Al Qaeda’s Favorite President

For ISIS and Al Qaeda, Trump's foreign policy is the gift that keeps on giving.

Michael Flynn at a campaign rally for Donald Trump in Phoenix, AZ in 2016. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Shortly after Donald Trump’s Election Day victory, many jihadists voiced their pleasure with the result: “Rejoice with support from Allah, and find glad tidings in the imminent demise of America at the hands of Trump,” said one. Trump “reveals the true mentality of the Americans, and their racism toward Muslims and Arabs and everything. He reveals what his predecessors used to conceal. So his victory further exposes America and its appendages,” said another.

Trump — who pledged in his inaugural address to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism” and “eradicate [it] completely from the face of the earth,” as well as previously promising to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS and “take out” the families of terrorists — likely sees himself as a staunch opponent of what he and the Right refer to as “Radical Islam.”

But there’s at least one problem with his self-perception: Trump’s proposed policies would only strengthen, not hinder, ISIS and other extremist groups. Indeed, after Trump issued his executive order barring entry to the United States citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, jihadist groups “celebrated . . . saying the new policy validates their claim that the United States is at war with Islam,” as Joby Warrick reported in the Washington Post.

In 2016, Mara Revkin and Ahmad Mhidi wrote in Foreign Affairs that “jihadists are rooting for a Trump presidency because they believe that he will lead the United States on a path to self-destruction.” Based on analysis of ISIS chatter on social media and interviews with several current and former supporters, Revkin and Mhidi found four main reasons for their support:

First, Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric plays into ISIS’ narrative of a bipolar world in which the West is at war with Islam. Second, ISIS hopes that Trump will radicalize Muslims in the United States and Europe and inspire them to commit lone-wolf attacks in their home countries. Third, ISIS supporters believe that Trump would be an unstable and irrational leader whose impulsive decision-making would weaken the United States. And fourth, ISIS subscribes to the prophecy of a “Final Battle,” to take place in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq, in which the caliphate will decisively triumph over its enemies.

It’s still impossible to predict all the specifics of Trump’s foreign policy with much certainty. However, we can find some clues as to what kind of foreign policy Trump intends to craft by looking at the writings and public statements of retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, who Trump has chosen to be his national security adviser.

“Flynn Facts”

Flynn, who also served as Trump’s primary national security adviser during his campaign, spent three decades as an intelligence officer with the US Army and has experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2014, he was terminated from his last assignment as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency over management issues. But in his book The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (co-authored with Michael Ledeen), Flynn contends he was fired “after telling a congressional committee that we were not as safe as we had been a few years back.”

Flynn’s statements have sometimes been contradictory and incoherent, and he has demonstrated a poor affinity with facts — some of his subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency referred to his assertions as “Flynn facts” and Colin Powell, writing in private emails that were leaked, called him “right-wing nutty.” For example, despite stating that Russia is part of an “enemy alliance” opposing the West, he accepted a paid speaking engagement for Russian media outlet RT in Moscow, where he dined next to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Broadly speaking, however, Flynn holds a dangerous and simple-minded worldview, devoid of complexity or nuance: “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam.” According to Flynn, the “enemy alliance” of “radical Islamists” and their allies includes groups and countries like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Of course, this grouping is beyond ludicrous, but to Flynn they are united by one thing: a supposedly shared hatred of the West and an agreement that “dictatorship is a superior way to run a country, an empire, or a caliphate.”

For Flynn, it’s us against them. “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” as Flynn tweeted in 2016. It’s the old “clash of civilizations” mindset that ignores the complex social, political, and historical causes for terrorism, extremism, and conflict.

The irony of Flynn’s mindset is that jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS think the same way. They also believe there is a grand conflict between Islam and the West, and ascribing to the view that, as Flynn says, “Islamism . . . is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised,” only feeds and legitimizes the jihadist narrative.

Jihadists have even written positively about this mutually reinforcing cycle of hatred and division themselves. After the Al Qaeda massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in France, ISIS endorsed the attack in its online magazine Dabiq, writing that the attack had “eliminated the grayzone” — their term for peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. “Muslims in the West will soon find themselves between one of two choices,” ISIS explained. They will have to “either apostatize” or migrate “to the Islamic State, and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”

As the academic and Middle East commentator Juan Cole observed at the time, one purpose of such terrorist attacks is to “sharpen the contradictions” between Muslims and non-Muslims. If groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS “can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.” Such attacks are “attempt[s] to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes.”

Besides reinforcing the jihadist narrative, Flynn’s worldview of “radical Islam vs. the West” also leads to a strange but familiar obsession that many on the Right share: Iran. Flynn is very concerned about Iran, which he calls “the world’s leading supporter of jihad and one of the most repressive regimes on earth.” In fact, according to Flynn, Iran is “the heart of the alliance” between radical Islamists and the nation-states he has identified as seeking to destroy the West. He even insists Iran and Al Qaeda are close allies (they are not). In fact, Flynn believes that “If . . . our basic mission after 9/11 was the defeat of the terrorists and their state supporters, then our primary target should have been Tehran, not Baghdad” — though he believes “the method should have been political” through support of the internal Iranian opposition.

Flynn’s belief that Iran is the ultimate threat to the United States is simply not connected to reality. The country’s military budget is about $10 billion, less than 2 percent of the US military budget of $600 billion (the US military accounts for more than a third of military spending worldwide, and spends more than the next seven highest spenders combined). As a 2015 Defense Department report points out, “Iran’s military doctrine is primarily defensive.” Iran’s “enduring objectives” are “to preserve Iran’s Islamic system of governance, secure Iran from threats, establish Iran as the dominant regional power, and attain economic prosperity.”

Flynn’s anti-Iran obsession is reflective of the broader US foreign policy establishment’s view that Iran is one of the primary “problems” in the Middle East, because Iran has not subordinated itself to US demands since 1979, when a revolution overthrew the US-backed dictator, the shah, who came to power in 1953 in a coup organized by the United States and United Kingdom against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh.

Iran is a harsh and authoritarian theocracy guilty of ample human rights abuses, but that is not why the United States opposes it. If it were, the United States would not be supporting another government in the region: Saudi Arabia.

Hawkish Hypocrisy

For someone supposedly so concerned with “radical Islam,” Flynn has next to nothing to say about Saudi Arabia. The index in his book shows that Iran is discussed on forty-three pages. Saudi Arabia is mentioned on a mere four.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies and the only country in the world named after a ruling family (the Al Saud family). There are no national elections, political parties, or labor unions. Sunni Islam — specifically the extremist variant of it known as Wahhabism — is the official state religion, and the public practice of any religion outside of Islam is forbidden.

Freedom of expression is essentially outlawed — under a 2014 law, “blasphemy, advocating atheism, and questioning the fundamentals of the Islamic religion” are considered “terrorist acts that could result in a prison term of up to twenty years,” as Medea Benjamin explains in her primer on Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.

Saudi Arabia is the most gender-segregated country in the world, where women cannot marry, obtain passports, or travel without the permission of a “male guardian,” usually a husband or father. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.

The death penalty is applied liberally, and mostly for nonviolent offenses, such as possession of drugs.

Executions are usually carried out by public beheading. Saudi law prohibits the execution of minors, but they can be sentenced to death — the Saudi government simply holds them until they turn eighteen, at which point they are executed. (Until a Supreme Court decision ended the practice in 2005, sentencing minors to death was common in the United States, as well. Twenty-two juvenile offenders were executed in the United States between 1985 and 2005.)

Just as troubling as its horrendous human rights record is Saudi Arabia’s support for extremists beyond its borders. In 2009, even then secretary of state Hillary Clinton acknowledged that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” including Al Qaeda.

Yet the Saudis are protected by Washington with massive weapons sales and support. In fact, Saudi Arabia is the largest purchaser of US weapons worldwide. In 2010, the Obama administration made a $60 billion arms deal with the Saudis — the biggest arms deal in US history. Weapons sold to Saudi Arabia include “F-15 fighter planes, Apache attack helicopters, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs, and armored vehicles,” according to Medea Benjamin. The Saudis have used US weapons extensively in Yemen since 2015 to attack civilian targets, such as schools, hospitals, and markets.

The US foreign policy establishment has never had a problem working with Islamists when it suits its interests. Flynn doesn’t seem to notice, and appears to believe the propaganda emphasizing a “clash of civilizations” — which is merely a front to justify Washington’s violent interventions in the Middle East.

The Hawks Won’t Save Us

Washington’s policies and interventions in the Middle East have only made the problem of Islamic terrorism worse, by appearing to confirm in many Muslims’ minds that the United States is out to destroy Islam. As someone obsessed with the need to “win” the “war against radical Islam,” Flynn’s is a dangerous voice that will only motivate an enemy he claims to oppose and could lead to further violence, escalation, conflict, and terrorism.

Some of his statements about US interventions in the Middle East have been contradictory. A part of Flynn appears to recognize how violence perpetuated by the United States in the Muslim world contributes to the problem, but because of his ideological commitments, he is unable to perceive that it is US and Saudi policies that create the reservoir of support for groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS in the first place.

On the one hand, he has said “The more weapons we give, the more bombs we drop . . . just fuels the conflict” and “When you drop a bomb from a drone, you’re investing, you are gonna cause more damage than you’re gonna cause good.” He says the 2003 invasion of Iraq was “a strategic mistake” that “put fuel on a fire.”

But on the other hand, Flynn believes that “radical Islamists” are “fueled by a vision for worldwide domination, achieved through violence and bloodshed.” In his book, he explains that in order to “win” the war, “we have to energize every element of national power in a cohesive synchronized manner . . . to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.”

He believes the United States “must engage the violent Islamists wherever they are, drive them from their safe havens, and kill them or capture them. There can be no quarter or accommodation. Any nation-state that offers safe haven to our enemies must be given one choice — to eliminate them or be prepared for those contributing nations involved in this endeavor to do so.”

Millions of Muslims have grown up in a world shaped by violent US interventionism and support for reactionary tyrannies. Even some within the US military establishment recognize this fact: a 2004 report from the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board explains:

Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States.

The report notes that “American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists.”

The Iraq War alone, one of the primary causes for the formation of ISIS, led to the deaths of a million people and a sevenfold increase in worldwide terrorism.

For Flynn, this invasion may have been a “strategic mistake,” but he fails to recognize the enormity of the blunder.

Rather than examining the root causes for the growth of groups like ISIS, Flynn approaches the problem of “Radical Islam” in a militaristic fashion that can only increase the alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims, raise the specter of more interventions against Muslim countries (especially Iran), and provide more propaganda for jihadist groups that derive their political legitimacy from the perception that the United States and the West seek to destroy Islam.

As a pro-Al Qaeda Twitter account put it after Trump’s election victory, “Trump will serve as the perfect straw man for the next four years, like Bush did before him.” As national security adviser, Flynn will likely ensure Al Qaeda and ISIS get what they want.