How Trump's travel ban hurts the fight against ISIS

Across the Muslim world, the travel ban is eroding the trust that is vital to sharing intelligence, while leaders and fighters who have risked their lives to join the US-led coalition against ISIS are increasingly incensed.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Iraqi soldiers patrol during a fight with Islamic State militants in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 30, 2017. Experts say announcement of the travel ban has strained cooperation between US and Iraqi forces.

President Trump’s imposition of a temporary travel ban on seven Muslim countries is hurting the fight against the self-declared Islamic State, undoing two years of work on and off the battlefield, experts say. And a central question is emerging: Can the administration uphold what Arab officials see as a “Muslim ban,” when the US relies almost solely on Muslim states, groups, and allies to fight IS across the Middle East?

From Iraq to Syria to Libya, and beyond, Muslim leaders and fighters who have risked their lives to join the US-led coalition against IS are increasingly incensed by a policy they regard as an insult, devaluing their sacrifice and punishing them individually and collectively. Across the Muslim world, the policy also threatens to erode the mutual trust that allows the sharing of vital intelligence.

“The policy on the surface, and perhaps under the surface, is anti-Muslim [and] makes it hard for any Muslim country to be an open partner with the US,” says Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former FBI special agent. “At a time when even the Trump administration is reluctant to deploy troops in the region, it really limits the options on the counterterrorism playing field.”

Among the countries targeted by the ban is Iraq, where 5,000 US troops and advisers are embedded with and supporting Iraqi forces in their fight to liberate Mosul from IS. The travel ban has strained cooperation, experts say, and given an unintended propaganda boost to the jihadists, whose supporters are citing the ban on social media.

Some of the executive order’s impacts have been direct.  An ongoing training program in Arizona for dozens of Iraqi F-16 pilots has been put in doubt, with trainees no longer able to travel to the US, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has warned. The Defense Department said this week it would work to provide an exemption for the pilots, although the matter has yet to be resolved.

Others are personal. CBS News reported that the ban thwarted plans by Iraqi Gen. Talib Kenani, who commands American-trained counterterrorist forces, to travel early this month to be reunited with his family, who had been relocated to the US for their safety.

“There are many American troops here in Iraq,” Kenani told CBS News. “After this ban, how are we supposed to deal with each other?”

'A cleavage in the ranks'

Dozens if not hundreds of Iraqi military officials who have worked alongside the US for years and are leading the fight against IS could now face a similar predicament. The perception is that an ally for which they put their life on the line is now treating them no better than suspected terrorists.

In Syria, the ban is also affecting leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces – the coalition of Kurdish and Sunni Arab fighters the US is relying on to defeat IS and drive it out of Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the caliphate.  In Libya, the UN-backed Government of National Accord, whose affiliated militias liberated the city of Sirte from IS two months ago and are on the frontlines fighting the remnants of the jihadist group, was also broadsided.

Other Muslim-majority US allies that were not targeted by the ban are also becoming increasingly incensed.

“This creates a cleavage in the ranks of the groups coming together to mitigate the threat presented by the Islamic State,” says Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, in London.

“This is a long war, and the latest administration has taken us two steps back; it has reversed a lot of work done already.”

The blowback may undo years of work by Washington to unite 17 Muslim-majority nations in the 68-country anti-IS coalition.

New political pressures

Should Trump uphold the ban, and pursue other policies that could be considered anti-Muslim, experts say key anti-IS allies may become reluctant to continue siding with Washington.

“Cooperation is essential, and partners will start asking: Is this cooperation about protecting the world order or just about protecting the United States?” says Richard Barrett, former head of counterterrorism at MI6 and director of the Global Strategy Network, a London-based consultancy that helps combat violent extremism.

“More and more, they will believe that they are just serving the United States without any regard to them or their communities.”

Even if various leaders, tribesmen, and politicians wish to continue to cooperate with the US in the fight against extremism, they are likely to come under immense pressure to cut ties.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi already is feeling the heat from various political groups and his own parliament to impose a reciprocal travel ban on US citizens.

On Monday, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding measure calling on the government to “respond in kind in the event the American side does not withdraw its decision.” Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric and a rival to Mr. Abadi, called on the US to “get your nationals out” of Iraq.

'Where is the trust?'

Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units, the elite, mostly Shiite militia supported by Iran and taking a leading role in the Mosul operation, have called for expelling US nationals from Iraq.

Although Abadi and other key coalition allies in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have kept domestic pressure at bay, this could change as reactions to the ban and other Trump policies continue in the press and social media.

Experts say the ban hinders intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation at the most basic levels.

“Counterterrorism liaison is built on trust, it is one person talking to another and telling them, trust me,” says Patrick Skinner, former CIA case officer and director of special projects at the New York-based risk firm, Soufan Group. “Where is the trust, when in a very high-profile fashion the president says everybody from this country is blacklisted?”

Even from Trump’s party, Republican Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham warned that the ban amounted to a “self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.”

Undermining the narrative

The impact of the travel ban is also being felt off the battlefield, where experts say years of work countering IS ideology is being undone.

The Global Engagement Center, an inter-agency department in Washington, has funneled millions of dollars to host communities across the Middle East, supporting clerics, community leaders, and NGOs to counter the jihadists’ apocalyptic claims.

Their main task has been to support voices challenging IS’s claim of a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam.

“The counternarrative is that rather than the West vs. Islam, it is the whole world against ISIS, which is barbaric and brutal,” says Mr. Barrett, the former MI6 officer. “But this action says to their audience, hang on a minute, maybe there is something to what ISIS is saying, and that this anti-ISIS line is little more than propaganda.”

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