NAT SEC

Why Trump Is The “Perfect” Presidential Choice For ISIS

A growing number of terrorism and national security experts believe that Donald Trump's bravado and anti-Muslim rhetoric play right into ISIS' hand

NAT SEC
(Photo Illustration: Tara Jacoby)
Mar 24, 2016 at 6:01 PM ET

He’s already won the support of the Ku Klux Klan’s onetime leader David Duke and the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, along with other extremists. Will Donald Trump also get the endorsement of the Islamic State?

The real estate mogul’s polarizing persona and broad, withering attacks on Muslims make him the natural presidential choice for the jihadist group that embraces a similar black-and-white worldview, national security and terrorism experts interviewed by Vocativ said. And with repeated vows to crush ISIS, Trump might be the candidate most likely to lead U.S. troops into a war against the militants, fulfilling their apocalyptic vision. 

“You’d have to be blind not to see that Trump is appealing to ISIS,” said Patrick Skinner, a terrorism analyst and former CIA case officer. “He’s the perfect candidate for them.”

ISIS militants and their sympathizers have not been publicly outspoken about the U.S. presidential campaign. The terror group’s online forums and social media channels reveal little chatter about Trump, Hillary Clinton and the other contenders. Nor has official ISIS propaganda focused on the race.

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Still, as Trump steamrolls ahead toward to the GOP nomination—fueled, in part, by panicky Republican voters—concerns among analysts about an unholy alliance between the reality television star and ISIS grow. Even the Donald seems to recognize the outsized role that the terror group has played in his success. After winning five of six primaries on March 15, including Florida and Illinois, Trump proudly told a crowd of supporters that the Paris attacks marked the turning point in his campaign.

After ISIS claimed credit for the deadly shootings in Paris that killed more than 130 people and wounded hundreds, Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigrants, controversial interrogation tactics and a muscular intervention against the Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq—and it resonated. His tough talk continued on Tuesday when, within hours of the bombings in Brussels, he doubled down on use of water boarding during an interview on the Today Show.

Terrorism experts accused Trump of playing right into the hands of ISIS. “Good God, they’re probably cutting videos of this right now,” Malcolm Nance, a national security analyst and former Navy intelligence official, said on MSNBC. “Donald Trump right now is validating the cartoonish view that they tell their operatives…that America is a racist nation, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and that that’s why you must carry out terrorist attacks against them.”

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Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric bolsters a deliberate effort by ISIS to eliminate what it calls the “gray zone” of moderate Islam, ultimately turning more tolerant Muslims against the West, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow with the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies. That alone could earn the terror group’s tacit support. “From ISIL’s perspective, Trump is the candidate that could destroy the gray zone,” Gartenstein-Ross told Vocativ, using a another name for ISIS. “I am certain that’s part of their strategic thinking.”

There are other ways in which President Trump would be a boon for ISIS, experts told Vocativ. With his bluster and his hair-trigger temperament, many believe he may also be the militants’ best shot at drawing American troops into ground war in Syria and Iraq, fulfilling one of the group’s longstanding prophecies of a holy war with West. Given ISIS’ ongoing setbacks—which include territorial losses, commanders killed in airstrikes, and a crackdown on social media activity —an invasion by the U.S. could revive morale and trigger a recruiting bonanza, Skinner said.

“These guys are getting their butts kicked and they survive on apocalyptic end times,” he said. “That’s the battle they want. It’s such an obvious ‘get’ for them.”

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That in turn raises the question: could the Islamic State promote or plan an attack in the U.S. prior to the election? Given the stakes, such a scenario is not impossible to imagine, multiple experts said. And with an American electorate still skittish after Paris, San Bernardino and now Brussels, it wouldn’t require much. An attack as small as the ISIS-inspired shooting that took place outside a “Draw Muhammed” event in Garland, Texas last year could be enough to swing voters in Trump’s favor, analysts said. 

Still, some remain skeptical. Max Abrahms, a terrorism scholar and professor of political science at Northeastern University, said that compared to other militant organizations such as al-Qaeda or even the Irish Republican Army, ISIS’ decentralized networks make it less strategic in its acts of violence. “IS is not an astute observer of the American political system or even asymmetric violence more generally,” Abrahms told Vocativ. “They tend to attack any target indiscriminately, at any time.”

Skinner disagrees. “I’m usually hesitant to ascribe such weird conspiracy planning to a terror group—but this one is a no-brainer,” he said.