CPM: But don’t we have to start with those radical groups? That’s what I don’t get. What I see as the root of any mistrust between American Muslims and the rest of America, stems from ISIS or al-Qaeda. Most Americans aren’t thinking about Saudi Arabia, so I wonder why we can’t unify against that threat first — just get it off the table so we can establish trust.
Deen: I really hate the phrase “moderate Muslims.” I always think, “Well, I don’t want to be ostracized, so yes, I’m moderate,” but the problem is, I don’t hear “Christian moderate,” I don’t hear “Jewish moderate.” Why do I have to be a “moderate Muslim?” Why can’t I just be “Muslim” and if some damn idiot is radicalized, then he’s a “radical Muslim?”
CPM: I get your point, but there are “fundamentalist Christians” and Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews.
Deen: I think this “moderate Muslim” thing is really like hurting the Muslim community, because we’re like, “What the hell? How much more moderate can I be? Do we have to rewrite the Koran to be moderate?” That’s the thing now, people want to rewrite the Koran so everyone can understand it better, but that will never happen. It’s not been rewritten in fourteen hundred years.
CPM: What about getting rid of ISIS first, though?
Sayed: Think of it like this, let’s say your job is to get all those defective Volkswagen diesels off the road. How hard is your job if you don’t shut down that factory and VW doesn’t stop selling those, overtly or covertly? There’s still a factory somewhere that is producing those defective vehicles. You could take out all those VW vehicles in North America, but at the end of the day you’re not solving the problem.
CPM: Makes perfect sense but I think the order is important. First, let’s get the vehicles off the road. Then, if we need to go and examine the factory and fix the problems in the factory, we’ll get to that.
Sayed: I think it’s a two-prong approach. While you have a team getting these vehicles off the road, you should have another team stopping that factory from working or at least saying, “Hey, put a pause on it until we can fix this.”
Leaving the metaphor there, one of the things we also have to do is to use education and psychology.
We have normal Muslims, who can preach against radicalism and that’s way more comforting than seeing a guy in an Army uniform with the last name Smith. Now, a soldier who actually has a last name of Abdul Malik, might mean a lot more.
People are always worried about the refugees, women and children. But these were sex slaves for Daesh, and it’s those who don’t fit into the extremist camp or the government camp that are fleeing.
There’s a soldier I served with, he came to the US as a refugee in the 90s and, as soon as he turned 18, he joined the United States Army because he wanted to give back to the country that gave him so much. Ironically, once he passed his infantry training, they sent him to do peacekeeping operations back to where he was from.
We need to see refugees as a raw talent worth developing.
Words As Warfare
CPM: Is there any enemy that you could see the United States declaring war against or fighting against, that would make you feel uncomfortable or compromised?
Sayed: I think if the U.S. was to declare war on a faith, whether it’s Islam, Christianity, Judaism. If tomorrow, President Obama says we’re going to attack all Protestants, because they’re the next threat, I would have to object.
CPM: (laughing) Even if it was only Unitarians?
Sayed: (laughing) Oh, well, then…
Deen: Yeah, if you’re singling out a sect, a religion, a group of people, that’s not within the Army values or Air Force values.
CPM: What if we declared Wahhabism as the problem? You guys both have intelligence backgrounds, what if the U.S. decided to target Wahhabist sects? Would that give you a problem?
Sayed: It depends — how would you do it and who would be doing it? Would you be sending Baptists to go do that? Because that would be a problem.
CPM: Let’s say you were given orders to infiltrate mosques overseas, to find out who is getting radicalized. You’re supposed to put X’s on doors, report back with who is doing the recruiting, where the weapons are being stored, that kind of thing — we want to disrupt their operations and take as many dots out of the matrix as possible.
Deen: I would have no problem with that, but I’m going to look at it as an officer. During the planning process, I might say, “OK, I know what we’re trying to do, but maybe we need to get rid of that terminology — “Wahhabism.” Sometimes people love to use key words, buzz words, no damn clue what they’re doing, they’re just mimicking what their boss might be saying.
As an officer, I think that generals get really screwed up information, because that full-bird Colonel or whoever’s briefing them doesn’t know enough to tell them what’s really going on.
CPM: Why is the terminology a problem? Is it because it’s inaccurate or just because it can piss people off for no reason?
Deen: Well, are Wahhabists a problem? Yes. Now, are all Wahhabists out to kill people? No. A good majority of the terrorists are Wahhabists, granted, but let’s not make more enemies by misrepresenting something. If you, internally, want to call them that, fine, but we have to learn how to identify things in a way that doesn’t put us in hot water if a document leaks. Terminology is very important.
CPM: So there’s very much an information operations/ psychological warfare aspect.
Deen: Right. Let’s agree on terminology that — if it’s leaked or something — doesn’t make us look like ass clowns.
Just like that old advice about when you’re writing an email, make sure you’re not saying anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with the whole world seeing.
Sayed: For me, as an enlisted guy, if we targeted Wahhabists, I’d have no issues with it. But I would make sure the leadership knows to give us time — it’s a very time-intensive process, you’re not going to see fruits right away, you’re not going to use this mission to get promoted to your star. It’s going to be longer than that.
CPM: But ideologically or morally you wouldn’t have a problem?
Sayed: No, as long as it’s done right. What I mean by that is you have to put Muslim soldiers on the ground, you have to work with other moderate Muslims — again, I don’t want to use that term, because Deen’s right about that term — and other Muslim countries.
CPM: So let me ask, what should we call “radical Islam?” Is “radical Islam” an appropriate name? Or what other name would you suggest?
Sayed: “Radicalism.” When you say someone is part of “radical Islam,” all they are hearing you say is, “I’m a part of Islam.” They don’t hear the “radical” part. Other people in the world can start to think we mean “Islam” and that Islam is inherently evil or that the radicals are only “radical” in the sense that they’re taking actions others won’t.
CPM: But isn’t “radical” too vague? Isn’t it important to connect the dots and show the common denominator between different types of bad guys? I mean, the Colorado abortion clinic shooter may be a radical, too, but he’s not part of the network we’re targeting.
Sayed: I’d use, “radical al-Qaeda terrorist,” “radical Daesh terrorist.” Don’t let them have the “Islam,” let them have their own entity. If I’m talking about a radical Boko Haram terrorist, I’m not putting anything about Islam in there. I’m not associating them with their religion, so when someone says, “I’m a Muslim,” they don’t have to wonder if that person is radicalized.
CPM: Here’s my concern. I understand we want to divorce the religion from the ideology. But I think we end up sacrificing clarity in the name of sensitivity. There’s such a thing as “radical Christianity,” and “radical Judaism,” but those aren’t our issue right now — we’re talking about “radical Islam.” The word “radical” is simply an adjective. If I meant “all Muslims,” I would say, “all Muslims,” but I don’t — I’m only talking about radical Islam.
I think that intentionally blurring our language has real consequences. Like the frequent, knee-jerk reaction following terrorist attacks where politicians or talking heads will say the attack was the work of an “isolated extremist,” or, as in the case of Nidal Hassan, the first-ever case of “pre-traumatic stress disorder” — as though there is no network, no guiding ideology, no relationship between Hassan and Anwar Al-Awlaki.
When we were fighting WWII — the gold standard of war, as far as pop culture is concerned — we didn’t split hairs over calling our enemies “Germans” or “Nazis.” If somebody said we were killing “the krauts” overseas, it was clear that we meant the Nazis, we weren’t trying to foment mass riots against German-Americans.
If clarity gets sacrificed, I think we end up confusing ourselves and quibbling over nomenclature becomes a distraction from identifying the enemy and going after them. Am I wrong?
Sayed: You have to realize that your words go further then they did in 1943. Even if you’re not a politician — you could be a celebrity, a religious leader, a pastor who has no weight, no power, and Americans all know that — but Al Jazeera plays your comments, they translate it to Arabic, and suddenly it becomes, “Reverend Chris says that Islam is the enemy because it’s radicalized.”
Donald Trump’s words don’t hold any weight to us, but somebody in, say, Indonesia, doesn’t see him as a “possible GOP presidential candidate.” Between translations and cultural differences, they’ll end up thinking that he’s actually the next president of the US.
CPM: Is it fair to say that our words are our warfare right now?
Deen: Yeah, and we suck at information operations. We don’t want to understand the ideology. For the military the easiest thing is to drop a bomb or put a bullet in you. But it’s harder to deal with the ideology. And the ideology, it’s just going to keep on going, it’s just going to morph into something else.
Sayed: Samuel Huntington had that idea about a “clash of civilizations” between East and West. I know he got it wrong — I don’t think, I know he got it wrong. The war is not Islam versus the West, it’s society versus radicalism. Every country has its own problems with radicalism and it’s funny how so many radicals kind of think alike. Whether you’re a suicide bomber for Hezbollah or a pro-Life terrorist, you can be on completely different sides of the earth, completely different ideologies, but linked by radicalization.
I think that Islam is not the enemy of the West and the West is not the enemy of Islam. I think all civilizations have to face radicalism and that’s the greatest threat to our existence.
How To End Islam’s Dark Ages
CPM: You know, the Christian Dark Ages were violent and turbulent and politically destabilizing, but they were also necessary — the Dark Ages birthed the changes, the reforms and the improvements that led, ultimately, to the Renaissance. Is it fair to say that, right now, Islam is going through its “Dark Ages?”
Deen: I do. I think it’s long overdue and we just sped up the process.
CPM: How did we speed it up?
Deen: We sped it up by giving these destabilized countries weapons, money, training.
CPM: “Destabilized countries” like…?
Deen: Like Iraq. If it didn’t have all these weapons, money and training, would you still see the rise of ISIS now? Probably not to this extent.
Or look at just about every African country. On TV, you’ll see Boko Haram is using American-made APC’s. We didn’t give them to them, we gave them to Nigeria and Boko Haram ended up taking them. Afghanistan is a mess, with all the competing interests so many countries have there.
Islam is going through a lot of turbulence, but we’ve added a lot of resources that have made it more violent.
CPM: Now you could argue they would have the money and the weapons from another source anyway.
Deen: But not high-quality weapons and not as many. There’d have been much less training and cash.
Sayed: I do have to agree that Islam is going through its own Dark Ages. A lot of it stems from globalization, because if this happened in 1900s, a lot of what’s going on now wouldn’t have happened.
If you were, say, a geologist in the 1900s, you might move to Texas or Oklahoma to work. But today, you can make more lucrative money working in a compound in Saudi Arabia and then — because you’re seen as the influential foreign advisor to a corrupt king — you are now an enemy. You may not be targeted in Saudi Arabia because the government protects you, but I can try to go to your country — I can try and hit you where it hurts you.
We’re going through our “Dark Ages” and it’s unfortunate, because the violence that should be internalized ends up dragging in the rest of the world.
CPM: What’s your greatest fear about America’s future? And what’s your greatest fear about Islam’s future?
Deen: I mean, we’re geographically isolated, so — besides killing our soldiers for no apparent reason — I don’t see any big catastrophe for us.
CPM: What do you see as the biggest threat to America right now?
CPM: In what way?
Deen: We’re trying to solve a problem that we can’t solve ourselves — a problem that needs to be solved within the Muslim countries, by the people. We need to reach out to those people and the first-generation Americans that we trust, the people who we’ve given security clearances and training to. Why are you sidelining them? Put them in. I mean otherwise —
CPM: — who are you talking about specifically when you say that?
Deen: I’m talking about people like Sayed and me. Put us in.
I had a great intelligence job, where I, it was like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. The amount of money they spent in training me ended up in a very short career, but I’m pretty sure I could have done a lot more stuff. Now I’ve gone on my own, on the private side, trying to still do the same thing. So use us or we’re going to have to do it ourselves.
Sayed: I feel that the greatest threat to both America and to Islam is radicalization. Let’s take America for a second. You and I could have different viewpoints, different religions, but at the end of the day we can come together, regardless of what we think and we can work for a common goal, we can strategize.
But I feel like that could change. I feel sometimes our secular nature is on the line. I don’t care if someone doesn’t believe in God. I don’t care what they believe. I tell people I’m not trying to change your views on Muslims, I just want to make sure you have the right information. If, at the end of the day, you still think we’re bad, fine, but let’s be professional, because we’re both Americans. Maybe I’ll change your opinion because of who I am as a professional even though you’ll see that I do things differently.
For Islam, the radicalization is going to destroy us. One of the very important things that Islam prides itself on is education. In fact, one of the oldest modern universities, University of al-Qarawiyyin, was founded by a Muslim woman. She’s was a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but you have these radicals who are telling young girls not to go to school and they kill women for going there.
It’s disturbing, because education is the foundation of Islam. The daughters have to be educated, because they’re the mothers of the future. If we don’t fight that radicalization we’re doomed.
CPM: What could the government do?
Deen: How about you give the people that have the experience — military experience, intelligence experience, academic experience — find those people that have those three backgrounds. I’m pretty sure that out of 200, 300 million people in America, we have enough Muslims that fit that profile, have that security clearance — give them the platform to address some of these topics.
I’m not trying to take away from the Muslims that went to Yale or Harvard. Hey, they’re great, they bring something to the table, but they are not experienced in the combat stuff. They’re not experienced in the intelligence-gathering side of the house. Get those people on board with some of those academics and let’s have a debate, let’s have a working group and try to figure this out.
You have the new ISIS Czar — what are that new ISIS Czar’s qualifications to fight ISIS? I would like to know, because I don’t think he really has that much in terms of combat and intelligence gathering and insight into the Muslim religion. Granted he is an academic, but he is missing the other vital pieces of the puzzle. What’s his experience with the Muslim community, both in-house and overseas?
Sayed: And that’s not just with Muslims. One of my soldiers was South Korean, smart — the full package. Army MI didn’t utilize him, they let a great resource just waste away, so he went and applied for the CIA. I only know because he became very depressed afterwards and told me they wouldn’t hire him because he was a first-generation American and they couldn’t “trust” him.
Now he works in the financial industry, he’s making money hand-over-fist and he doesn’t care, but I know deep down for the sacrifices he made to enlist and I know how good an asset he could have been for the country. We have a problem here where we’re not fulfilling our potential.
Who Can Americans Trust About Islam?
CPM: I’m remembering that infamous example when, just after 9/11, The New York Times ran a high-profile piece on a moderate imam in Northern Virginia who could bridge both East and West. The Times declared him someone Americans could trust as a voice of moderate Islam. Of course, that imam turned out to be Anwar al-Awlaki.
Something like that makes a lot of Americans go, “Jesus, I know nothing about these people. I can’t tell who’s good and who isn’t.”
So, what sources do you guys think Americans should trust when we want some insight into Islam or the Middle East or terrorism?
Deen: I don’t really think any sources really. Every news agency has their own slant. My advice is to watch everything and do a little bit of homework.
CPM: Is there a Muslim commentator or someone who seems to really have the pulse of the Muslim street? Somebody who makes you go, “Man I’m glad he or she’s on TV.”
Deen: Maybe Reza Aslan. I’m not a big fan of Fareed Zakaria. I really don’t like Peter Bergen.
A lot of these analysts are educated, but they don’t seem like they’re honestly trying to solve any problems. They add to either a false sense of security or a misrepresentation of things.
Like I said, a lot of people don’t know about Islam, terrorism or counterterrorism. Americans watch these people without realizing that they are paid or part of think tanks that have their own agendas. I think maybe it’s time CNN or FOX start putting out disclaimers on some of their analysts.
CPM: Everyone’s got a bias.
Sayed: Reza Aslan can be a good source, although I have some problems with him. For example, in Islam, we don’t believe Jesus was crucified on the cross, Jesus is a prophet — we believe he ascended to heaven before the crucifixion and a murderer, a look-alike, was put in his place. Reza Aslan, as far as I know, believes that Jesus was crucified. And there are a few other things he says that I don’t agree with.
I’ve heard some pretty good lectures on YouTube and elsewhere by Suhaib Webb, Nouman Ali Kahn and Ashaki Taha-Cisse. But I’m more about books than pundits and there are three books I can recommend — two, I have read. The one I have not — but I’ve heard great things about — is Islam by Karen Armstrong.
Deen: Oh yeah, she’s a good author. She’s very good. I’ve read a few Karen Armstrong books.
Sayed: The reason I recommend her is because she is not a Muslim, so she gives a non-Muslim, objective opinion about Islam.
The second book, which I have read, is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I think it’s a great example of how proper Islam changed a man who was radicalized by the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X is very clear that it was Islam’s fault that African Americans and other Americans were being radicalized by a perversion of Islam, because no one was out there countering NOI’s message.
The last one is a book I read when I was downrange — I was actually in the same camp as the writer. It’s called, Sunset Tales from the New Iraq and there’s four different stories —
CPM: — is it fiction or non-fiction?
Sayed: Non-fiction. And I have no affiliation with any of these authors, but I do have —
CPM: (laughing) — kickbacks.
Sayed: (laughing) Yeah, I’m in cahoots with Karen Armstrong.
But seriously, I think the books are better because they’re self-paced and they give you a much stronger foundation that a lot of hearsay on TV.
I just thought of something else. There’s this dark, dark, dark British comedy called Four Lions about four guys who want to become suicide bombers. The writer actually took some of the real dialogue from MI5, MI6 sting operations. It’s an amazing comedy and then you realize these were actual lines they pulled from radicalized people who actually wanted to do these things. It’s pretty scary, but it also makes the point about how people who want to do this kind of stuff are idiots.
Deen: As far as sources go, we need to stop bringing converted jihadists on TV and using them like spokespersons. I don’t believe that anyone who wanted to kill Americans — or any innocent people — will just suddenly have an epiphany and say, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m going to find out the root cause of this.” They’re just using us for a buck.
And stop bringing former Muslims who hate Muslims onto TV.
I also don’t give any credence to someone who wasn’t born in the US. A lot of the older generation was very grateful that they came here and they have a bias. They’re sometimes too pro-American. It’s good to know your deficiencies, because if you don’t know your deficiencies then you can’t fix them. If you’re too grateful that the country saved you, then you’ll sometimes put blinders on.
Not to say the older generation is not good, but they’re outdated. They don’t understand how things work. Sometimes, they’re too outwardly assimilated into this country, which isn’t a bad thing, but you can lose your identity. If you’re name is Mohammad, but now you want to be called Mo, fine, that’s great, that’s your thing — but I want to at least talk to someone who has self-worth. Don’t lose that uniqueness — that’s what makes America great, that blend of things.
I think the first-generation American Muslims need more of a platform. If you don’t give them a platform, you’re going to lose them to some of those other groups — and that’s what is happening.
CPM: That brings up even more questions, but you guys have been awesome with your time, so we’ll end it here. I really appreciate your honesty, your passion and your service to our country. Thanks for killing an afternoon to talk with me today.
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