Center for American Progress

Trump Needs to Understand and Respect These 6 Basic Rules of Counterterrorism

Trump Needs to Understand and Respect These 6 Basic Rules of Counterterrorism

President Trump is ignoring cardinal rules of effective counterterrorism to the detriment of American security and the benefit of the nation’s enemies.

An Iraqi soldier inspects a painting of an Islamic State flag in Mosul, Iraq, on March 1, 2017. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)
An Iraqi soldier inspects a painting of an Islamic State flag in Mosul, Iraq, on March 1, 2017. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

Candidate Donald Trump promised to move boldly and swiftly to defeat the Islamic State. But in his first months in office, the new president has violated cardinal rules of effective counterterrorism. In doing so, he has undercut U.S. efforts—and those of partners—to combat groups such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS; Al Qaeda; and their partners.

Here are six key counterterrorism principles that President Trump would be wise to revisit.

1. Isolate terrorists from the civilian populations in which they operate

The first rule of counterterrorism is to drive a wedge between those who advocate extremist violence and their potential constituencies. The idea is to deny terrorists both recruits and the freedom in which to operate. A core objective of the Islamic State strategy has been to close this space by convincing Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere that they have no choice but to side with it against the West and regional partners. President Trump’s actions—including the use of anti-Muslim rhetoric and promulgation of executive orders banning travel from first seven and now six Muslim-majority countries—paint with a broad brush, drawing no distinction between terrorists and peace-loving Muslims.

Such actions lend credence to the terrorist message that Trump’s America considers Islam to be the enemy. As some recently surveyed Islamic State fighters observed, Trump “is good for us,” and “Everyone, even the kuffar [infidels], know that he hates Muslims.”

To make matters worse, Trump also appears intent on loosening restrictions on the rules of engagement put in place by the Obama administration to prevent civilian casualties. Here, too, Trump is eroding the deliberate efforts of past administrations to distinguish between terrorists and local populations. These actions risk increased civilian casualties, serious blowback, and the loss of local support, potentially alienating the very communities he needs to defeat terrorists.

2. Do not validate terrorists’ false narratives

Moreover, President Trump’s call to take Iraqi’s oil plays directly into the terrorists’ hands. For years, Salafi jihadi movements such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have accused the United States of conspiring to plunder the Middle East’s natural resources. Many Iraqis believe this is why the United States invaded their country in 2003. Trump’s insistence that the United States should take Iraq’s oil as a spoil of war resuscitates this conspiracy theory. As with Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, it alienates the very people whose support is needed to defeat the Islamic State and other transnational jihadists. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made a point of dispelling this notion during his recent visit to Iraq. But this message needs to be reinforced by the commander in chief himself.

3. Do not promise what you can’t deliver

President Trump campaigned on a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State swiftly and decisively. It has taken more than two years of hard work with local partners to retake most of the Islamic State-held territory in Iraq and make inroads against it in Syria. Moreover, it is safe to assume that the Islamic State will revert to insurgent tactics and more high-profile attacks after it is defeated on the battlefield. Trump promised to unveil his new plan in the first 30 days of his presidency. But he has yet to deliver, thereby setting the stage for public disillusionment. Worse, he ensures that the Islamic State or Al Qaeda can declare victory after even relatively minor terror attacks in the West. It would be wiser to set sober and realistic goals with a well-defined strategy. The past 15 years have taught that counterterrorism is a marathon, not a sprint. It is important to set expectations accordingly.

4. Do not alienate allies

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is convening the 68 members of the counter-Islamic State coalition in Washington. This is a positive step. But it comes amid reports that Tillerson, in an unprecedented move, will skip the next meeting of NATO foreign ministers in April to visit Moscow later in the month.

Trump’s transactional approach has already created doubt among European members of the trans-Atlantic alliance that he will honor America’s security commitments. His interactions with key allies—including Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and German Chancellor Angela Merkel—and unfounded accusations—such as the charge that the United Kingdom spied on him for then-President Barack Obama—have undercut trust and raised tensions.

NATO countries plus Australia contribute the vast majority of the more than 3,000 troops that serve alongside American forces combatting the Islamic State in Iraq. Hundreds of allied troops have died fighting alongside Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Trump wants to continue to share this burden, he needs to honor America’s obligations and treat long-standing allies with respect—not give them reasons to doubt U.S. resolve.

5. Invest in local partners

President Trump’s recent focus on expanding U.S. authority to fight terrorists directly is insufficient and might be counterproductive. The most effective way to combat terrorist groups is to have the locals fight and win—not the United States. As Center for American Progress Senior Fellow William Wechsler argued, President George W. Bush and President Obama ended up “in roughly the same place” on counterterrorism by the end of their second terms. Both presidents eventually shifted their central focus to “indirect action” that enabled “local forces to achieve U.S. objectives.” Rather than broadening the aperture for direct action, the Trump administration should focus the United States’ indirect efforts to help others fight terrorists. If the nation vastly expands its own direct actions against terrorists, then local partners may simply step aside—just when the United States needs them to step up.

6. Use all elements of national power

Terrorists cannot be defeated by force alone. As former CIA and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden cautioned, “If you could kill your way out of this, we’d have been done a decade ago.” The Islamic State and its affiliates have ravaged communities in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Al Qaeda has found new purchase in the chaos created by the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. After terrorists are expelled, local populations in all three countries will need humanitarian assistance and economic support to begin recovery. Governance and reconciliation will be essential to preserve military gains made against these terrorist organizations and to stabilize communities after the fighting stops. These efforts will require a mix of diplomacy and civilian assistance. President Trump’s plans to slash the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets by nearly 30 percent and to cut in half U.S. support to the United Nations would severely undercut the nation’s ability to capitalize on battlefield success just when it is needed most.


President Trump’s rhetoric and some of his early actions have been deeply counterproductive. He has undercut trust and jeopardized cooperative relationships with key partners and fanned anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Trump has given groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State new tools to peddle their ideology and recruit new members. Worse, he has provided renewed pretexts for these and other Salafi jihadi groups to attack the West. His administration should return to the first principles of counterterrorism in order to keep America safe.

Yoram Schweitzer is a visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the head of the Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict Program at the Institute for National Security Studies. He previously headed the international terror section in the Israel Defense Forces. Hardin Lang is a Senior Fellow at the Center. He previously spent 15 years serving in peacekeeping and stabilization missions, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Africa.

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Yoram Schweitzer


Hardin Lang

Senior Fellow