WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s comments about the state of the war on terror, along with the policies his administration is rolling out in his first week in office, have left longtime analysts alarmed over the possibility that the very groups he wants defeated will instead be further emboldened.
“It’s not probably enough to dramatically expand their relatively minuscule base of support in the Muslim world, but for a group like [the Islamic State], they don’t have to mobilize 1,000 people,” J.M. Berger, fellow at the International Centre for Counter-terrorism in The Hague, Netherlands, and author of ISIS: The State of Terror, wrote in a Tuesday email. “If they mobilize an extra 10 so-called ‘lone wolf’ attackers in the course of a year, that’s a big deal for them.”
Trump has long pledged a more blunt, confrontational approach to militant Islamist groups. But his first few days as president have highlighted the challenge of using campaign-trail rhetoric while actually running the U.S. government. Since Friday, the president has embraced positions that past commanders in chief have long avoided.
In his inaugural address, Trump broke with his two predecessors by declaring a war on “radical Islamic terrorism,” thereby conflating the religion of Islam ― practiced by over 1 billion people ― with vicious fringe groups exploiting controversial interpretations of Islamic teachings. The next day, he told an audience of cherry-picked supporters and some CIA staff that previous administrations should have stolen oil from Iraq. The U.S. could still do so, Trump suggested, raising the specter of a renewed confrontation between Iraqi militias, strongly supported by Iran, and the more than 5,000 American troops stationed in Iraq to help the country’s government defeat ISIS.
On Wednesday morning, The New York Times reported that Trump is considering reopening secret CIA “black sites” that the Bush administration used to hold and torture primarily Muslim terror suspects. And later this week, the president is expected to impose harsh new measures against refugees, visitors and potential immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries ― justifying the move by implying that those people were likely terrorists.
Taken as a whole, these policies and utterances risk straining critical alliances and prompting blowback, terrorism experts argue. Researchers in the field have warned for years against creating the impression of a broad clash of civilizations, with the U.S. as a Christian superpower battling Islam. They note that Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail already showed the risks inherent with such a framework.
“When Trump says hateful things about Muslims, it proves that jihadists are right to fight against the West, because the West is against Islam,” one ISIS fighter told researchers writing for Foreign Affairs magazine last summer. Earlier in the year, The Associated Press found that an al Qaeda-affiliated recruitment video featured footage of Trump suggesting a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. And the then-candidate’s constant questioning of Muslims’ place in Western societies has lined up neatly with ISIS’s long-stated goal of destroying “the grayzone” of religious coexistence and convincing more and more Muslims to see violent radicalism as their only chance to assert themselves.
Prior to Trump’s inauguration, ISIS had used his image twice in montages showing Western leaders whom Muslims should oppose, according to Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.
After Trump’s election, observers hoped that the gravity of the office would dull his rhetoric. But the first week has only worsened matters, analysts say.
Trump has offered renewed hope to terror groups weakened by a two-year U.S. campaign in Iraq and Syria, according to Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank and veteran of the U.S. Army, FBI and Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He believes that both al Qaeda and the Islamic State could feel incentivized to attack the West in hopes of provoking an overreaction, drawing the U.S. into unwinnable wars and proving themselves more worthy of fresh support than groups more concerned with local conflicts in the Muslim-majority world. Watts also called Trump’s selection of aides with hard-line views on Islam, like National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a worrying sign.
“It creates this clamping down … it confirms al Qaeda and ISIS narratives,” he told The Huffington Post. “The Trump narrative really entices the globalists [in the terror movement who say] you cannot go at this without taking the West out, dismantling and pushing back the West.”
Previous administrations have struggled to balance their rhetoric on the terror threat. Shortly after 9/11, former President George W. Bush spoke of confronting an “axis of evil,” for example, while early arguments for going into Iraq stoked Muslim fears that religious hatreds and a greed for oil were motivating factors. Over time, Watts noted, the Bush administration walked back some of its more strident rhetoric, with the president going out of his way to disassociate mainstream Islam from extremists claiming to embody the religion.
Trump has been far less precise in his approach. “And that’s the concern here ― making enemies out of people who were not enemies before,” Berger wrote. “That doesn’t mean that Muslims are going to flock to ISIS or al Qaeda as a result of Trump’s rhetoric, but it does complicate our ability to win support and recruit allies in the battle against extremist groups.”
As Berger notes, one of the risks Trump runs with his aggressive approach is discouraging Muslim-majority countries from being associated with the United States. Nations like Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain all work closely with the U.S. on combating ISIS and other groups.
“The Bush and Obama administrations were able to cajole positive steps from Muslim-majority countries, in terms of cracking down on terrorist financing and travel, and in many other areas,” Berger wrote. “If the United States is not seen as a friendly partner, those gains are at risk.”
With less bigotry and bluster, the new president’s approach might have some value. Some Muslim scholars believe it is fair to say there is something “Islamic” about the terror groups the U.S. is fighting in the Middle East and elsewhere. They say peaceful Muslims and their defenders go too far in distancing militants from Islam, and they urge more honesty about the dangers of fundamentalist interpretations of the religion.
Rasha Al Aqeedi, a fellow at the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai, believes using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” could actually encourage stronger internal resistance to terror groups in the Muslim-majority world. “It forces the hundreds of millions of Muslims who wholeheartedly reject ISIS to do some soul-searching. ISIS, al Qaeda, and other groups are hybrid in their nature: political, psychological, and economic reasons contribute to their rise, but so does ideology stemming from radical interpretations of Islamic and calls to politicize faith,” she wrote in a Wednesday email.
And Trump could take valuable steps if he sticks to his promise to end ISIS’s control of territory, Watts said, torpedoing the group’s boast of controlling a “caliphate” ― a major source of its recruitment success ― and shoring up U.S.-friendly governments.
But there’s a growing sense the new president will not take a nuanced look at the fight against militants or the way the U.S. should treat Muslims. A native of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which the U.S. and Iraq are trying to win back from ISIS, Al Aqeedi slammed Trump’s Iraq comments and condemned rumors of his proposing a ban on visas for Iraqis, which she worried could prevent analysts like her ― and thousands of U.S.-friendly Iraqis and Syrians ― from traveling to the U.S. to offer their expertise.
“The statements are very unfortunate,” Al Aqeedi wrote. “It’s clear that Trump doesn’t see Iraq as [an] ally, nor acknowledge that it has been fighting ISIS with all its resources and blood more than any other country in the world. Iraq was supposed to have been ‘liberated’ by the U.S., not ‘conquered.’”