Donald Trump came to the presidency on a wave of overheated rhetoric about the terrorist threat, the failures of his predecessors, and promises, as he said in his inaugural address, to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” Four months into his term, and on the heels of Saturday’s terrorist attack in London, which killed seven and injured dozens in the third attack in Britain in three months, it’s worth asking: Is Trump actually delivering decisive counterterrorism?
Let’s break it down. Yes, he’s been decisive and even dramatic, from the issuance of his initial travel ban a week after being inaugurated to his May trip to Riyadh, where he tried to galvanize the Muslim world against terror. But it isn’t serious counterterrorism—that is, policy that will diminish the terrorist threat—that he is producing. Instead, Trump’s steps so far seem to be designed to exacerbate the danger and lengthen the life expectancy of jihadism.
Of course, many of the policies that Trump inherited remain—somewhat reassuringly—in place. In the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the central theater of the fight against terror, the administration continues to pursue the strategy of the Obama administration, despite Trump’s many campaign claims that he had a super double-top-secret plan in the waiting. A mix of airstrikes from drones and manned aircraft against ISIS leadership targets, special forces raids and military advisory and training assistance to the Iraqi army, Kurdish and other anti-ISIS force is whittling down the so-called caliphate, whose days as an extremist enclave are numbered. A spike in civilian casualties may mean that targeting restrictions have been relaxed—which the Pentagon denies—but the strategy is fundamentally unchanged.
Moreover, Trump has either not pursued some of the measures that most appalled his critics or been thwarted in his efforts to do so. He has not, so far as we know, reinstituted torture or ordered the killing of families of terrorists, though some recent strikes have raised questions. His effort to curtail Muslim immigration into the United States, as expressed in two successive executive orders, has been held up in the courts because, in no small measure, Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric has convinced judges that he is driven by discriminatory intent, not national security concerns. (An amicus brief filed by 40 senior former national security officials debunked the administration’s claims that a ban would enhance U.S. security, demonstrating instead that such action would diminish it.) Trump, though, is not giving up, and the administration last week asked the Supreme Court to overturn the decision of appellate and district courts around the country and reinstate the bar to entry for citizens of six overwhelmingly Muslim countries.
What is new and deeply worrisome so far is Trump’s rebalancing of our relationships in the Middle East and hyper-militarization of the fight against terror. His actions will heighten sectarian tensions in the Middle East and only strengthen the forces driving radicalization and violence across the region.
During the campaign, Trump vowed to improve relations with Arab countries, though comments such as “there is a sickness at the heart of Islam” and “I think Islam hates us” made many, myself included, wonder whether regional leaders would engage with him.
That, however, was shortchanging Trump, who seems to have an instinctive understanding of those who lead without the consent of their citizens. His swift dismissal of historic U.S. concerns about democracy and human rights launched the monarchs and autocrats of the Sunni world into a swoon, erasing any fears about the long-term effects of his demagoguery. That’s not just bad for those who care about human rights—it could be disastrous for global security. Giving, for example, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a pass on his campaign of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood and other regime opponents, will, over the long term, accelerate the production of jihadis. Some of the wellsprings of the modern jihad flowed from the Egyptian jail cells and torture chambers that housed Islamist thinker Sayid Qutb and future Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Why would anyone think that reproducing that past will lead to a different kind of future?
Equally alarming, Trump threw his full weight behind the sectarian agenda of the Saudis and their Gulf allies, saying in his Riyadh speech, “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran.”
If eclipsing Obama in the hearts of the Saudis was Trump’s goal, his denunciation of the Islamic Republic more than did the trick. Of course, it helps that the administration, while waiving some sanctions on Iran as required by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear program, is supporting Congress’ move to impose other new sanctions on Tehran, and may want to step up covert operations against the Islamic Republic. Both these moves add credence to concerns that the administration aims to provoke the Iranians to walk away from the landmark 2016 nuclear deal and to pursue a strategy of regime change.
This is a recipe for trouble. Strengthening ties with the Riyadh is not, by definition, a bad idea: Our bilateral intelligence relationship is vital for U.S. counterterrorism, and we have plenty of other shared interests. Iran, moreover, with its habits of supporting terrorism and subversion, is no one’s idea of a responsible regional actor. But lining up right behind the Saudis against Iran is a dangerous play. (And, notably, Trump appears to have given Riyadh this bear hug without even discussing with them the decades-old da’wa,or missionary work, they do that has spread a fundamentalist brand of Islam around the world and provided the seedbed for jihadism.)
Though Tehran’s misdeeds require tough responses, sending the message that the U.S. takes the same view of Iran as the Saudis and is determined to harm or replace the Iranian regime could provoke that country to break out of the agreement and race for the bomb, leading to a likely regional war that would include the U.S. That, in turn, will further strengthen the Iranian hard-liners who control the security establishment and undermine pragmatists like the just-reelected President Hassan Rouhani.
Even if tensions don’t reach that peak and all parties continue to observe their Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action responsibilities, Trump’s posture toward Iran will likely embolden the Saudis and sharpen sectarian antipathy, which has already reached a high water mark in recent years. Taking this tack bespeaks an impressive obliviousness to recent history. While it is hard to disentangle all the many causes of extremism, sectarianism has clearly been a key ingredient in the vile stew that has nourished the jihadist movement over the past five years. There are many reasons why ISIS, which appealed to all kinds of fantasies about creating a new and authentic caliphate, has been vastly more popular than Al Qaeda. But the attraction of taking vengeance on Syrian Alawites (who are lumped together with Shia in Sunni demonology), as well as the Shia of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Iraqi militias and Lebanese Hezbollah, for killing Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis was certainly a prominent reason.
It’s worth remembering that for much of the time since the U.S. displaced Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, and certainly since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, a mixture of sectarian hatred and geopolitical rivalry between the Gulf Arabs and Iran has been the defining characteristic of the region, not concern about jihadism. (The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, with its anemic Arab support, is the most telling confirmation of this.) Regional rivals for decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have sought to mobilize Shia and Sunni masses around the region as this competition has deepened. Events crested with the Syrian civil war. Only in the aftermath of Russia’s move to prop up the Syrian regime in 2015 have the Saudis and their allies finally ratcheted back their efforts to arm, recruit and pay Sunni forces in the region fighting the Assad regime—including some whom the U.S. considers terrorists.
The U.S. would be much better served by a regional initiative to reduce Saudi-Iranian tensions, not to stoke them. But the sectarian dimension of the terrorist phenomenon—the notion that this religious conflict is breeding jihadis, some of whom may wind up attacking the West—has been wholly lost on the White House.
Just look at what’s happening in Yemen. The Trump team seems eager to deepen U.S. support for the Saudis and Emiratis in the misbegotten war in that country, a conflict that is Exhibit A for the danger of viewing all the region’s troubles through the prism of Iranian trouble-making. The Obama administration, in an effort to shore up an ally that was disgruntled by our refusal to lead a military campaign into Syria or bomb Iran, supported the Saudi campaign and tried to help Riyadh’s forces keep from targeting civilians. Even that accommodation came with questionable costs, as Yemeni civilians were repeatedly bombed and the campaign descended into chaos. Yet since coming into office, the Trump team has solidified U.S. involvement, and reports frequently portray the administration as looking for a way to deepen efforts as a way of beating back Iran.
The Iranians, it is true, have delivered arms to the Houthi rebels who drove out the Saudi-backed Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2014. But the Houthis are hardly in the back pocket of Iran. They are Zaydi Shiites, part of a sect that ruled much of Yemen for more than a thousand years whose members have long prayed side by side with Sunnis. They aren’t wild-eyed Hezbollahis, and more important than Iranian assistance to the Houthis was the side-switching of longtime Yemeni ruler—and Zaydi and former Saudi client—Ali Abdullah Saleh, who led his tribal allies to join with Houthis in the fight against the Hadi government. Saleh, who had been ousted from power in the Arab Spring uprising, chafed on the sidelines and decided he wanted to run the show again in Sanaa.
Iran’s support has undoubtedly helped the Houthis, but casting the war in Yemen as a major Iranian play for regional control misses the point and sets the stage for a misbegotten U.S. engagement. It’s worth noting, by the way, that as their campaign has bogged down, the Saudis have found themselves in precisely the trap the Iranians devised for them: The Saudis are tied down and being bled dry, but they have staked so much credibility on their campaign that they refuse to look for an exit that would give the appearance of victory to Tehran. During his visit to the Middle East in May, Trump signed deals with the Saudis worth $110 billion in U.S. arms, some of which can be used for Yemen, and will undoubtedly contribute to the extraordinary misery of that country, a humanitarian disaster complete with famine, cholera and the poor targeting of Saudi aircraft.
Whether or not war is the father of all things, pace Heraclitus, it is certainly the progenitor of many, many jihadis. Both Syria, as mentioned, and Yemen are textbook cases of how the moil of conflict drives radicalization. In Yemen, as the International Crisis Group and others have pointed out, the civil war has given Al Qaeda a major boost such that the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda "is stronger than it has ever been.” We’re not talking about growth at the margins. As counterterror expert Ali Soufan and others note, the group’s numbers are climbing into the thousands. The centrality of conflict as a driver of extremism can hardly be overstated. This is why fighters from the small Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, where Russia has fought repeated campaigns, are among the most numerous in Syria. The fighting in their homelands and repression has radicalized young men en masse.
For much of the Obama administration, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in Yemen was viewed as a more imminent threat than core Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the biggest near miss of the Obama years came when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear failed to blow up on the Northwest flight into Detroit on Christmas Day, underwear that he was equipped with by AQAP. For now, AQAP is focused on winning and holding territory in Yemen. But it is believed to still harbor ambitions to execute “out of area” attacks, and to count in its ranks some highly capable bomb makers. If Al Qaeda and ISIS begin to compete for jihadist allegiances by attacking the West, AQAP will be at the forefront. Yes, we need to destroy the leadership cadres of terrorist organizations and the cells and networks that threaten us. But if Trump wants to face fewer of these jihadis, he should try to stop the conflicts that breed extremism, not inflame them.
All the evidence, however, suggests that the Trump administration is giving no thought to conflict resolution or the kind of post-conflict reconstruction that would help countries like Yemen establish a measure of security and build—difficult as that would be—economies that could absorb men who otherwise might turn to wage-paying extremist groups. Given time—admittedly, often lots of time—such efforts can succeed. In Somalia, a country in which al-Shabab once ruled numerous cities and towns, the group is now hiding in the countryside. While it still carries out serious bombing attacks, the effort of the Obama administration and the EU, together with neighboring African countries, has brought that country more stability than it had in two decades. Security was a big part of that, and AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia) and Somali forces trained by U.S. contractors made a big difference, together with European economic support. That should count as progress, and more countries need that kind of dedicated engagement. Libya, for example, could also use a concerted strategy to wipe out the jihadis and reestablish order. But while Trump and his minions declare their horror at the carnage in Manchester, the notion of actually trying to join with other nations to stabilize that chaotic country, where Manchester bomber Salman Abedi was apparently radicalized, is a dead letter.
Among the many revelations that have filled in the picture of Trump’s bizarre intellectual world of late has been his ideas about the harmfulness of exercise—he believes that an individual, like a battery, possesses a finite amount of energy that is expended over a lifetime. He seems to have a similar idea about terrorists: Implicitly, there is a limited number of them, and our problem will go away if we kill them all.
Unfortunately, every piece of evidence from the past 20 years of fighting terrorism shows that the population of jihadis can grow dynamically depending on events. With the paralysis of the Trump/Tillerson State Department, where there are almost no Senate-confirmed officeholders at the assistant secretary level or higher and the plan is to gut the State Department/USAID budget by close to a third, it is hard to envision any kind of future for the sort of diplomacy and development we need to diminish the jihadi threat. Trump unwittingly is setting the stage for major growth in the population of people who would like to kill us.
Will anyone tell him that?