JOURNAL | COVER STORY by: Rohan Gunaratna
Donald J Trump, whom the Islamic State has identified as the “perfect enemy,” will be sworn in as president of the United States on Jan. 20. He will develop an unconventional strategy to fight insurgency, terrorism and extremism. To defeat a common enemy, Trump will think beyond the existing paradigm; he will reach out to America’s Cold War and post-Cold War adversaries.
IS and Al Qaeda have underestimated Trump. The new president has the political will and out-of-the-box thinking to work with Russia, China, Iran, Syria and other actors to manage the global insurgency and terrorist threat. Clouded by his highly controversial election rhetoric, many have failed to understand Trump’s radical vision to even work with America’s adversaries, notably Russia. President Barack Obama in 2014 declared that he wanted to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS and eliminate Al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s leadership. However, Obama focused primarily on a population-centric strategy. Trump’s doctrine will be enemy-centric, with his central mission expected to relentlessly target and destroy the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and their associates.
Donald Trump’s opponents projected him as the presidential contender of anti-Muslim rhetoric. “There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey where you have large Arab populations,” Trump claimed to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in November 2015. “They were cheering as the World Trade Centre came down.”
In reality, most Muslims including Muslim-Americans did not support the 9/11 attacks. Only a tiny segment of Muslims celebrated the attacks; like the rest of the population, most were horrified. After having called for the banning of all Muslim immigration to the United States in December 2015, Trump clarified last June that as president he would “suspend immigration from areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies.”
For Trump, an inexperienced politician and successful real estate magnate, it is a learning process. In March 2016, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked whether Trump thought Islam was at war with the West. “There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us.” Most believe that such rhetoric will be exploited by Islamic State and Al Qaeda propagandists, and their support bases will grow.
As the Islamic State attempts to shape public opinion through social media, it has identified Trump as “the perfect enemy” to generate support among Muslims within America and worldwide. As a principal tool, the Islamic State harnesses social media platforms to engage its existing and new supporters and sympathizers. After his remarks on Muslim immigration, which he subsequently rephrased, Muslims in general disliked Trump, but Muslim extremists and terrorists advocated for his victory in the lead-up to last November’s presidential election. They opined that Trump’s strategy would take America deeper into conflict in the Muslim world, leading to the eventual bankruptcy of the American economy.
Perceptions of extremists and terrorists
In messages posted on Telegram and the deep web’s pro-Islamic State Al-Minbar Jihadi Media forum in November 2016, as translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, the jihadists stated that Trump’s election revealed the “hidden hatred” in the West of Muslims, and that he will ultimately destroy America. The Nashir Political Service blog wrote: “What we want is that their country be delivered to a donkey like Trump who will destroy it. The world is going to experience a change, and this change will put Islam in the leadership position as the end result. In fact, the election of Trump is but an indication of the end of the American empire, so that it draws its last breath at the hands of this fool.”
On Al-Minbar Jihadi Media, pro-Islamic State jihadists predicted “dark days” for America, including bankruptcy due to Trump wishing for unrivalled dominance and being heedless of the costs of engaging in multiple wars concurrently. They also saw the Trump presidency as benefitting the Islamic State. One user stated (according to SITE Intelligence Group): “The more America assaults Muslims anywhere on Earth, the more hatred and hostility there will be against it. The fervent for their faith and honor will look for those who will take revenge against America, and they will only find the State of the Caliphate.”
The world of Trump
Trump emerged at a time when the United States failed to understand the global threat and deliver an effective response. Neglecting global interests and concerned about core US interests, Obama developed the “pivot” to Asia, withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. With the return of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, the United States was forced to reinvest in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the “Levant” countries and North Africa. The global threat grew and threatened the United States, its allies and friends.
Trump’s message was simple and effective. The World of Trump is different from that of the classic politicians and cautious bureaucrats. Trump will work with Russia and other powers to fight threats not only to the United States but also around the world. Although Western governments will be cautious, the US military-industrial complex is ready to support the new president. For Trump, the United States made a mistake by getting rid of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad who, in his view, controlled the violent and radical Islamists.
In the eyes of Trump, superpower geopolitics compromised global security. When he sees a threat, he will want it neutralized; with whom he collaborates to eliminate the threat will be secondary. Trump will also not be too concerned about Muslim public opinion or the views of Saudi Arabia or other Muslim countries. As a practical man and entrepreneur, Trump will run America like a business. If one strategy fails, he will embrace another. For the international community, Trump is highly controversial, however. They will be concerned whether his bold strategy drags the world into a wider conflagration – which is something they don’t want.
Rohan Gunaratna is professor of security studies and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This essay was first published by the school at www.rsis.edu.sg.