For jihadists, Trump election brings a change in strategy

Jihadists want to convince Muslims that the West is at war with Islam. Statements by Trump and his team are changing how they do that.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (left) speaks along side retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn during a campaign town hall meeting in Virginia Beach, Va., in September.

Jihadists abroad say they will use Donald Trump’s election and appointments as powerful recruitment tool, pushing their claims that the West and Islam are heading toward a clash of civilizations.

This represents a pivot in strategy. For two decades, jihadists have largely used United States actions ­– such as wars and foreign policy – to support claims of an anti-Islam agenda. Now, they are anticipating that they will be able to use the words of administration officials themselves. A single tweet, insiders say, can be as big a recruitment boon as the Iraq war.

“For years we have focused on the Palestinian occupation, America’s deceitful alliance with Iran and [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] in the slaughter of Sunnis in Syria and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that America, and Americans, are waging a war against Islam,” says Abu Omar, the nom de guerre of an Al Qaeda operative in Syria aligned with the militant group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. “Now all we have to do is turn to Trump’s Twitter account or turn on CNN.”

Al Qaeda, and likely the Islamic State, say they will attempt to convince Muslims living in the West that they are no longer welcome in their own society. They will depict jihadists as the sole protector of Muslims’ interests.

As part of this propaganda recalibration, Al Qaeda and other jihadists will also use anti-Islam rhetoric to attempt to drive a wedge between the governments of US allies in the region – such as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco – and their populations. Jihadists will be stressing that any Arab and Muslim states that deal with the US are complicit in America’s alleged war against Islam and will be branded as “enemies of Islam.”

With many in the Muslim world are already predisposed to assume the US is hostile to Islam, the concern is that further inflammatory statements would make a difficult situation worse. 

“You will see many more quotes from senior administration officials, as previously [jihadists] had a hard time bolstering their propaganda line with actual statements,” says Will McCants, senior fellow at Brookings Institution and director of its Project on US Relations with the Islamic World.

“It plays into the hands of jihadist propagandists who make the argument that the West is at war with the entire religion of Islam, not just against terrorist groups – as the Obama administration made pains to say.”

What has been said

The statements are already having an effect. Jihadists see them as a “treasure.” 

According to Abu Omar and other Al Qaeda-aligned jihadists interviewed by the Monitor, the group and other like-minded jihadists are mining past tweets, statements, and interviews by Trump’s advisers and appointees.

Early in the presidential campaign, a week after the November 2015 Paris attacks, Trump said at a rally: "I want surveillance of certain mosques if that's OK. We've had it before."

A day before, Trump said he would “certainly implement” a plan to register Muslims in the US.

In an interview with CNN in March, he said: "I think Islam hates us." He added that the war was against radical Islam, but that “it's very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don't know who’s who.”

More recently, the former spokesman for the pro-Trump Great America Political Action Committee said the internment of Japanese-Americansduring World War II was precedent for a program to register American Muslims. And Trump’s choice for national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has described himself “at war with Islam,” Islam as a disease, and famously tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”

Focus on Flynn

Trump could take a step back from those sentiments as he assumes the presidency. But particular attention has focused on Lieutenant General Flynn. In his recent book, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies,” he outlines what he sees as a global clash of civilizations and war against “radical Islam.”

“We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by totalitarian ideology: radical Islam,” he writes.

“I don’t see Islam as a religion. I see it as a political ideology that … hides behind the notion of it being a religion,” Flynn added in a speech in Dallas in August for the anti-Muslim group ACT for America.

By describing Islam as a “totalitarian ideology,” Flynn shares the same view of Islam as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, experts say.

“What is concerning is the describing of Islam as a totalitarian ideology – the vast majority of Muslims don’t believe that, but extremists do and you just normalized that,” says H.A. Hellyer, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “A Revolution Undone: Egypt's Road Beyond Revolt.”

The concern is that such comments are weakening America’s ability to counter the jihadist narrative. “Obama and his foreign policy were not exactly welcomed by huge groups of people in the region whether it was policies on Syria, drone strikes, or support for autocracies,” Mr. Hellyer says.

Explicitly anti-Muslim statements make the job harder.  

“In the main, most Muslims will feel discouraged, they won’t be radicalized,” says Mr. McCants. “But in the battle of ideas, for the US, it is a major setback.”

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