Trump and His Foreign Fighter Problem
On June 29th, 2014 the Islamic State (ISIS) announced the establishment of its caliphate; a Muslim state that traversed the borders of Iraq and Syria. Obfuscating Western-imposed borders of the modern Middle East, ISIS’ caliphate was a jihadi dream and a supposed safe haven for Muslims worldwide. Since the declaration of the Islamic State in 2014, some 40,000 foreigner nationals from nearly 110 countries poured into Iraq and Syria to join ISIS and participate in this post-Westphalian experiment. From the United States alone, over 100 Americans have journeyed to fight alongside the caliphate.
The United States should be concerned with such high numbers of its citizens willing to fight for ISIS or other similar organizations. Such a diaspora of Americans gives legitimacy to terrorist organizations and increases available propaganda for recruiting new members from the West. Furthermore, the presence of foreign fighters in insurgencies has historically led to higher levels of violence in conflicts and can lead to more successful uprisings. This could lead to a future of more successful global terrorism campaigns.
The Trump administration has yet to outline a clear countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy that targets Americans who attempt to join ISIS and other terrorist organizations. If the Trump administration wants to successfully counter violent extremism and reduce the number of Americans who attempt to join foreign terrorist organizations, the administration should examine trends of foreign fighters in recent history. Doing so provides a clear way forward for preventing Americans from travelling abroad in the name of jihad.
Recruiters of foreign fighters, ISIS or otherwise, utilize specific techniques to persuade potential recruits to travel across the world and sacrifice their lives in a foreign conflict to which they have no national ties. Recruiters tap into a particularly salient aspect of the recruit’s identity and frame it as being existentially threatened by some outside force. The recruit is then persuaded to take it upon him/herself to defend that identity and join that foreign conflict.
In the case of ISIS, the most salient aspect of potential recruit’s identity is their Muslim heritage. As a result of immigration, modernization, and current events, many young Muslims are particularly aware of their religious background and feel alienated from the societies where they live. ISIS recruits tap into their Muslim identity, frame it as being under attack by the West, and stress the need for the recruit to defend it. For ISIS, using their Sharia-governed caliphate makes it particularly easy to persuade embattled young Muslims to risk their lives.
If the Trump administration wants any chance of preventing Americans from joining ISIS, a number of steps should be taken immediately. First, the Trump administration should avoid aggressive anti-Muslim rhetoric. ISIS recruiters exploit the feeling of alienation many Muslim Americans experience living in the United States. Any inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric will only increase the propaganda available to ISIS in recruiting vulnerable Americans. Furthermore, the administration should avoid any programs that incarcerate Americans expressing pro-ISIS sentiments. Doing so increases the sense of urgency that a potential recruit may feel in order to defend their Muslim identity. This may lead to more recruits travelling abroad or, even worse, could result in an influx of terrorist attacks inside of the United States.
Lastly, while the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve has been a successful counterterrorism military offensive against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has exploited this highly visible campaign and has branded it as a Western-led slaughter of Muslims. This serves as valuable recruitment propaganda for embattled Muslims living in the West. A more effective approach would be less visible Special Forces operations that cannot be manipulated by extremist groups.
The Trump administration should also take steps to reduce the saliency of the vulnerable identities that ISIS recruiters so readily exploit. The White House should counter violent extremism by creating programs that promote cross-cutting identities, increase social inclusion, and reduce vulnerability to extremist recruitment. For example, sporting groups, educational societies, and other youth organizations can help to promote new forms of cohesive social structures that will reduce the saliency and vulnerability of their Muslim identity.
The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition recently announced the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. While this defeat marks a positive accomplishment in the overall U.S. counter terrorism campaign, the global jihad movement is far from over. Undoubtedly, a new extremist group will step in to fill the shoes of ISIS and call for Muslims worldwide to defend the ummah. If the Trump administration wants to protect its citizens and prevent Americans from becoming foreign fighters in international terrorist organizations, it must pursue a new direction in countering violent extremism.