Donald Trump has repeatedly boasted that if he were elected president, the militant group Islamic State (ISIS) “ will be gone very, very quickly.” In mid-August, he gave a lengthy public speech outlining his plans to “ halt the spread of radical Islam.” So what lies beneath the Donald’s bombast? Is there anything he is offering that might make a difference? And how might ISIS view a potential Trump presidency?
Despite such bold pronouncements, a detailed read of Trump’s fairly muddled proclamations does not provide much clarity or optimism. He has a poor understanding of foreign affairs and international security, his views vacillate frequently, he fuses unrelated and impractical concepts, and he supports nearly all of his ideas with wildly inaccurate facts and figures. Trump has advocated counterproductive and illegal strategies, such as the use of torture and the killing of families of terrorists, and has even refused to rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS, a possibility that Princeton nuclear physicist and arms control expert Frank von Hippel (the author’s uncle) has called, “@#$%&! Crazy!”
When Trump veers into the sane lane, his policy prescriptions align with what the Obama administration is already doing. The few practical recommendations outlined in his recent speech on “radical Islam” are already core components of President Obama’s strategy: a military coalition and international cooperation in areas such as intelligence sharing, countering terror finance and countering ISIS’s intoxicating messages.
The U.S.-led Counter-ISIL Coalition (using another acronym for ISIS), made up of 67 member states and organizations and five working groups, has been dedicated to these issues since Obama launched the Coalition on 10 September, 2014.
How would ISIS view a Trump presidency? In early August, Trump said: “If I’m ISIS, I call her [Clinton] up and I give her the most-valuable-player award,” and labeled President Obama and Hillary Clinton as the founder and co-founder of ISIS. This bizarre assertion is of course incorrect—ISIS is actually the evil stepchild of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which itself emerged from the Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
In fact, team ISIS would be far more likely to choose Trump as its MVP (Most Valuable Player), due to his conflation of Islam with terrorism. Already in April this year, we’ve seen an ISIS video glorifying the Belgium attacks featuring Donald Trump in the backdrop. And it’s not just ISIS that is using Trump for recruitment: Al-Shabaab, the Somalia affiliate of Al-Qaeda, has also released a Trump video.
According to a review of ISIS literature conducted by Mara Revkin and Ahmad Mhidi and published in the August 24 edition of Foreign Affairs, ISIS strategists believe that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric would antagonize American Muslims, which in turn would lead to more recruits and more lone-wolf-style attacks in the United States. Accordingly, team ISIS has taken to the virtual airwaves to exhort jihadists to facilitate a Trump victory.
In addition, Trump’s “bromance” with Russian President Putin, especially Trump’s support of Russia’s activities in Syria to keep Assad in power (Trump argued that Russia has “ too much at stake in the outcome in Syria”) offends most Sunnis, including those potentially susceptible to ISIS’s ideology, and thereby would provide more fuel for the fire. ISIS seems to view Trump as an accelerant for their apocalyptic aspirations, and they are eagerly anticipating the kind of chaos described in The Coming Anarchy if Trump was to win.
The single domain where Donald Trump should be given some credit is his focus on the recent surge in ISIS-inspired and directed attacks outside the Middle East. Experts have been predicting for some time that increased military pressure on ISIS’s core in Syria and Iraq would cause it to lash out on the periphery, in an effort to demonstrate it is still a force to be reckoned with.
Attacks far from ISIS’s epicenter also ensure a steady flow of fresh recruits, as they promote the image of ISIS’s invincibility—the full might of the international community is pounding it in Syria and Iraq, and yet, it is still able to cause significant harm elsewhere. In the coming months, as ISIS eventually loses its grip on Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, we can expect additional attacks and more civilian deaths further afield.
This is an area where the United States is not, in fact, providing the necessary leadership to stem the spread of out-of-area attacks. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, such as at the Counter-ISIL Coalition meeting in Washington, DC in mid-July, the Coalition is simply not doing enough to halt the growth of this violent ideology as it metastasizes across Europe and elsewhere.
The Coalition’s main focus has been Iraq, and secondarily Syria, primarily because of concerns that the Coalition will fragment if efforts were to be directed elsewhere. President Obama is unlikely to add another complicated international security challenge to his overloaded agenda in his last few months as president, and the American public is too distracted by the presidential campaign to demand more.
On balance, a Clinton victory is more likely to lead to a “defeat” of ISIS than a Trump one, given her deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding this challenge.