Nine days after 9/11, George W. Bush declared during an address to a joint session of Congress that every nation now “has a decision to make,” that “either you are with us or with the terrorists.” Jihadists saw his statement as a gift from God.
They argued that with this line drawn in the sand, members of the Muslim community now had a clear view of the parade of sellouts, hypocrites and “white-washed” Muslims among them. It would be obvious who was on the side of the Muslim community and who, as ISIS wrote in the seventh issue of its English-language magazine Dabiq, would rush “to serve the crusaders led by Bush in the war against Islam.”
According to jihadists, this opportunity to unearth the true Muslims, those who had the community’s back and those who didn’t, was a gift from above. As Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden claimed at the time in an interview, which was also later reproduced in the same Dabiq article, this line in the sand basically meant that “either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”
Sixteen years later, what do jihadists think of Donald Trump? It’s an important question to explore and pose to jihadists themselves, because it influences their propaganda and their stance toward the United States, and may predict how they behave in relation to Western states. Over the past three years, on a variety of text-messaging applications and social media platforms, I have been interviewing foreign fighters from Western countries who are fighting in Syria and Iraq.
After Trump’s election victory, I asked five fighters for their thoughts on Trump. Initially, they weren’t convinced that Trump would be different from any other American president, who, since 9/11, has been, according to them, bombing Muslims and killing civilians. But then Trump spoke, put forth executive orders and seemed to fan the flames of the far right.
As time went on, these jihadists began to argue that Trump represents “real” America. Trump was saying what Americans and politicians always privately thought about Muslims but were too afraid to say in public. In their eyes, Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to fool American Muslims by insisting, deceptively, that there was a separation between “Islam” and “terrorism,” that the war on terror was only targeting terrorists, not Muslims.
“I think he is good for us,” a Canadian ISIS fighter told me when asked about how the group views Trump in relation to past presidents. “We needed someone like him, who is direct.”
Trump, according to my interviews with ISIS- and Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria and Iraq, is more honest and is not scared to say what Americans really think. “I mean, with no hidden agendas or behind-the-scenes plots,” the same ISIS fighter said. “He is clear and everyone, even the kuffar [infidels], know that he hates Muslims.”
A British fighter with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a new coalition of rebel and Al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, similarly told me, “Politicians are generally two-faced and, unfortunately, people fall for it. Whereas Trump says it straight up.”
Jihadists hope that American Muslims will come to see ISIS and other groups as the answer to the Muslim plight. They will “wake up” and realize that America’s insistence that they “love Muslims” but “hate terrorism” is false, that America has always seen Islam and terrorism as one and the same. According to jihadists, Trump just makes this persistent truth clearer and brings it out in the open.
This argument is, of course, not a new one. Jihadi theoreticians have always attempted to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in the West, to convince them that they will never be included or accepted. In 2010, in his famous “Message to the American People,” Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric and propagandist for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, put forth a challenge to the Muslim community in the
United States, one that has been recycled many times since by the Islamic State.
To the Muslims in America I have this to say,” he said. “How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?”
According to the jihadist view, Muslims are able to live in peaceful coexistence because the wool has been pulled over their eyes by crafty politicians, who have convinced them that they are welcome in the West. Trump, the argument goes, has changed all this. He openly declared in a March 2016 interview with CNN that “Islam hates us” and has attempted to ban immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.
Indeed, it seems the only time Trump ever talks about the Muslim community in public is in the context of national security. During a presidential debate in October, for instance, a Muslim-American asked Trump how he planned to deal with Islamophobia and “the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country.”
“You’re right about Islamophobia, and that’s a shame,” Trump said. But he proceeded to go on about how Muslims needed to “report the problems when they see them” and blamed President Barack Obama for failing to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Similarly problematic language has been used by Sebastian Gorka, a so-called expert on terrorism who works with Steve Bannon in the White House Strategic Initiatives Group. For Gorka, the strategic and inclusive use of language to not alienate members of the Muslim community is a form of “downplaying the seriousness of the threat” in favor of political correctness. Radical Islam, Gorka held forth in a recent interview with the New York Times, arises from the “martial language” of the Quran.
Trump feeds into another long-held agenda item of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS: to foster conditions under which the United States will suffer from as many self-inflicted wounds as possible. As jihadists I spoke with remarked, Trump is the ultimate self-inflicted wound.
As terrorism analyst Brian Fishman has noted, these groups’ goal hasn’t always just been about bleeding the U.S. economically, but about weakening the social fabric of the country, chipping away at civil liberties and exacerbating tensions that lie just below the surface.
Jihadists have always argued that America appears strong only because of its military might and patriotic bluster—but it is weak at its core. It is a country, they argue, that is held together by a fragile commitment to “foundations” such as personal freedom and liberty. According to jihadi pundit Yaman Mukhaddab, the collapse of the United States will happen soon. “It will take place,” he wrote, “when the citizens lose their patience over the disappearance of these foundations.”
In a country with police shootings, racial tensions and war fatigue, a president who some fear may crack down on civil liberties, further marginalize minorities and turn America inward is, from the jihadist point of view, what they wanted all along. Jihadist groups were never naive enough to think that they could defeat the U.S. militarily on the battlefield. Rather, the point was to draw Americans into a war of attrition, let them punch themselves out, make American Muslims aware of their insecure place in the country, and make American citizens afraid of each other.
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