State Dept. Official: ISIS Terror Motivated by Joblessness

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State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf is the target of a satirical #ISISjobs hashtag after saying that the root cause of the Islamic State (ISIS) is unemployment and poverty. There’s a bigger, less humorous point to be made: Her invalid views were held by the past two administrations, and Harf, herself, was a Middle East analyst for the CIA and national security communications advisor to President Obama during the 2012 campaign.

“We cannot win the War on Terror, nor can we win the war on ISIS by killing them. We need to find them jobs. We need to get to the root cause of terrorism and that is poverty and lack of opportunity in the terrorist community,” she said.

That didn’t fly with MSNBC host Chris Matthews, to whom she made the comments. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer politely held back some of his puzzlement when she defended herself on his program afterwards. She smugly said that “it might be too nuanced an argument for some.”

Study after study has proven that there is no connection between Islamist terrorist recruitment and poverty, unemployment and lack of education. This was the conclusion of a survey of 400 Al-Qaeda members all the way back in 2004, as well as the determination of a Queen Mary University survey published last year.

Simple observations and basic logic falsifies this Marxism-rooted theory that terrorism is basically the result of class warfare and social inequality. The top terrorists are highly educated and usually come from the middle class or higher. And, obviously, the purpose of having a job is to improve one’s life. Joining a terrorist group isn’t exactly a promising career choice.

The issue here isn’t the errors made by Harf. It’s the fact that this discredited premise continues to permeate the national security apparatus over a dozen years after the 9/11 attacks. Harf wasn’t speaking off the cuff. Consider her biography and the broader implications of the kind of influence she has had based on the positions she has held.

Harf started as a Middle East analyst in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, where her assessments sometimes made it into the president’s daily briefing. She then became the CIA media spokesperson. This indicates our best analysts are beholden to flawed assumptions that should have been discarded long ago.

Next, Harf  joined President Obama’s re-election campaign and, as per her bio, “was responsible for all national security and foreign policy issues on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.” She oversaw his national security-related messaging. She then advised (former) Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and, finally, became the State Department’s Deputy Spokesperson in June 2013.

The same misunderstanding that Harf espouses was held by President George W. Bush and is still maintained by Secretary of State John Kerry. President Obama said that the vicious Boko Haram terrorist group is a byproduct of poverty and inadequate social services. Harf quoted U.S. Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell and claimed her view reflects the consensus of military and counter-terrorism experts.

This gives us a look into the federal government’s inability or unwillingness to change conventional wisdom, even when confronted with facts and credible academic studies. Harf is just the face of a government stuck on autopilot.

This has severe national security repercussions. Look no further than Major-General Michael Nagata, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, who said of the Islamic State last year, “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

This is outrageous because the Islamic State doesn’t leave much room for interpretation about its beliefs. It spells it out clearly in its English-magazine magazines, publicly lays out its Islamic interpretations and explains its ideology in its bloody video releases with English captions.

It’s outrageous, but not surprising if you look at the pattern since 9/11 and especially since the Islamic State burst onto the scene. You can’t possibly grasp and counter the Islamic State’s ideas if you somehow believe that rejected job applications compel people to become Islamist executioners.

Harf’s embarrassing flub is the result of the administration’s policy of bending over backwards to deny the Islamist ideological source of the threat. President Obama even went so far as to deny that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state; both of which it clearly is, regardless of whether Muslims view the group’s  Islam and its state as legitimate.

This is what happens when you deny the existence of an ideology that most Americans and Arab leaders like the Tunisian and Egyptian Presidents clearly see in front of their eyes. Non-descript terminology like “Countering Violent Extremism” is becoming an exponentially greater source of frustration for Americans as a specific ideology is displayed in video after video.

This is the second time that the State Department’s ideology-denial has led Harf to embarrass herself on national television. 

President Obama spoke about the Islamic State at the United Nations and upheld a terrorism-supporting cleric who authorized killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq as a model Muslim ally. If that wasn’t bad enough, the State Department had to apologize for doing the same thing only months earlier.

Harf was deployed to appear on the Kelly File to try to give something remotely resembling a coherent explanation. She did not even know about the State Department’s earlier mistake and questioned the credibility of reporting about the “moderate” cleric, only to retreat when given the facts.

The interview went so poorly that Megyn Kelly tried to help her out with some sympathy, saying, “You handle yourself well. I apologize because they [the State Department] put you in a very difficult position today. It wasn’t me. It was them.”

Yet, Harf stated strongly that she believed every word of what she said. She stuck to her guns that choosing the Islamist cleric as the Muslim model against the Islamic State was the right decision.


This episode isn’t about a State Department spokesperson sticking her foot in her mouth. It’s about a policy where the U.S. government publicly grasps for straws to find any explanation for the Isalmic State other than Islamic extremism. And, even more disappointingly, Harf and other top policy-makers actually believe easily discredited theories and use them to accomplish that counterproductive objective.


Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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