus’ brain trust, who was touting the need for better language in Small Wars Journal and elsewhere last summer.

Jim Guirard took that message to heart and put out a dictionary of alternative words to use. Some examples:

irhab (eer-HAB) — Arabic for terrorism, thus enabling us to call the al Qaeda-style killers irhabis, irhabists and irhabiyoun rather than the so-called “jihadis” and “jihadists” and “mujahideen” and “shahids” (martyrs) they badly want to be called. (Author’s lament: Here we are, almost six years into a life-and-death War on Terrorism, and most of us do not even know this basic Arabic for terrorism.)

Hirabah (hee-RAH-bah) — Unholy War and forbidden “war against society” or what we would today call crimes against humanity. Among the many al Qaeda-style crimes and sins which constitute this most “unholy war” are such willful, and unrepented transgressions as those enumerated in the next section of this proposed glossary of terms.

mufsiduun (moof-see-DOON) — Islam’s word for evildoers, sinners and corrupters whose criminality and sinfulness, unless ended and sincerely repented, will incur Allah’s ultimate condemnation on Judgment Day; Islam’s optimum antonym for “mujahiddin.”

munafiquun (moon-ah-fee-KOON) — hypocrites to Islam who pretend to be faithful to the Qur’an but who willfully violate many of its basic rules, mandates and prohibitions.

Practically, I don’t see a shift in language this dramatic taking place. And the idea that people who think sawing off the heads of living hostages on video is fine will change their mind because Condi Rice starts calling it irhab and the perpetrators mufsiduun rather than jihadists and butchers strikes me as dubious. If it’s not obvious to you that such conduct is barbaric, I’m not sure that a new lexicon will do the trick.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s a good development. Spurred by David Kilcullen I’ve been whining about the term “jihadis” off and on for a couple of years now. Irhabis or Hirabis would be better.

    BTW, I’ve been vaguely acquainted with David Kilcullen since he was an infant (one of my dearest friends is his godmother).

  2. John Burgess says:

    James: The target for the revised vocabulary isn’t the jihadis irhabiyoun, but the non-violent Muslims who get tetchy when a word with good (and often religious) meaning gets thrown around, defaming the innocent.

    Sort of like the way many Muslims went batshit at ‘crusade’, actually, but the other way around! Both ‘jihad’ and ‘crusade’ have the same range of meanings, of course.

  3. John425 says:

    I was amused by John McCain’s saying that he’d quit using these words when the terrorists quit using them to describe themselves and their actions. OBL et al call for jihad etc.

    A rose by any other name…

  4. James Joyner says:

    John: I get that and think the idea overall makes sense. I can understand why, say, “Islamofascist” could get construed as “all Muslims are Fascists.”

    At the same time, if you think murdering innocents in the name of religion is fine, I’m not sure that dubbing the perpetrators “Hirabah” is going to make a light bulb go off.

  5. floyd says:

    Steve Clemons is clearly guilty of his own accusations.

  6. lunacy says:

    For what it’s worth…
    I’ve been seeing the words munifiq and munifiquun used to describe Musharaff and the Taliban (and other infamous political/warlord character) for the past 7 years, while lurking on Afghan forums.

  7. John Burgess says:

    James: That’s my point… the guys sawing off heads just aren’t going to see the light, unless it’s that light at the end of a tunnel some near-death reports suggest. They’re a lost cause and either life in prison or death will be the only ‘teacher’.

    They are simply not the target audience for any sort of PD exercise. Their education is handed over to the military or others in that line of business. We no longer care what they think. They are a lost cause, worth no effort to retrain.

    As they represent the minuscule minority, we can live with that. So can most Muslims. It’s the majority that needs to be factored in, and here vocabulary can be useful and PD has a chance to get to the fence-sitters. It certainly has a chance to stop alienating those who can help us.

  8. James Joyner says:

    John: We’re just talking past each other. I’m talking about the non-terrorist Muslims who watch beheadings and other murders-in-the-name-of-religion on television and are presumably on the fence enough about that to be influenced by jihad vice irhab.

    I fully agree that smart vocabulary makes sense and, at the very least, can’t hurt.

  9. Bithead says:

    If it’s not obvious to you that such conduct is barbaric, I’m not sure that a new lexicon will do the trick.

    I said it yesterday, in a slightly different context, but it works here, as well:

    We’re not going to get a handle on this stuff by clinging to legal and syntactical borders they don’t respect.

  10. smurfy says:

    Did u mean Steve Benen?

    Yes. I mix them up occasionally for some reason. – jhj