A Road Not Taken: Trump Administration CT Policy

A Road Not Taken: Trump Administration CT Policy
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The President has said that terrorism is a bigger threat than Americans understand it to be. If he truly believes that, then his heavily litigated Executive Order (EO), banning Muslims from seven countries from coming to the US on a temporary basis, is an unwelcome indication that he may be missing the point about the evolution of the global terrorist threat.

In addition, the proposal to designate the Muslim Brotherhood--a diverse international organization that officially rejects violence-- a foreign terrorist organization, as well as his professed support of torture, send all the wrong signals regarding the approach of his Administration to counter terrorism (CT) policy.

Aside from the legal and values-related issues raised, these actions will do nothing to lessen the threat from ISIS or Al Qaeda (AQ). Instead, if this is the counter terrorism (CT) path the Administration follows, the American people will become more vulnerable, not less.

The terrorist threat is morphing from an entrenched ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq and an AQ in disarray to a more dispersed ISIS that is moving beyond the caliphate as its primary focus to one that is emphasizing more global jihad. AQ is regrouping and strengthening its position globally.

ISIS setbacks in Syria and Iraq, particularly the attacks against its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul, have hurt it on several levels. The attacks are eliminating a base of operation from which ISIS operated with impunity, and cutting deeply into ISIS sources of funding. They are hurting its ability to recruit fighters to defend the caliphate, and also challenging its projected image of invulnerability.

There are two schools of thought as to what a defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq might ultimately mean to the US and its allies. One school believes the collapse of the caliphate could lead to a devolution of ISIS into competing groups that would undermine its leadership, which would impact its effectiveness and message. Another school sees the splintering as creating a network of more extreme groups. It may turn out to be both, similar to what happened to Al Qaeda. For instance, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been less potent that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is considered to be not only a regional threat, but a threat to the US homeland.

What is clear is that changes are occurring with ISIS and also with Al Qaeda. There has been a resurgence of AQ, particularly in Syria. AQ's policy has been one of integration rather than confrontation with local populations. This is potentially a potent way to challenge the existing order, such as it is, in Iraq and Syria. In fact, Al Nusra, the AQ affiliate in Syria, has formally split with AQ, rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS), which by some estimates has a 10,000 strong fighting force. JFS also has a reputation of being particularly tough on the battlefield, which helps with the integration effort. The split, which is more of a façade than an actual break, is a way for JFS to distance itself from the AQ brand, making integration with the local population easier.

These changes to ISIS and AQ are not connected to CT measures the Trump administration is taking with its effort to ban immigrants from Iraq, Syria and Libya and four other predominately Muslim nations. Not only does the ban give ISIS and AQ a talking point about America's so-called war against Islam, it misses the point about what the US should be doing. As the terrorist enemy evolves, so too must the approach of the US and its allies, particularly its European allies.

The growing terrorist threat in Europe is from within. The French and Belgian connection of terrorist cells is a proven threat, exemplified by the recent attacks in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere. There are also fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, who will pose an additional threat to a number of EU nations. Many of the returnees are citizens and would not be captured by an EU version of the Trump EO.

In addition, ISIS in particular is managing recruits remotely. They are providing direction and overall support for lone wolves, some of whom are not completely alone. This reinforces the idea that the splintering of ISIS into cells may be more lethal to the EU and US homeland than the present situation. It also begs the question of whether the response to a US CT strategy ought to be so focused on immigrants coming from countries where they are already thoroughly vetted. The Trump team's sturm and drang over this is not an efficient or effective way to develop and implement a CT effort.

Instead, the focus should be on working more closely with the EU, including continuing to promote law enforcement and intelligence sharing efforts. Extreme measures from the Trump Administration undercuts the positive connection that has developed between the US and EU on these issues. For example, when the Prime Minister of the UK has to explain to her parliament that her government does not condone torture before she visits the US, it is a sure sign that there is trepidation on the part of European allies in dealing with the Trump Administration on CT related issues.

The Trump administration is headed down the wrong path for eliminating the terrorist threat with its EO and other proposed moves. It needs to adapt as the enemy adapts. It needs to embrace, not alienate, Muslims at home and abroad. This battle cannot be won by antagonistic rhetoric and faulty policies that protect no one, and, ultimately, make Americans less safe. Focus, discipline and working with real allies--not those who talk the talk but don't walk the walk, as the Russians are doing in Syria--are the key ingredients for developing a CT policy that works and can be sustained.

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