Why a terrorist attack is more likely with a weak president

February 27, 2017 at 8:41 am

Iraqi federal police stand in formation in West Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2017. The breadth and diversity of partners supporting the Coalition demonstrate the global and unified nature of the endeavor to defeat ISIS. Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull)

Islamic terrorists want an Islamic holy war. They believe in a clash of civilizations and want to unite all Muslims in a war against the West.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who founded al-Qaeda in Iraq, said before he was killed:

The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.

Their propaganda recalls an old prophecy that Islamic armies will rise up to meet the forces of “Rome” (or the West) on the fields of Dabiq in Syria. Victory in Dabiq will signal the caliphate’s conquest of the West.

This all seems scary until you realize that the number of Islamic state terrorists is estimated at between 80,000 and 100,000. Recent estimates have put it at closer to between 15,000 and 20,000. If we take the highest estimate, that’s still at least 16,000 less than the current population of Peoria, Illinois.

In other words, they have a problem: there are not many of them. The final battle they want isn’t going to look very good if they can be defeated by the population of Peoria.

How are they trying to deal with this recruiting problem?

The first place to look for recruits if you’re an Islamic terrorist organization is the greater Islamic community. Pew research estimates that there were approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in 2010.

Even using the highest possible estimates the population of Peoria, IL (116,000) is greater than that of the Islamic State.

How do you get more recruits?

You tell Muslims that they’re under attack and that they need to fight. As David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said:

We … know that ISIS and others are saying that the only people who will defend Muslims are them, and that’s obviously very dangerous.

Islamic terrorists want a war, especially one that is viewed as unjust by other Muslims, in order to recruit more people for their religious war.

Giving the terrorists what they want

Islamic terrorists want the Islamic community to believe that they have no choice but to join with the terrorists in a fight against the West.

The Islamic State playbook is the Idarat al-Tawahhush, or Management of Savagery, and was attributed to an ideologue who goes by the name Abu Bakr al-Naji.

Naji instructed followers to incite ethnic, sectarian, and religious hatred throughout the world so that societies end up dividing along mutual mistrust and a desire for revenge. Naji’s hope was that Sunni Muslims would then largely be blamed—as they now are—as the cause of this intolerance and violence, rendering them hated and left isolated. Naji even highlights the importance of provoking heavy state military responses against Sunni Muslims everywhere, so that entire populations of Sunnis feel suspected and attacked by everyone else around them, and turn in on themselves. The idea is that through such division Sunnis would find no refuge from angry non-Muslims and over-reacting states, except in jihadists who would embrace them. In turn, Sunnis would end up swelling the ranks of jihadists’ militias as they began to protect themselves against reprisal attacks.

They hope fear drives more recruiting.

Sadly, the new administration is giving the terrorists everything they want. Even before the election, terrorists were using Donald Trump in videos as a recruiting tool.

Al Shabaab, the East African affiliate of al-Qaeda, released a recruiting video featuring Donald Trump calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.” After the Brussels attack, ISIS released a video with Donald Trump saying, “Brussels was one of the great cities, one of the most beautiful cities of the world 20 years ago. It was amazing, actually, and safe. And now it’s a horror show. It’s an absolute horror show.”

Now that Trump is president, he’s delivering on what the Islamic State wants: fear that the West is targeting Islam.

If we wanted to win the moderates, we would be targeting the extremists, not Muslims.

Trump’s weakness is that he feels he needs to present himself as anti-Islamic in order to be seen, ironically, as strong in the U.S. His weakness is that he’s losing the moral high ground to the Islamic State. His anti-Islamic rhetoric and policies give credence to their claim that the West hates Islam (not the criminals who commit terrorist acts).

One of the fundamental goals of counterterrorism is to decrease the payoff terrorists receive from their attacks.

With Trump, the chance of a payoff (getting the holy war Islamic terrorists want) has never been higher. This makes terrorism (and a subsequent holy war) more likely.

How to stop terrorism

Though the focus here has been on weakness and how it’s likely to lead to more terrorism, we also need a better story about what stops terrorism.

What stops terrorism is moral strength, and holding the moral high ground.

If we do this, the 1,599,900,000 billion Muslims are more likely to side with us than the terrorists.

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, counterterrorism experts and authors of The Age of Sacred Terror, wrote this in Politico about our efforts since 9/11:

In the 14 years since 9/11, only 45 Americans have been killed (including the 14 last week in California) on American soil by jihadist violence. Every one of those losses is tragic, and because the fear that one attack suggests another might be around the corner, terrorist casualties have an outsize impact. But in light of an armed, global foe and the universal certainty that we would experience one or more catastrophic attacks with four- or five-digit death tolls after the destruction of the Twin Towers, that is an extraordinary figure and testament to American ingenuity in an extraordinarily complex effort.

If we want the vast majority of Muslims on our side, we should be helping them and isolating the terrorists.

Sadly, however, it appears many in America have fallen for Trump’s weakness and the paranoid vision that a few terrorists represent all of Islam.

Right now, if the U.S. were to suffer a terrorist attack, the odds are pretty high that the terrorists would get the holy war they want. This makes us weak—and more vulnerable to terrorism.

David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy (ebook now available). Cross posted at Daily Kos