With less than a year left in office, the Bush administration is rewriting its "war on terror" lexicon.
Documents obtained by the Associated Press news agency show officials in federal agencies have been asked not to use the terms jihadists and mujahideen, describe al-Qaida as a movement, or refer to Islamo-fascism.
Staff of the state department, homeland security department and national counterterrorism centre, as well as diplomats and other officials, have been told that various words in common use may actually boost support for extremists among Arab and Muslim audiences by giving them a veneer of religious credibility or causing offence to moderates.
The new guidance explains that while Americans may understand jihad to mean holy war, it is in fact a broader Islamic concept of the struggle to do good. Similarly, mujahideen, which means those engaged in jihad, must be seen in its broader context.
US officials may be "unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims".
A homeland security report, Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims, said: "Regarding jihad, even if it is accurate to reference the term, it may not be strategic because it glamorises terrorism, imbues terrorists with religious authority they do not have and damages relations with Muslims around the world."
Language is critical in fighting terror, says another document, an internal "official use only" memorandum circulating through Washington titled Words that Work and Words that Don't: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication.
The memo, originally prepared in March by the extremist messaging branch at the national counterterrorism centre, was approved for diplomatic use this week by the state department, which officials said would be distributing a version to all US embassies.
"It's not what you say, but what they hear," the memo says in bold italic lettering, listing 14 points about how to improve the presentation of the anti-terror campaign.
"Don't take the bait," it says, urging officials not to react when Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida affiliates speak. "We should offer only minimal, if any, response to their messages. When we respond loudly, we raise their prestige in the Muslim world."
The memo warns: "Don't compromise our credibility" by using words and phrases that may ascribe benign motives to terrorists.
Instead of using jihadist, officials are advised to "use the terms violent extremist or terrorist. Both are widely understood terms that define our enemies appropriately and simultaneously deny them any level of legitimacy."
On the other hand, they are told to avoid ill-defined and offensive terminology: "We are communicating with, not confronting, our audiences. Don't insult or confuse them with pejorative terms such as Islamo-fascism, which are considered offensive by many Muslims."
The memo says the advice is not binding and does not apply to official policy papers but should be used as a guide for conversations with Muslims and the media.
At the top level, it appears to have made an impact. The secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who once frequently referred to jihad in her public remarks, does not appear to have used the word since September, except when talking about the name of a specific terror group.
The memo mirrors advice distributed to British and EU diplomats last year for anti-terror discussions with European Muslims.
It draws heavily on a homeland security report that examined the way American Muslims react to different phrases used by US officials to describe terrorists and recommended ways to improve the message.
That report, released in January and obtained by the Associated Press this week, advised "caution in using terms such as jihadist, Islamic terrorist, Islamist and holy warrior as grandiose descriptions" because of their religious connotations.
"We should not concede the terrorists' claim that they are legitimate adherents of Islam," the report said, adding that Bin Laden and his adherents feared "irrelevance" more than anything else. "We must carefully avoid giving Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders the legitimacy they crave, but do not possess, by characterising them as religious figures, or in terms that may make them seem to be noble in the eyes of some."
© 2008 The Guardian