Lessons in mind games

Michael Widlanski expounds on his new book about how to win war on terror

Michael Widlanski 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Widlanski 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Michael Widlanski is an Israeli specialist in Arab affairs and Muslim terrorism. His decades of insights into how to combat radical Islamists have now been compiled into an explosive new book titled Battle for our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat (New York: Threshold Editions, a division of Simon and Schuster, 373 pages).
The book charges that a triangulation of Western academics, media personalities and intelligence analysts have worked to downplay the threat of radical Islam, justify the actions of Muslim terrorists and hamper our ability to defend democratic freedoms.
Widlanski also argues that the war on terror has been prolonged by a failure to recognize it is primarily a battle of the minds.
Widlanski is not coy about naming the objects of his scorn. In academia, he exposes such subversive figures as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, John Esposito and other Arabists entrenched in our Western universities. He flays open the dubious journalism practiced by Thomas Friedman, Robert Fisk, Christiane Amanpour and Eason Jordan, among others. Finally, he hammers our intelligence experts – such as former CIA chief George Tenet, the agency’s top Osama bin Laden hunter Michael Scheuer and intel maven Paul Pillar – for their lack of even a basic understanding of Arabic language and culture.
“Our elites often undermined the moral justice of fighting hard against terror,” Widlanski insists. “They educated us and our youth that fighting was futile because there was no way we could really win, or that our strenuous efforts were as bad as the means used by the terrorist themselves.”
The Christian Edition recently sat down with Widlanski, a fluent Arabic speaker, for a fuller assessment on why we are failing to defeat Islamic terrorism.
To get a better sense of your own background, your new book criticizes certain Western academics, journalists and intelligence experts for undermining the war on terror, but you have worn all three hats yourself, correct?
That’s right! I basically grew up at The New York Times, and I’ve been a reporter on-and-off for 40 years, since high school. I’ve worked with IDF Radio, Israeli television, Cox newspapers and a lot of places. I also have five academic degrees on three continents – Columbia University in New York, the American University of Cairo and Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. I have been teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for 20 years and I’m moving to Bar-Ilan now as well as teaching at the Shalem Center. And I’ve also been in government intelligence. I served as strategic affairs adviser for Israel’s Public Security Ministry, which is the equivalent of the US Department of Homeland Security. [Widlanski was also the official compiler, translator and editor of captured PLO archives.]
I remember first becoming acquainted with your work during the Oslo years, when you were putting out a daily summary of the Palestinian media broadcasts and were really one of the first to identify the problem of Yasser Arafat saying one thing in English about peace with Israel, but having a very different message for his own people in Arabic.
Yes, that was actually the beginning of my doctorate, which was based on listening to over 7,000 radio hours of Palestinian broadcasting in Arabic...
So give us a basic summary of your new book ‘Battle for our Minds.’
 Briefly, what I say is terrorism begins and ends as a battle for the mind. The terrorist is not after seizing our territory; obviously he would like to do that, but he is more interested in seizing the territory between our two ears.

With fear or with ideology?
Both! The idea basically is to gain control of us. Fear is obviously a very big part of it, basically to get a modern democratic country and society to give up or to change in the way that the terrorists want them to change. That is the goal.
Most people are not terror experts, or experts in Arabic or Farsi (Persian). They are not experts in combined forces theory.
So we have to rely on experts to help us, those people who are in our media, our academia and our government intelligence agencies. They are the gatekeepers to our minds. And when they, instead of being watchdogs, become lapdogs for terrorists, we’re in trouble. And what I say in the book is, that’s what they have been for the last 40 years, and I name names... From the heads of the CIA to CNN, you name it, I go after them all.
Okay, so let’s name some names. What are some examples from the media?
Firstly, you can look at Thomas Friedman, the New York Times reporter based in Beirut who won multiple Pulitzer prizes, unprecedented. He is a man who basically took the cause of the PLO and legitimized it, even though they were the pioneering group for the Arab and Islamic terror that we face today.
They pioneered global terrorism...
Absolutely! What was the Munich massacre? That was the PLO operating 40 years ago, in the 1972 Olympics.
Hijacking planes was the PLO’s business card. That is where it began and people in our own government and in our own newspapers covered for them. Tom Friedman and some of the other reporters, [such as] John Kifner, used to say that the PLO protected journalists in Beirut. Well, I operated in Beirut a few times and I know just how protected those journalists were. They were being shot at, they were being threatened, they were called in during the middle of the night for a little talk with Arafat at 3 a.m., when Arafat would say: “I didn’t like what you said about me in the newspaper today.” That is all he had to say. And the fact that they brought you to his office at three in the morning with a couple of armed people, meant that they could take you and do whatever they wanted... So afterward, you were a “good boy.” And that is what Tom was for the PLO...
And he still is in one sense, for the PLO and for the Saudis?
Yeah, for the Saudis in a big way after 9/11. He basically became their messenger boy, saying that the Saudis are coming out with a brand new peace plan, when we all knew that 15 of the 19 hijackers on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudis, and a product of Saudi Wahhabi ideology. And so for Friedman to help the Saudi brand name a few months after 9/11, that was “manna from heaven” for Riyadh...
We could spend hours just naming other media outlets, but let’s move on to the academic world. Who has been providing cover for the Islamic terrorists there?
Well, the academic world is especially important. Our universities are where it begins. That’s where the people who become our diplomats, our top correspondents and the people who become the head of the CIA, where they all study. A view took hold in the academia in the mid-1970s, led by Prof.
Edward Said of Columbia University, which said: Do not look too closely at the Arab world, at the Islamic world, because that means you are trying to colonize it, you are trying to dominate it. You shouldn’t do that. You should trust the Arabs to tell you what they are.
You shouldn’t try to look and understand it yourself, as you are a biased Westerner...
This all stems from Said’s landmark book ‘Orientalism’...
Yes! And what is interesting to note is that when I talked to Prof. Said, he almost knew no Arabic. He was not a real Arab, essentially. He was apparently born in Jerusalem in 1936 and his family moved very shortly afterward to Cairo, and then to the US, and they were an English-speaking family... His ideology took hold at Columbia, which is in its essence an anti-intellectual ideology that said, “You can’t possibly know about the East.” And so he won. We knew very little, and they got powerful and they could attack us and we weren’t ready.
He’s had a lot of influence now on the next generation of academia and also through the media. This was a very influential book.
Yes, it was influential not only because his ideas took hold. But he along with Noam Chomsky became the two most quoted academic sources on college syllabi in the United States. Why and how was this possible? Said was a professor of English and comparative literature. What does he know telling people about Islam or the Arab world? He can’t even speak Arabic himself.
When he was 40 or 45 years old, he took a trip to Beirut to try and study Arabic.
He didn’t know anything about the culture or the language, or even Islam.
Yet he was given power over hiring decisions at Columbia. He became the “patron saint” of the Middle East studies association. They named an award after him. If I tried to make this up, no one would believe me.
I know Said’s false resume has been exposed before, but it’s very interesting to know that he could not even speak any Arabic.
If you look at the sources in Orientalism, there isn’t a single Arabic source in the whole book. He is talking about other professors who speak six or seven languages and is criticizing them as being unfair and he doesn’t even know if Arabic goes from right-to-left or left-to-right.
Lastly, government intelligence. We’ve certainly had some failures there?
The head of the CIA during 9/11 was a man by the name of George Tenet. He had no business being the head of the CIA... He had never been a field agent in his life, he had never been an analyst. He was an arms control expert for the Democratic side of a congressional committee. He had degrees from Columbia and Georgetown, and was a product of the “institutions.” When he was named head of the CIA, an incredible thing happened. A group of field agents tried to stop his appointment and wrote the president because they thought that he was not qualified for the job.
Tenet then went on to promote the career of someone by the name of Michael Scheuer, who was the head of the bin Laden unit. This was someone who didn’t know a word of Arabic, no history, no nothing. He was never a field agent. Lastly, he seemed to hold views, to me at least, that seemed very anti- Semitic. He blamed the whole 9/11 attack on American support of Israel...
He was busy lecturing the world about what a good man bin Laden was, and what a good Muslim he was, and that he admired bin Laden, and was admired by bin Laden.
This is the guy in charge of the US effort to capture or kill bin Laden?
Yes, and that might be why they didn’t do such a good job in getting him. And the fact that it took so long leaves something to be said about the CIA and their methodology. Tenet didn’t want to use drone attacks to hit bin Laden. He said, “That’s not my job.” Amazing stuff! I could not make this up.
Apparently, US President Barack Obama has now bought into using drones, but it was an Israeli strategy – which was often criticized – to use drone attacks to target known terrorists as long as you minimize collateral damage of nearby civilians. Now the US has accepted it. What has been Israel’s contributions to the war on terror?
They have shown that terrorism is not just another crime. It’s not aimed at one person. It’s aimed at society in general.
And that is why it has to be dealt with in a totally different manner. You can’t prosecute terror, you must prevent terror. And the way to prevent it is to stop the organization’s money transfers, stop the ideological training and the recruitment facilities. And if necessary, kill the leaders of terror.
And what more can we be doing in order to better prosecute the war on terror?
First of all, we have made tremendous achievements in the war on terror. I think the Bush administration took the war on terror very seriously. They called it a war, they understood it wasn’t just a local police matter... The Clinton administration attitude towards terrorism was that it should be treated as an anti-crime operation and they centered it in the Department of Justice and the FBI... Obama, meanwhile, has been saying Guantanamo is a terrible place and should be closed down. Yet we finally got enough information from the inmates at Guantanamo to finally track down Osama bin Laden. So how about saying, “Thank you Guantanamo! Thank you George Bush, thank you Navy SEALs, thank you CIA interrogators.” But instead we’re getting presidential campaign ads saying, “I did it, I directed it.” You know it’s a little over the top.