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Jan. 7, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

Obama program aims to counter jihadi ideology without naming Islam
The Obama administration this week will roll out the latest iteration of its program to counter efforts by Islamic State and other jihadi groups to recruit Americans and spread propaganda.

The program will be announced by the White House as early as Friday and will be led by the Department of Homeland Security. Taking part will be the Justice Department, FBI and State Department, according to administration officials.

The program, under the rubric of “countering violent extremism,” reflects the difficulties faced by President Obama with the “soft power” part of his counterterrorism strategy. The program has focused on curbing Islamic State recruitment and finances, both areas where the group has shown ability to make inroads. Foreign fighters continue to flow into Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State, and the group raked in over $1 billion in 2014, mainly from illicit oil sales and ransom payments.

Critics say the problem is that Mr. Obama and senior White House officials for years have refused to permit most of the U.S. government to identify Islamist terrorism using the terms Islam, Islamic or the politicized version known as Islamism, as part of a policy aimed at appeasing the Muslim world.

The result has been that the U.S. government has farmed out its counterideology programs to states such as Sunni Islam-ruled Saudi Arabia, which is now facing a backlash from Shiites after the recent execution of a Shiite religious leader.

The constrained counterideology policy has resulted in semantic gymnastics, such as the 2009 terrorist attack by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan that killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. The administration initially refused to call it an Islamist terrorist attack and described it instead as “workplace violence.”

To avoid linking terrorism to Islam, the operative phrase for the administration is the vague term “countering violent extremism.”

The State Department-led Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications also has had limited success and has focused on attempting to counter Islamic State social media.

A White House spokesman did not return an email seeking comment, and Department of Homeland Security spokesman S.Y. Lee had no comment.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced in September an office of community partnerships dedicated to countering terrorism.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has outlined the complicated legal rationale behind the recent U.S. warship passage within 12 miles of several disputed reefs claimed by China as part of its sovereign territory in the South China Sea.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the defense secretary initially refused to confirm press reports about the passage of the destroyer USS Lassens on Oct. 27 in contested waters, an exercise the Pentagon calls a “freedom of navigation” operation.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and committee chairman, harshly criticized Mr. Carter for refusing to comment on the operation and followed up with a letter to the secretary.

Mr. Carter’s response, sent Dec. 22, stated that Lassens’ passage was conducted against “five maritime features in the Spratly Islands, including Subi Reef, Northeast Cay, Southwest Cay, South Reef and Sandy Cay — all claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal processes and with international law,” Mr. Carter wrote.

Rather than challenging the sovereignty of the islands, which are among some 3,000 acres China has built up and has begun militarizing, the Lassens voyage “challenged attempts by claimants to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around features they claim,” including a demand by Beijing that all ships obtain permission before such close transits, he said.

The operation “demonstrated that we will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Mr. Carter said.

Additionally, the Lassens demonstrated both the right of innocent passage through territorial waters and high seas freedom of navigation beyond any territorial area.

Legal analysts had questioned whether Subi Reef, where a Chinese airfield is under construction, constituted a freedom of navigation passage because it was legally a “low-tide elevation” before it was built up.

However, Mr. Carter asserted that China’s rebuilding “cannot create a legal entitlement” to Subi but is within 12 miles of Sandy Cay, which does produce a territorial 12-mile limit.

“The specific excessive claims challenged in this case are less important than the need to demonstrate that countries cannot restrict navigational rights and freedoms around islands and reclaimed features contrary to international law,” Mr. Carter stated, adding that such transits would continue.

Mr. McCain welcomed the legal explanation from Mr. Carter but criticized the Pentagon for not conducting additional South China Sea passages last month.

“It is disappointing yet hardly surprising that continued administration delays prevented additional [freedom of navigation operations] elsewhere in the South China Sea by the end of 2015,” he said. “Meanwhile, China continues to pursue its territorial ambitions, most recently landing a plane on an artificial island in the Spratly Islands.”

Mr. McCain criticized the contradiction between Mr. Carter’s public claims that the U.S. would sail anywhere, any time, while then conducting just a single operation in seven months challenging Beijing’s island claims.

The Obama administration is “either unable to manage the complexities of interagency national security decision-making or simply too risk-averse to do what is necessary to safeguard the rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific,” Mr. McCain said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in the 1970s began a campaign for a United Nations ban on blinding laser weapons, finally succeeding in 1998. But the humanitarian organization was unusually quiet about reports on state-run media last month revealing China’s deployment of several blinding laser rifles that are being used to equip troops of the People’s Liberation Army.

China signed the so-called Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which was added to the 1980 U.N. Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

On Dec. 9, the PLA’s official newspaper, the PLA Daily, along with the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times, published photo reports showing four different laser rifles along with an illustration that appears to show how the guns are used — firing a laser beam at a human head.

“Laser weapons are primarily used to blind its targets with laser in short distance, or interfere and damage the laser and night vision equipment, etc.,” the Global Times stated.

Hays Parks, a former Pentagon official who was among the negotiators for the laser protocol, criticized the Red Cross for double standards, energetically protesting U.S. laser gun research while giving China a pass.

“The ICRC blinding laser ban campaign targeted the U.S. and a program that, according to the definition of ‘blinding laser weapon’ in the protocol, was legal,” Mr. Parks said.

“The definition defined a non-existent weapon although, from what I saw at the time in the mid-1990s, would have prohibited a Chinese weapon had China ratified the protocol,” he added.

Mr. Parks said the ICRC is very selective in choosing whom to attack publicly, for fear it will be denied further access by nations such as China.

Additionally, ICRC comments have no effect within China in the way similar accusations against the United States would, notwithstanding that the United States is ICRC’s largest contributor and the Red Cross enjoys powerful congressional support, he said.

ICRC arms control adviser Neil Davison said the official Chinese publications were vague on whether the weapons were used for blinding.

“The ICRC has continued to underline the absolute prohibition of blinding laser weapons, and we would be concerned about any indication of the development or use of blinding laser weapons,” Mr. Davison said in a statement. “However the purpose of the weapons described in the article is not fully clear from the photos and captions available.”

He did not respond to an email asking about the image of a laser gun shooting at the head of a person.

“What is clear is that the CCW’s Protocol IV clearly prohibits all laser weapons ‘specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness.’”

Mr. Davison said the protocol does not ban laser weapons used to damage sensors, but does require signatories to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid blinding people.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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