US Policy Orientation

Donald Trump's Counter-Terrorism Policy

18 Jan, 2017    ·   5223

Angshuman Choudhury & Husanjot Chahal look at why a major tactical shift in US' CT policy, either at home or overseas, cannot be rationally anticipated

US President-elect Donald Trump's proposed counter-terrorism (CT) policy is as vociferous in its tone as it is imprecise in its content. On this, Trump’s orientation and preferences can be drawn from his own statements and those of his emerging advisory-ministerial council on security and defence. So far, Trump's CT agenda appears to be an amorphous assortment of politico-military choices: tough border controls, affirmative community action, hard military offensives, multilateral security cooperation and an ideologically-framed war.

On a macro level, Trump's CT agenda rests on the singular idea of fighting “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he often uses interchangeably with 'Radical Islam'. In doing so, he directly analogises the proposed fight against ‘Radical Islam’ with the US’ global fight against communism during the Cold War.

While this outlook marks a discursive departure from the Bush administration's broad-spectrum 'War on Terror' and the Obama administration's war on specific terror groups, the particulars of Trump's plan bear strong elements of continuity. A closer look at his CT policy for home and overseas is in order.


In keeping with his ideological frame, and manifest through his rhetoric, Donald Trump has been offering a variety of suggestions to counter terrorism on US soil. Many of his ideas are neither new nor are they likely to represent a break from existing practices. They are however embedded in ill-defined logic and inconsistent statements.

One of Trump's most widely discussed proposals was on restricting immigration. By linking past terror attacks on US soil to Muslim immigrants, Trump has called for new screening procedures that involve Cold War era-type ideological testing, extreme vetting, and even temporary suspension of immigration from the most “dangerous and volatile regions of the world.”

While these seem to indicate dramatic changes under the new government, not much is expected to change on the ground. To begin with, a host of ideological restrictions on entering or remaining in the US already exist. Even if the administration does manage to bring in new kinds of ideological questions, to what extent they would make a difference is debatable. For instance, few immigrants were actually barred from the US because of ideological screening, even at the height of fears over Communism. Additionally, with US visa and refugee application procedures already facing intense scrutiny, what comprises ‘extreme vetting’ remains to be seen. Even the idea of “dangerous and volatile regions” is vague and impractical.

Quantitatively speaking, if Trump’s recent stance on immigration is weighed against Obama’s deportation record , the numbers are not any different. The president-elect recently indicated that he would deport about 2 to 3 million undocumented refugees with criminal records, which is roughly similar to President Obama’s 2.7 million deportations. Additionally, the US Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) immigration enforcement priorities target national security threats, those with criminal records, and recent arrivals, for removal – a focus shared by the Trump administration. A shift from these vital activities is unlikely.

Commission on Radical Islam
In his August 2016 speech, Trump said that warning signs before a terror attack “were ignored because political correctness has replaced common sense in society.” As a measure, he has proposed to establish a Commission on Radical Islam, comprising of “reformist voices from the Muslim community” to “build bridges and erase divisions.” The Commission’s goal will be to “explain the core convictions and beliefs of Radical Islam, identify warning signs of radicalisation, and expose networks in society that support radicalisation.”

What Trump appears to propose is to directly outsource the work that various agencies within the US government are already pursuing under the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policy, to the American Muslim community. However, the Commission’s raison d’être overestimates the nexus between community centres and violent extremism, assuming these centres to be primary sources of radicalisation. This linkage automatically lays the onus of exposing radicalised individuals on the Muslim community; this not only sows greater distrust in the community, but also negates the fact that a majority of those who have carried out terror activities so far have been radicalised online or in small, cloistered groups, with little contact with the wider community.

In addition to the above are other throwaway remarks by Donald Trump and his transition team, like reinstating the ‘Muslim registry’ (initially hinted as a database of Muslim US citizens). Such an approach risks perpetuating the very problem it sets out to solve - straining the government’s relations with Muslims in the US and alienating instead of building bridges. Additionally, it is fraught with the danger of polarising opinions in the US Muslim community between those in favour and those against the government.

Interrogation Techniques
Trump has often stated his intention of reviving enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs), along with keeping the Guantanamo Bay facility open. This was reinforced by his recent choice for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, Mike Pompeo, an army veteran who has defended the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. Given that CIA chiefs can overturn presidential orders on interrogation techniques in practice, Pompeo’s selection seals Trump’s support on the issue of EITs.

On the other hand, several former and current CIA officials have doubted the efficacy of EITs, indicating that they are futile and have detrimental effects on national security, even drawing a correlation between torture and greater recruitment for extremist groups. Many, including former CIA director Michael Hayden, doubt whether anyone in the agency would volunteer to do it. This, coupled with the legacy of harm left by the controversial treatment of captives, indicates that Trump will find it hard to resume such tactics.


Trump's global CT policy is hinged on a much-touted fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria through a set of strategic choices that are not entirely new. In this, he largely appears to equate 'radical Islamic terrorism' with the IS, a conflicting throwback to Obama's 'group identification' CT doctrine.

Islamic State: The Usual Suspects
The primary subject of Trump’s proposed overseas CT design is the IS, which he presents as the single greatest threat to the US. He proposes neutralising the group through aggressive “joint and coalition military operations” and degrading its networks of mobilisation, including its cyber channels, through greater international cooperation and intelligence sharing. In this, he plans to collaborate with US allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. He also seeks some degree of cooperation with Russia to defeat the IS in Syria through the pursuit of common objectives.

The above plan mirrors Washington's current set of tactical choices: coalition offensives, strategic collaborations with regional allies, and the pursuit of collaboration with Russia. Having said that, Trump’s anti-IS military blueprint in Iraq-Syria could be more expansive in reach and direct in capacity: more airstrikes, US ground troops in core combat capacities, and force multipliers in offensive modules.

In terms of micro tactics, there is little indication that Trump would veer away from current choices, at least qualitatively: targeted killings through drone strikes, covert offensives in both core and ‘non-battlefield’ theatres (like Yemen and Somalia) through the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and an air campaign against the IS. Even his strategy to bomb IS-controlled oil facilities is no different from the existing tactic of precision strikes against enemy-controlled critical infrastructure.

However, it remains to be seen whether Trump would actually deploy combat troops in Iraq-Syria to fight the IS. Notably, he has highlighted US failure at reaching a Status of Forces (SoF) Agreement with the Iraqi government. He has also argued, obliquely, for wresting control of Iraqi oil assets to accrue economic benefits. If accomplished, these would automatically entail the deployment of US troops, at least in Iraq.

It is too early to conclude if Trump would wholly replace Obama’s 'limited war doctrine' with a broader and more visibly offensive design.

Beyond Islamic State
Trump’s CT plan does not move beyond the Iraq-Syria conflict theatre and the IS as a blanket target. Even then, he is unclear on how to push the organisation back on other active fronts like Afghanistan and Libya. Notably, he has not presented a clear strategic plan to fight the Taliban and Haqqani Network, the anti-US groups operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, and the oldest anti-US transnational terror group, al Qaeda.

Although Trump has stated his willingness to retain troops in Afghanistan, it is yet uncertain whether the number would be cut down from the current 8,000.

Trump has now proposed a closer collaboration with NATO, changing his stand from his electoral campaigns. This could mean a substantial degree of US presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan where NATO is engaged in training and capacity-building, and in auxiliary COIN support missions. Such interventionist engagements belie Trump’s vision of retracting US’ longstanding policy of ‘nation-building and regime change’.

The Privy Council
Trump’s choice of advisors for security-defence hints at certain early presumptions. Both General Michael T Flynn (National Security Advisor) and General James Mattis (Secretary of Defence) come from hard military backgrounds and hold largely similar views on global terrorism. Both have served in forward roles in Iraq and Afghanistan and directly dealt with key groups like al Qaeda and Taliban. Their careers reflect a strong leaning toward aggressive battlefield tactics, both covert and overt.

Flynn, specifically, with his stark views on ‘radical Islam’ and former top role in JSOC, fit well with Trump’s proposed CT meta-narrative and the judgment that the new administration will continue to rely on covert strikes across a broadly defined conflict theatre. Mattis, with his in-depth familiarity of COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is expected to make up for Trump’s lack of strategy against localised insurgent networks.


Under a Trump presidency, a major tactical shift in US' CT policy, either at home or overseas, cannot be rationally anticipated. However, a normative revision of the overall counter-terror discourse appears to be on its way. Despite telling signs of a polarising CT vision that could cause divisions at home and legitimise terror agendas globally, it remains to be seen how the new administration deals with security threats from non-state entities.