CORRECTION: The following piece was mislabeled as an analysis piece rather than opinion.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week that bars citizens from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Syria from entering the United States for 90 days, suspends refugee admission programs for 120 days and indefinitely bans Syrian refugees. Many questions have been raised about this controversial executive action. Since this action is characterized as a national security measure, this analysis will examine two questions: first, will such a policy measurably contribute to U.S. national security interests at home and abroad? And second, why the sudden change in strategy?
The executive order restricting immigration from those countries cannot be analyzed in isolation, since it is just one of many recent orders and proposals presented as new steps for combating radical Islamic terrorism. Other recent policy proposals that, in sum, shift U.S. policy in the Middle East include: the possible return of CIA black interrogation sites, the desired expansion of Guantanamo prison, the creation of safe zones in Syria, the proposed move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and the suggestion by President Trump that torture may once again be used by the U.S.
Ostensibly these measures are designed to prevent future ISIS-inspired attacks such of those witnessed in Europe and the U.S. in recent years. It is noteworthy that these actions are not really new (or improved); these measures were, in similar forms, previously employed in the immediate wake of 9/11. The measures were later abandoned because they were either deemed to be illegal, infective or both. The question, then, is why are they being dusted off and placed back on the table of options now?
If these proposals and policies are designed to accelerate the defeat of ISIS, then a fair question is how will our enemies view the ban? Based on past precedents of al Qaeda and ISIS effectively exploiting U.S. blunders and controversial U.S. policies as headlines for their propaganda recruiting efforts, these new policies and actions will amount to a virtual Powerball lottery win for ISIS and al Qaeda. One need only remember the mileage that al Qaeda in Iraq (the forefather of ISIS) gained from the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco in 2003. The anger generated from that incident strengthened the insurgency in Iraq and degraded confidence in U.S. leadership among the wider population. This one incident helped to protract the conflict and thus cost American lives. This incident is one among many that occurred in the fog and friction of the second Iraq War. There are others, but fortunately few recently.
Exploitation of the information domain has always been central to the effectiveness of groups like al Qaeda and other radical Islamic terrorist organizations. Examples of this are evident in the recent “ISIS-inspired attacks” in the U.S. and Europe. Individuals read and watch propaganda, grow angry, build or buy a weapon, and commit violence in their local communities in the name of ISIS. They do this at their own expense without ever spending time in terrorist training camp or being indoctrinated in a Salafi Madrasa.
Barak Mendelsohn’s article “ISIS’ Lone Wolf Strategy” (Foreign Policy, August 2016) described the lone wolf strategy as a cheap and easy way for ISIS to destabilize Western governments. Mendelsohn noted the strategic effect ISIS strives to achieve. He wrote, “A large number of uncoordinated attacks in a short period of time could upset the delicate balance of freedom and security in Western societies and bolster its own [ISIS] political objectives, such as using anti-Islamic sentiment in the West to feed its propaganda machine.”
Mendelsohn goes on to say that ISIS is working to create clear divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims. Adding, “Unfortunately, the xenophobic and Islamophobic declarations of some irresponsible populist leaders—as well as symbolic measures targeting Muslims such as the recent ban, by a number of French towns, of full-body swimwear or ‘burkinis’—is only aiding ISIS’ cause.” Of note, this article was written four months prior to the recent U.S. policy shift, but clearly the warnings are germane.
What ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks have revealed is that these wolves can come from citizens that were born in the U.S., former members of the U.S. armed services, and even unstable non-Muslim citizens. None of these individuals would have been stopped by a visa ban, but all were “inspired” by ISIS propaganda videos.
With the protests around the world over the weekend and images of detained Muslim families in U.S. airports, the work of the terrorist propagandists has been greatly reduced. Information is ISIS’ and al Qaeda’s primary means to communicate with their audience, and the reinstatement of the most controversial post-9/11 policies will only serve to validate the message that they have been preaching to their audience for years: “the U.S. is fighting a war against Islam. … They want to destroy your religion.”
As noted by many media outlets, the ban overlooks the countries that have actually sent agents to attack the U.S. or our allies. Most notably, the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001 hailed from Saudi Arabia (15), UAE (2), Egypt (1) and Lebanon (1). None of these countries are on the proposed immigration ban. In fact, the countries listed on the executive order have not been the source of any deadly terrorist incidents since the 1975 (Libya). This oddly selective list of countries suggests that the policy is not based on any empirical evidence that travelers, immigrants and refugees of these seven countries pose a clear danger to the U.S. (no rationale was initially offered by the administration; see here for background information).
A second problem with these new policies is that they also mark a sudden shift in U.S. strategy against ISIS. The shift in strategy by the new administration seems to be based on a conclusion that the strategy and policies of the U.S. and its allies employed for the past 16 years of fighting the post-9/11 wars have been either insufficient or ineffective. The facts do not support this conclusion.
For instance, there is a well-established strategy that is in place. It is a strategy that has evolved over two administrations to meet the changing environment in the multiple complex combat zones where the fight is occurring. For instance, many new weapons have been developed specifically to execute the strategy such as the proliferation of drones, Special Operations forces have been greatly expanded in numbers and capabilities, and trillions of dollars have spent to sustain the effort. Additionally, the entire Department of Defense and multiple U.S. Intelligence organizations have been reorganized and strengthened to specifically address the post 9/11 wars.
The effectiveness of this strategy is playing out today in every corner of the world where ISIS and al Qaeda are found. For instance, on 19 January, President Obama ordered a B-2 bombing raid of an ISIS compound in Libya that reportedly killed more than 100 ISIS fighters. Today the presence of ISIS has nearly been wiped out in Iraq by U.S.-supported Iraqi Army forces and U.S. airpower. The net result of this sustained and relentless effort is that our enemies are far more diminished today than at any point since 9/11.
Will these new policies measurably contribute to U.S. national security interests at home and abroad? In a joint statement issued by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on 29 January, they clearly do not think so. They stated, “This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country,” they said. “That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
The lessons of history, recent examples, the thoughts of national security experts, and hard-won lessons learned presented here all indicate these measures are more likely to do harm than good. The re-introduction of policies born of over-reaction in the wake of 9/11 represent more of a de-evolution of strategy than a necessary adaptation to meet the changing threat environment. Any amount of strategic coherence in these new policies is at present difficult to identify.