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Culture Q&A

Sebastian Gorka

How to defeat jihad

Anti-terrorism expert Sebastian Gorka on winning the fight against Islamist extremism

How to defeat jihad

Sebastian Gorka (Susan Walsh/AP)

Sebastian Gorka is the radio host of America First With Sebastian Gorka and is a non-resident scholar at the Institute of World Politics. He previously served as an associate dean at the National Defense University, among other teaching posts, and served as a deputy assistant for strategy to President Donald Trump in 2017. He’s a guest instructor for the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Gorka is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War, and Why We Fight: Defeating America’s Enemies—With No Apologies. Warren Cole Smith interviewed Gorka at the 2016 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., to talk about his strategy for defeating Muslim terrorism and his perspective on U.S. policy. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation, which also aired on Listening In.

Sebastian Gorka, you just got off the stage here at the 2016 Values Voter Summit. In a nutshell, what did you tell everyone?

I told them we’re losing the war against the jihadis. There’s no excuse, because we are the most powerful, greatest nation the world has ever seen. The threat is an existential one, it’s a totalitarian one—the jihadis are totalitarians.

At the beginning of Defeating Jihad, you referred to a famous memo, sometimes called the “Long Telegram,” written by George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat to the Soviet Union. It was a plan for defeating the totalitarian regime of the 20th century. Defeating Jihad aspires to be sort of a 21st-century version of that memo. Would you talk about the three key points outlined in the book?

George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” is my baseline—basically, it’s understanding your enemy, because that document understood communism. There’s another document called “National Security Council Paper 68,” which was a top-secret plan used to defeat the communists. I actually reproduced the original, now-declassified document in Defeating Jihad. My version, learning those lessons from the Cold War, is built upon three pillars. Number one, you have to take politics and political correctness out of the threat assessment. Today in federal government, under the last 7½ years of the Obama administration, there’s been a distortion of intelligence. There has been a political overlay. When the enemy says, “I’m a jihadi,” you’re not actually allowed to say that. We have 60 U.S. Central Command analysts who have publicly complained that their analysis on ISIS, when it didn’t meet the requirements of the White House, was distorted, censored, or lost. Recommendation number one: no politics in the threat assessment.

This showed up very publicly after the Orlando nightclub massacre. The transcripts of the 911 calls were released, and they were redacted, they were edited. Is that the sort of thing you’re talking about?

Absolutely. We have a Cabinet member, the attorney general of the United States, who releases the factual transcript of the killer calling 911, and the Department of Justice had changed his words, had deleted words. When he said, “I’m a jihadi. I’m doing this for the Islamic State. I’m doing this for Allah,” those words were removed or they were changed. When he said “Allah,” that word was changed to “God.” You’re not allowed to do that in intelligence. You’re not allowed to put your overlay, your political ideological preferences, into the data stream. That’s called perversion of intelligence.

That’s number one, don’t pervert the intelligence. What’s number two?

Number two is based upon the realization that we are not at war with Islam. That’s sloppy thinking. Remember, what was the religion of the fighter pilot in the cage, who was burned alive in that awful ISIS propaganda video? He was a Jordanian. He was a Sunni Muslim. This is a war inside Islam to see which version is going to win: the violent jihadi version, or the more modern Jordanian/Egyptian version. As a result, it shouldn’t be Americans who are the face of this war. It shouldn’t be white-skinned, brown-skinned Marines, or infantry from the Army. It should be our Sunni allies, the Jordanians, the Emiratis, the Egyptians. They have to close with ISIS and crush them—but that’s never going to happen. If you’ve been to the Middle East, if you’ve worked with these people, they will only do that if they believe they can trust us and we’re advising and helping them. Unfortunately, having worked with them for many years, after the last seven years of the Obama administration, they don’t trust us. And you know what? I don’t blame them. We have to help them win this war.

Well, even here in the United States, in the conservative movement, some don’t exactly share your point of view. For example, I think I can contrast what you’re saying with what people like Frank Gaffney are saying. Is that fair?

Frank has a different focus. There are some people who focus on Shariah law as the enemy, and there are some people who say Islam is unreformable and therefore the problem is with the religion itself. Having worked with the Jordanian special forces, having worked with the Egyptians, I can tell you they know the threat to their countries, and they’re being killed in the thousands. Christians have been wiped out in Iraq, the Yazidis have been targeted, but guess who are the majority of the victims of jihadism? Muslims. How can this be a war with Islam if the majority of the victims are Muslims? That’s what I would say to those people.

Number one, don’t let the threat assessment be clouded by political considerations. Number two, Americans need to be prominent, but not dominant—not the tip of the spear in this fight. What’s number three?

The third one is really a lesson from the Cold War. I grew up in the Cold War, my parents escaped communism in the Hungarian Revolution, and I learned a lot from that. I realized that killing bad guys is OK. I have no problem with that, but body bags are not a good metric of success. It wasn’t smart in Vietnam, and it’s still not smart today. The killing part of it—the killing and arresting—is about 25 percent of the war. The victory will come with the other 80 percent that’s nonkinetic: Delegitimizing the ideology of the enemy. Just like President Reagan took down the ideology of communism when he said, “This is an evil empire. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” We have to do the same thing. A giant counterpropaganda campaign to make the idea of jihadism unsexy. Of course, we have to do this through our Muslim allies, and through our proxies. That is the long-term victory: Destroy their ideas.

Body bags are not a good metric of success. It wasn’t smart in Vietnam, and it’s still not smart today.

What would that actually look like as policy and as a budget priority?

It would look like the following: What is the key message of the Islamists? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda, they say, “We are the only true Muslims. I am the caliph of Islam.” Oh, really? Who says you are the only true Muslims? Who elected you caliph? We have to destroy their claims to credibility. The great author Stephen Ulph said, “Their claim to authenticity is their greatest weakness.” If you are the best Muslims, how come the majority of your victims are Muslims? That’s where you begin. You shine a light on the falsity of their message. Secondly, we have to support the very brave Muslims who are out there trying to reform Islam from the inside. There are Muslims right now from Qatar to Tunisia on the internet pushing back on the totalitarians, really risking their lives. Helping those people quietly, effectively, that’s what a counterpropaganda campaign would look like, the same thing we did with counter-communism in the Cold War.

Are you hopeful? Optimistic? Are we moving in the right direction?

I didn’t write Defeating Jihad based upon how well we are doing. I wrote it because we are losing this war, but I also wrote it because I am an American and I know we can win. In the 20th century, there were two existential threats to Western civilization: fascism and communism. Guess which country was indispensable to the defeat of both? America. In the 21st century, we are again threatened by totalitarians—jihadis—and again, it’s going to take America to defeat them. I believe we can, but we need leadership in the White House. We need truth from our leadership. If we get that, we can defeat any enemy of the republic.

You have a British accent. You’ve already identified that you’re an American. “Gorka” is a Polish name, but in fact, your parents came from Hungary, so you’ve got an eclectic mix there. Tell me about your background.

My family escaped, or let’s say left, Poland in 1848. Lots of upheavals in Europe in 1848, and they ended up in Hungary. My parents were born and raised in Hungary, and they saw firsthand what dictatorship means. My father was a teenager when he saw his country taken over by the Communists after World War II. He resisted. He created a secret Christian student organization at college to push back against the dictators. He was betrayed by Kim Philby, one of the most treacherous double agents in Cold War history, and he ended up with a life sentence in a Communist prison for resisting dictatorship. He was liberated. He escaped to the West in the revolution of 1956 after six years in prison, and he took with him the daughter of one of his fellow inmates, a man who was in prison because he was a leader of the YMCA. That young woman would eventually become his wife and my mother.

The connective tissue between Nazis, communists, and jihadis is that they’re all totalitarians, and they will either enslave you or they will kill you.

They escaped to England. I was born and raised with that background, that visceral understanding of what dictatorship means. From the earliest moment onward, I realized that liberty is as fragile as it is precious. As a result, I think I understood the events of 9/11, watching those planes hit those buildings, a little bit differently from my fellow Americans. It was heinous, it was terrorism, but in fact it was the return of the totalitarians. The connective tissue between Nazis, communists, and jihadis is that they’re all totalitarians, and they will either enslave you or they will kill you.

I was born in 1958, and I think people of my generation have a kind of recollection of communist totalitarianism, even if we don’t remember Nazism. Is that changing? In other words, is the 9/11 generation, the millennial generation, the ones that signed up to fight on September 12th, 2001, are they in some ways different? Are they resonating more with what you’re saying or not?

I don’t know. I don’t have any data on that, but from a purely anecdotal perspective, a friend of mine on Facebook posted a photograph of his young son enlisting in the Marine Corps yesterday. This term “millennial” is very pejorative. I don’t think all American kids who fall into the millennial age group are losers who need their safe spaces at college. I think what’s changed in the pro-life movement among the youth in the last 15 years is incredible, and perhaps that re-identification of natural law, of objective truth, may be trickling over into concepts of national security, freedom, and liberty. I am optimistic.

Yes—there are a whole lot of millennials serving in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, some of them coming home missing limbs.

Yeah, absolutely. Unfortunately only 1 percent of the American population wears the cloth of the republic as a member of the armed forces, but the stories of heroism, of people who could leave the military but then reenlist, and have six, seven, eight tours in theater—unbelievable dedication. So hopefully that has an osmotic effect on others and affects the new generation who won’t have to experience what my parents experienced, but will understand the stakes of the threat today.

You and I are having this conversation on Sept. 10, the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. You’ve got a pin on your lapel commemorating the 9/11 attack. Today, as you contemplate the magnitude of that event, what’s going through your mind?

I’m thinking that there is no nation like America. There is no nation founded on the principles of individual liberty and freedom. That is why they hate us. That is the long-term strategy to take those liberties away from us. The war is real. The war is here. We’ve arrested or killed 110 ISIS terrorists in America in the last two years, so I’m thinking my fellow Americans may be waking up to the fact that we don’t have the right strategy at the moment, but after November we could. So go vote in November. Take at least three people with you to the polling station because we can win this war if we have the right leadership in the White House, and if America as a nation starts to believe in itself again, the way that it did under President Ronald Reagan.