Islamism and Jihadism: The Challenge and the Threat for Trump

Islamism and Jihadism: The Challenge and the Threat for Trump
(Cliff May, May 17, 2017)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Clifford D. May is the founder and President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan policy institute focusing on national security created immediately following the 9/11/01 attacks on the United States.

Under his leadership, FDD has become one of the nation’s most highly regarded think tanks and a sought-after voice on a wide range of national security issues. He has helped assemble a staff and advisory board of the most compelling scholars and experts whose research, ideas, and recommendations have shaped important policies and legislation on terrorism, nonproliferation, human rights, Islamism, democratization, and related issues.

Cliff has had a long and distinguished career in international relations, journalism, communications, and politics. A veteran news reporter, foreign correspondent and editor (at The New York Times and other publications), he has covered stories around the world, including datelines from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Oman, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Mexico, Argentina, Northern Ireland, Kazakhstan, China, and Russia.

From 2016 to 2018, Cliff served as a commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission that makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress in order to advance the pivotal right of religious freedom around the world, and integrate religious freedom into America’s foreign policy.


Robert R. Reilly:


It is a particular delight to welcome Cliff May here, whom I have known for some years. He as you know is the founder and President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group which has become one of the most important public policy think tanks in Washington through its articles, through its policy papers, through its seminars, through its conferences. Just an example from today one of the senior scholars, Reuel Marc Gerecht, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a very insightful piece, about whom we should wish to have win in the Iranian presidential election.

I would say that it is a measure of what Cliff May has achieved that Foundation for Defense of Democracy has one of the best lineups of scholars in Washington and I think that is why this organization hits over its weight class compared to some other public policy groups that have far larger staffs and budgets but a lot gets done in FDD.

One reason is because of Cliff’s background. He was for quite some years a New York Times reporter. He is in recovery, but it gave him intimate knowledge of the world. He covered events in- had his dateline from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, West Bank, Jordan, Turkey. You get the general picture there. He has a weekly column in The Washington Times called Foreign Desk.

Cliff is serving as a commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which just had an important meeting today in releasing their annual report. He was nominated to serve on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, but I just told him how lucky he was that he was never confirmed. Someone laughed who knows why. And he has served on the bipartisan advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion. He was appointed a senior advisor to the Iraq Study Group.

I don’t know whether should- Well, that recommends you. Can I tell the joke about the baggage claim in Yemen?

Clifford May:


Robert R. Reilly:

Okay, so in 2009, at the end of 2009, Cliff May suggested releasing the detainees from Guantanamo to Yemen and then sending missile strikes to the baggage claim area. This caused some acute criticism from other areas of the press whom Cliff then characterized as humorless. So please join me in welcoming Cliff May, who is speaking on, “Islamism and Jihadism: The Challenge and the Threat for President Trump.”

Clifford May:


Well thank you, Bob. I’ve been a great admirer of Bob’s for so many years and we’ve known each other not as well as I’d like to but thank you so much. Thank you for inviting me. Thanks to to all of you for coming out to see me on a warm night. There are more fun things that you could do but you decided not to. So I’m pleased that you’re here.

I really do appreciate that fine introduction. It is interesting that you started with a joke because I have to say when I get up on a podium, I tend to feel like you got to break the ice and relax people a little bit and so you should kind of tell some kind of joke. And I shared this with a guy I happen to know who is trying to make a living as a standup comic and he said that is really strange because every time I get up to do a standup routine, I feel like I should start with a policy brief. Which does remind me of a story.

Hopefully, I hope this is not apocryphal, but you may or may not have heard. It was a meeting between John Major, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Boris Yeltsin, just after he had become President of the Russian Federation. And John Major said to Boris, “Yeltsin Boris Nikolayevich, you know now that there is not a Soviet Union, I am curious could you describe in a word, how are things going in Russia?” And Boris Yeltsin said, “Good.” And John Major felt a little awkward about that. He said, “Yeltsin Nikolayevich, you know the phrase ‘in a word’ is a figure of speech. I wonder- Perhaps you could elaborate just a bit.” And Boris Yeltsin said, “Not good.”

The Threat Today

So similarly, if you ask me to summarize how the United States is doing a hundred odd days after the inauguration of a new President – and they have been kind of odd days, right? That is not a criticism. It is just an observation. I would say good, but if you asked me to elaborate, I would say not good. Good because look, we are not in a depression and our sworn enemies do not have nuclear weapons yet, but the world is in considerable turmoil.

President Obama’s various foreign policy experiments – the reset with Russia, the nuclear deal with Iran, his outreach to Muslim countries and his early and special friendship with Turkey’s Erdogan, his pivot to Asia, his opening to Cuba – these initiatives did not produce the results one might have hoped for.

North Korea

North Korea today is ruled by a loony, fat kid with a bad haircut and nuclear weapons, and missiles, whose range his rocket scientists are attempting to expand every day. North Korea is a can that has been kicked down the road by a string of administrations since 1994 when President Clinton concluded the Agreed Framework, you remember with Kim’s father, that was supposed to prevent North Korea from going nuclear. It did not.


How is that different from the deal that President Obama concluded with Iran? Well, the Iran Deal is not meant to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear armed power. It is only meant to slow its progress. While we do what exactly? Iran was once a great imperial power. Its ambition is to be one again.


The same may be said of Turkey and of China and of Russia. Not one of these Eurasian nations – I think they are all Eurasian nations – is free and democratic. Not one is trending in that direction. Not one is a friend of America, though Turkey is a member of NATO, so officially, it is our ally. That is a paradox and it is a dilemma.

I do not have enough time today to talk about all of America’s national security concerns, so I am going to focus on the one I consider the most challenging, the one that too many world leaders, too many academics, too many journalists are most reluctant to discuss forthrightly; the Islamist and jihadist threat. When we have our Q&A afterwards, I will talk about whatever you like, but I am going to focus on that and get into the weeds a bit.

Islamism and jihadism are on the rise not just in the Middle East, as I think most of you know, but also in Europe, also in Asia, and also in Latin America. Iddi has been doing some research on specifically that and we did a congressional testimony, one of our scholars, last week on that. The penetration is much greater than you might expect.

What is the difference in my view between Islamism and jihadism? What is the distinction I am making? Both embrace the imperative of Islamic supremacy and domination, but whereas jihadists believe that such domination can only be achieved through the sword, through warfare, Islamists are willing to achieve their goals through less bellicose means as well, for example, through elections. So while all jihadists are Islamists, not all Islamists are jihadists, but both I would argue represent serious threats to us. And we do not have and never have had yet a coherent and comprehensive strategy to defeat those ideologies and those motivated by them.

Actually, it is a little worse than that. I want you to imagine that Bob had invited me here on September 12, 2001, and imagine that I came here and I said here is my prediction today: within less than twenty years the United States will be giving billions of dollars and a path to nuclear weapons acquisition to the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, according to us, according to the U.S. government. Well, you would have said I am crazy. Bob would not have invited me back. Bye-bye, but I would have been right if I had come here in 2001 and I had predicted that. That is where we are.

As for President Trump, again, good and not good. I do not think he studied or thought deeply about national security and foreign policy. I do not think he knows much about history. That is an observation, not a criticism, but I also think he has put together an astonishingly good national security team; James Mattis at the Pentagon, H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, Mike Pompeo, wonderful guy, over at CIA. Nikki Haley at the United Nations, I am startled by what a fast learner she is. John Kelly at DHS, at Homeland Security, [is] tremendous.

So, if you asked me to sum up not in a word, but let us say three words, what should be America’s strategic doctrine in response to these threats? I would say peace through strength, not peace through conflict resolution, not peace through win-win scenarios, certainly not peace through appeasement or the international community, which has all the reality of the tooth fairy, not peace through weakness, not peace through mutually assured destruction.

America’s military might, its cyber capabilities (both defensive and offensive), its missile defense systems, our economy all need to be as strong as possible, much stronger than they are right now. We need to be not just maintaining our leads in these realms, we need to be increasing them. All of the instrumentalities of American power need to be utilized if we are to win the war being waged against America and the West. This must be our priority. It cannot be an afterthought. It cannot come in second or third.

We need to take the fight to our enemies. They should not be allowed to plot against us in comfort and safety. We want or we should want them to be awed and daunted. It is not enough to say we will prevail in the end. Our enemies should conclude that challenging us is a fool’s errand. That should be the perception and that should be the reality. At the moment it is not. There are big holes in America’s military readiness, and we have not been adequately modernizing. Nor do we have a serious communications capability as you know only too well, Robert.

In Congressional testimony last week – I do not know if you saw this – former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he favors a USIA, United States Information Agency, on steroids to counter message jihadism as well as Russia’s robust propaganda campaign. He is right, but why did he not voice that opinion during all the years he was working for President Obama.

So, that is the gist of my argument.

About the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

What I am going to do now is elaborate, more than two words, point out what I see as the most important dots, and make an attempt to connect them. I am going to begin with just a few words about the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the policy institute or to use the vernacular the think tank that as Bob mentioned I founded and where I still serve as President.

It was created right after 9/11, but interestingly the people who helped me bring it into existence, extraordinary names you will know, my interns never do. In particular, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Jack Kemp. It is great to be some place where I do not have to tell people who they are. [They] were worried about terrorism and the forces driving and justifying terrorism earlier than 9/11. In fact, believe it or not, it was less than a week when they came in and I had a meeting with them, a consultation intended to help them flesh out some of their ideas.

There had been at that point a string of attacks on Americans that they recognized, Beirut in 1983, the World Trade Center in 1993, Khobar Towers in 1996, two African embassies in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000. There were a lot of others that are less well known that they were aware of, and also, by the way, in 2001 and 2002, Israel was being hit by one suicide bomber after another with too few people inside the international community condemning those attacks, so their question was: is there a pattern here, is anyone seriously attempting to understand what is going on and to formulate strategies and policies to address it? So, I took copious notes, and I went home to think about our conversation, and think [about] how I would do this little bit of research for them. And a few days later, the attacks of 9/11 took place.

Now, what happened that day is often described as a tragedy, but a tragedy is when you get hit by a hurricane or a tornado. This was an atrocity. It was an atrocity carried about by terrorists based on beliefs, based on an ideology, so I met with them again and I said boy, what you feared and anticipated has now come to pass, has it not? And from that a decision was made to create an organization that would take a hard look at what was happening in the world, by whom and why, with the aim of formulating options for those policymakers and legislators who wanted to defend America and its allies from sworn and mortal enemies.

FDD opened its doors fifteen years ago January. Since then, my job has essentially been to assemble the resources, the team necessary to focus on the threats represented by totalitarianism, supremacism, and militant interpretations of Islam to understand the movements, the non-state actors, and the nation-states whose legitimacy derives from these ideologies, from this theology, to help better educate political elites and the public, and finally to attempt to identify policies that can best defend America and the West.

I have got to tell you that actually this subject had been on my mind for a very long time in a nebulous sort of way, and the reason is that in 1979, I was a young foreign correspondent. A revolution broke out in Iran. The Shah fled. The Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. I was asked to cover this by, of all people, Bill Moyers, for a TV show he had called Bill Moyers International Journal, and also CBS Radio and Hearst Newspapers – in those days, some of you are old enough to remember, Hearst Newspapers were in Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Baltimore, and a lot of different places. Never mind all of that.

The point is I vividly recall my first glimpse of Ayatollah Khomeini. It was in the holy city of Qom. It was a windy day and the air seemed very dusty. There were thousands of people there. He lived in a very small bungalow, very modest, I have to say, with a flat roof. It did not rain much, [so] you could have a flat roof there. And we waited and waited, this small camera crew I had, my producer, my soundman. And finally, Ayatollah Khomeini appears on the roof of this little bungalow. And I have got to tell you, he was an absolutely charismatic figure: black robes, the turban, the white beard.

And he is not like an American politician. He is not waving to the crowds. He is not pointing at people. He is not having a good time. He looks like a stern father, and he just looks at the crowd for the longest time. He does not say a word, and then with one motion, maybe a benediction, I do not know, he did [a movement] like that. And the crowd went wild, cheering, and the women ululating. You all know what ululating is. And at that point my producer, who I had met up with there, who is an Iranian, turned to me, and he said you are very lucky. And I thought to myself, what does he mean by that? And I was not sure, and I took a stab at it, and I said you know, Bijan, I am very lucky because I could have some job in some office somewhere, and instead I got a front row seat on history. I mean this is really exciting.

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