Donald Trump’s failed war on terror

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After the killing of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, U.S. President Donald Trump once again claimed that keeping America safe from terrorism is one of his biggest achievements.

But his record is less impressive than the rhetoric suggests.

At first, this may seem counter-intuitive. The military campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq seems to have been decisive and successful, resulting in the capture of nearly all of the group’s territory and the death of its leader. There is no evidence that Trump’s election increased the threat from jihadist terrorism, or caused large numbers of American Muslims to radicalise. Not least, the security agencies that are responsible for catching terrorists and disrupting terrorist plots remain strong and continue to do their jobs. At the operational level, there is far more continuity between Trump and his predecessors than one would suspect.

Yet, despite what seems like good news, there are many indicators that Trump’s war on terror is short-sighted, un-strategic, and will — ultimately — increase threats from terrorism.

In Syria and Iraq, for instance, the U.S president has allowed his generals to take greater risks and hastened the destruction of the Caliphate. But he also abandoned America’s Kurdish allies and refused to take any responsibility for the aftermath. As a consequence, major cities like Raqqa lie in ruins, while Islamic State is quietly returning to towns and refugee camps.

Since taking office, Trump has claimed that immigration vetting is “getting tougher each month.”

Elsewhere, his admiration for strongmen has fuelled tensions and empowered jihadists. The best example is Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, whose policies have increased sectarianism, heightened the risk of regional war, and turbocharged jihadist proxies. Thanks to the Saudis’ disastrous military campaign, Yemen’s jihadists are the best-equipped in the world.

The most cynical part of Trump’s counter-terrorism doctrine has been the systematic conflation of terrorism, immigration and Islam. While popular with his supporters, the effectiveness of the Muslim travel ban is completely unproven. According to a study by RAND, nearly three-quarters of the 178 jihadists who planned or executed attacks against the U.S. between 2001 and 2017 were U.S. citizens. American jihadism has not just been relatively rare, but also predominantly homegrown.

Equally questionable is his idea of “extreme vetting.” Since taking office, Trump has claimed that immigration vetting is “getting tougher each month.” But there is little evidence that it has fundamentally changed — or needed fixing in the first place.

The only tangible initiative has been the creation of a new bureaucratic structure, the National Vetting Center, which immigration experts say duplicates existing efforts.

The most cynical part of Trump’s counter-terrorism doctrine has been the systematic conflation of terrorism, immigration and Islam | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Arguably, none of these initiatives were about countering terrorism to begin with. As well as energising his supporters, Trump’s talk about “radical Islam” and the need to “keep Muslims out” sought to project a different idea of America. Instead of being a “nation of immigrants,” it echoed the radical agenda of far-right advisors such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, who regard immigration as a threat.

This also explains why Trump has been so complacent about the surge of white nationalism. Even before the deadly attacks in El Paso in August, in which 22 people were killed, violent attacks against minorities had grown steeply.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2018 saw the highest number of “right-wing extremist murders” in any year since 1995, when Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.

Not least, Trump supporters have been responsible for nearly a dozen attacks and attempted attacks — in many instances referencing the president’s name, his policies or campaign slogans.

Instead of protecting America, Trump’s actions and rhetoric have left the country more divided and vulnerable.

Trump did not cause these attacks, but he has refused to describe them as acts of terrorism, and never credibly distanced himself from white nationalists and the alt-right. Most worryingly, he has actively promoted the extreme-right’s narratives of “invasion” and “white genocide,” while cutting government programs that were designed to counter them.

Whatever the administration’s accomplishments in the war on terror, they were achieved not because of Trump, but largely despite him. Instead of protecting America, his actions and rhetoric have left the country more divided and vulnerable.

It may not look like it today, but Trump’s war on terror is not a success, but one of his greatest failures.

Peter R. Neumann is a Professor of Security Studies at King’s College London. His most recent book is “Bluster: Donald Trump’s War on Terror” (Hurst, 2019).

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