Report

Trump’s Immigration Order Gives Ammunition to ISIS, Endangers U.S. Troops

With its blanket ban on Muslims from seven countries, the White House sparked a global backlash that experts say will fuel terrorism.

ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 27: U.S. President Donald Trump signs executive orders in the Hall of Heroes at the Department of Defense on January 27, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. Trump signed two orders calling for the "great rebuilding" of the nation's military and the "extreme vetting" of visa seekers from terror-plagued countries. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 27: U.S. President Donald Trump signs executive orders in the Hall of Heroes at the Department of Defense on January 27, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. Trump signed two orders calling for the "great rebuilding" of the nation's military and the "extreme vetting" of visa seekers from terror-plagued countries. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the country threatens to increase the risk of terror attacks and endanger U.S. troops abroad by alienating allies, angering Muslim populations, and handing a propaganda coup to Islamist extremists.

The executive order signed Friday is ostensibly meant to protect the United States from terrorism, but will almost certainly have the opposite effect, said experts, former senior officials, and lawmakers from both parties.

The order quickly sparked chaos and confusion at airports across America, and prompted immediate reprisals from some countries. Members of Iraq’s parliament called for retaliating by blocking all visas for Americans, including contractors and journalists trying to enter the country. U.S. diplomats in Baghdad warned Washington in a memo Saturday that the order could inflict lasting damage to bilateral relations with a U.S. ally fighting Islamic State militants, and could jeopardize the safety of American diplomats and contractors on the ground, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Top Republican lawmakers also underscored how counterproductive the order is likely to prove. “Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism,” said Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement on Sunday.

They said that the executive order will alienate key Muslim allies, and “we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”

The move was not something counter-terrorism officials had lobbied for or championed. Their focus has been on finding better ways to counter Islamic State’s online propaganda and forging closer cooperation with other governments — including in the Middle East — to uncover terrorist plots and networks. Instead, experts and lawmakers said, the order provides a propaganda jackpot that Islamic State could never have managed on its own.

Within 24 hours of Trump signing the order, Islamic State propagandists began exploiting the travel ban on social media. In one message an Islamic State propagandist seized on the order to harangue Muslims who cooperate with the United States to combat Islamist terror groups. “The dogs of the cross should know their true value now,” he wrote, referring to collaborators. “Worthless!”

The executive order suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, banned Syrian refugees indefinitely, and blocked entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The ban included interpreters who assisted U.S. troops in Iraq.

The action blindsided career civil servants in the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, who were not consulted in advance and who struggled to carry it out over the weekend, prompting chaos and confusion across the nation. The order also triggered a flurry of legal challenges that have already turned into a court battle for the new administration. Federal judges in at least four states issued ordered deportations to be halted temporarily, but the White House reportedly ordered Customs and Border Patrol agents to defy the court rulings.

Dozens of protests erupted Sunday in cities across the country, including in Washington. Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the White House before marching to the Capitol building.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D.-Calif.) said she will introduce legislation to rescind the executive order and to curtail the president’s ability to change immigration policies with the stroke of a pen.

The sweeping action against people from Muslim-majority countries, including permanent legal U.S. residents, reflected the growing influence of Trump’s senior advisor and strategist, Stephen Bannon, the architect of the president’s populist campaign rhetoric demonizing immigrants and Muslim refugees in particular. As a candidate, Trump promised a ban on all Muslims entering the country, before later revising it to apply to people from “terror prone” countries.

Bannon’s growing power in the White House was underscored Saturday by an extraordinary presidential memo giving him a bigger role in national security decisions, while marginalizing the country’s top military officer and top intelligence official. The reorganization of the National Security Council gives Bannon — a white nationalist fond of conspiracy theories, who previously ran the right-wing media outlet Breitbart — a regular seat on the principals committee, a meeting of senior security officials such as the secretaries of state and defense. Meanwhile, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will not have a permanent place on the committee, a break with the past two administrations.

Trump signed the executive order in a ceremony at the Pentagon as Defense Secretary James Mattis applauded. The retired four-star general, revered for his combat experience in the Middle East, had spoken out against any ban on Muslims entering the country last year. Mattis supporters in Congress had hoped he could play a moderating role in the Trump White House, but the executive order called into question whether the new defense secretary will be able to steer the administration on a more restrained course.

The White House dismissed criticism from lawmakers, rights groups and foreign governments, saying Trump was merely carrying out the promises he made in the presidential campaign. The safety of the American citizens, the safety of our country has got to be paramount. And that’s what the president did yesterday, is to ensure that the people that we’re letting into our country are coming here with peaceful purposes and not to do us harm,” spokesman Sean Spicer told ABC’s This Week.

The rationale for Trump’s executive order banning entry to millions of foreigners appeared to be based on an ill-informed view of the nature of the terrorist threat facing the United States, experts and former officials said.

No terrorist attack over the past 16 years has been traced to the seven countries listed in the executive order. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which were home to the founders of al Qaeda and other extremist groups, were excluded from the list, as was Pakistan — long considered a hotbed for Qaeda and other jihadists. The travel restrictions also did not affect countries where Trump’s family has business investments, including Turkey. The most recent attacks on U.S. soil were carried out by American-born U.S. citizens, such as the attacks on a nightclub in Orlando, Fl. and a shooting rampage in San Bernadino, Calif.

Both the Obama and Bush administrations had taken pains to distinguish between Islam and extremists in the Islamic State or other groups promoting a macabre ideology of violence and sectarian bloodshed. But Trump’s executive order and his public statements seemed to conflate the two. The executive order said that to protect Americans, “the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles.”

But experts and former officials said the order could not be justified on security grounds. “This policy is about religious and racial exclusion, not security,” said author and researcher J.M. Berger, who has spent years studying extremism and its propaganda.

“Even if you push through the moral repugnance of the ban, it fails on practicality grounds and costs us far more than any theoretical security gain — and that gain is at best highly theoretical.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. military has learned first hand about the dangers of perceived insults to Islam, and has had to change tactics or apologize when troops have overstepped cultural boundaries. When U.S. soldiers inadvertently burned Korans in Afghanistan in 2012, the country erupted in a wave of outrage and protests. Two U.S. soldiers were killed in the riots and the White House issued an apology.

While Iraq, a U.S. ally, has borne the brunt of the fighting against Islamic State with the help of U.S. airpower, the drastic and chaotic nature of the executive order promises to give ISIS and other Islamist groups a “much-needed lifeline,” said Luay al-Khateeb, an energy adviser to the Iraqi government.

“To tell the truth, ISIS is no longer Iraq’s major threat, but rather it’s the unpredictability and ill-advised moves and thoughts of the new U.S. administration that keeps our nascent democracy endangered,” he said.

Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the order a “betrayal of our friends and those who stood with us” and that it “promises to make the U.S. less safe and places our courageous servicemen and women in even greater danger as they fight against terrorism.”

A former senior official counter-terrorism official said the Trump administration was seemingly ignorant of current vetting procedures. “To say that the same systems that kept terrorists out of the country for 15 years is not high enough scrutiny for a mother and her six year old child? That to me is insane, that’s a bit more than insane, that’s a little unhinged,” the official told FP.

Jon Finer, former chief of staff and director of policy planning at the State Department, said that the consequences for counter-terrorism cooperation could extend far beyond Iraq, with other countries not covered in the order “retaliating against U.S. travelers, because hundreds of thousands of dual nationals are now blocked.”

He added that America’s willingness to take in refugees from Syria has been crucial for countries such as Jordan and Turkey as they try to justify counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States to domestic political audiences, he said. Now those governments will come under renewed pressure to rebuff Washington’s requests.

European allies, already alarmed at Trump’s protectionist program and skepticism toward NATO, expressed dismay and criticized the move in conversations with the new president.

In a telephone conversation on Saturday with Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded the U.S. president that the Geneva Convention on refugees requires all members states to take in those fleeing war. The chancellor “is convinced that the resolute fight against terrorism does not justify blanket suspicion on grounds of origin or belief,” Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for Ms. Merkel, said in a statement.

French President Francois Hollande told Trump in a phone conversation that defending democratic principles required abiding by “the principles on which it is founded, in particular the acceptance of refugees,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Rento Marsudi, who said his country, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, has “deep regrets about the policy.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday that the country will take reciprocal measures against Americans, and noted that the move “will be recorded in history as a great gift to extremists and their supporters.”

FP reporters Elias Groll, John Hudson, Molly O’Toole, Reid Standish, Ruby Mellen, and Colum Lynch contributed to this report.

Photo Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY-POOL/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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