Does Trump's travel ban really help recruit terrorists?

Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, who referred to President Trump's travel ban as "cruel stupidity," nevertheless believes it's ridiculous to make the argument that the travel ban – and just about any other anti-terrorism action we take – is a recruiting bonanza for terrorists.

This is a familiar line to anyone who has followed the national security debate since 9/11. Democrats in particular have argued that the Iraq War, the Guantanamo Bay prison and anti-Muslim web videos help to radicalize otherwise peaceful Muslims to murder us at random. Hence Trump's travel ban is now a "recruitment tool."

If only jihadi recruitment were so easily disrupted. Sadly it's much more complicated.

To start, the process by which an individual gets sucked into the death cults of al Qaeda or the Islamic State cannot be reduced to a single cause. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, the research director for the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, put it like this: "The argument that the Trump policy will radicalize people is predicated on the flawed premise that people radicalize as a response to government policy. The reality is it's a highly complex process that involves religious and personal factors. A government policy may play a role, but it's one of many factors."

Meleagrou-Hitchens's program released an invaluable report last year that studied motivations of Americans who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State. It found that the motivations ranged from sympathy for the plight of Syrians suffering under their dictator's war to a sense of religious obligation to join a new utopian Islamic caliphate.

Another problem with this argument is that it fails to account for the significant rise in radical Islamic terror under President Barack Obama. He went out of his way to counter the jihadist worldview. He began his presidency by delivering a speech to the Islamic world from Cairo, in which he stressed his own administration's respect for Islam. He promised, and ultimately failed to, close Guantanamo; he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, and he scrubbed terms like "radical Islam" and "war on terror" from the government's lexicon.

And yet despite his efforts, the FBI arrested more Americans for joining Islamic terrorist groups during his presidency than during that of George W. Bush. And while Obama decimated al Qaeda's central leadership following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda's franchises in Yemen, Somalia and Libya grew stronger. Meanwhile, the Islamic State broke away from al Qaeda during Obama's presidency and managed to gain territory in Syria and Iraq. Only now has the military campaign to liberate Mosul shown some success.

The CIA leaked a report in 2002 stating flatly that Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other aspects of the U.S. war against the terrorists created more terrorists.  The report contained no empirical data to support that conclusion – largely because counting the number of terrorists is a futile exercise.  Besides, there was no analysis of how terrorist recruitment is impacted by a spectacular success like 9/11.

Ever since the report was leaked, it has been conventional wisdom that the U.S. is assisting in the recruitment of terrorists whenever we do anything to protect ourselves.  The bottom line appears to be that we shouldn't do anything to anger the terrorists, lest we hand them a recruiting tool.

The flip side of this argument is the "give the terrorists good jobs" narrative that presupposes that terrorists are angry because they're poor and unemployed.  What they need are good schools and good job opportunities, and then the terrorist problem will disappear.

If this were true, the only way the program would work is if the terrorists died of laughter.  Lake calls out this ruinously simple-minded thinking and, despite his opposition to Donald Trump and the travel ban, makes valid points about the reality of terrorist recruitment and how the West can counter it.

Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, who referred to President Trump's travel ban as "cruel stupidity," nevertheless believes it's ridiculous to make the argument that the travel ban – and just about any other anti-terrorism action we take – is a recruiting bonanza for terrorists.

This is a familiar line to anyone who has followed the national security debate since 9/11. Democrats in particular have argued that the Iraq War, the Guantanamo Bay prison and anti-Muslim web videos help to radicalize otherwise peaceful Muslims to murder us at random. Hence Trump's travel ban is now a "recruitment tool."

If only jihadi recruitment were so easily disrupted. Sadly it's much more complicated.

To start, the process by which an individual gets sucked into the death cults of al Qaeda or the Islamic State cannot be reduced to a single cause. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, the research director for the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, put it like this: "The argument that the Trump policy will radicalize people is predicated on the flawed premise that people radicalize as a response to government policy. The reality is it's a highly complex process that involves religious and personal factors. A government policy may play a role, but it's one of many factors."

Meleagrou-Hitchens's program released an invaluable report last year that studied motivations of Americans who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State. It found that the motivations ranged from sympathy for the plight of Syrians suffering under their dictator's war to a sense of religious obligation to join a new utopian Islamic caliphate.

Another problem with this argument is that it fails to account for the significant rise in radical Islamic terror under President Barack Obama. He went out of his way to counter the jihadist worldview. He began his presidency by delivering a speech to the Islamic world from Cairo, in which he stressed his own administration's respect for Islam. He promised, and ultimately failed to, close Guantanamo; he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, and he scrubbed terms like "radical Islam" and "war on terror" from the government's lexicon.

And yet despite his efforts, the FBI arrested more Americans for joining Islamic terrorist groups during his presidency than during that of George W. Bush. And while Obama decimated al Qaeda's central leadership following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda's franchises in Yemen, Somalia and Libya grew stronger. Meanwhile, the Islamic State broke away from al Qaeda during Obama's presidency and managed to gain territory in Syria and Iraq. Only now has the military campaign to liberate Mosul shown some success.

The CIA leaked a report in 2002 stating flatly that Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other aspects of the U.S. war against the terrorists created more terrorists.  The report contained no empirical data to support that conclusion – largely because counting the number of terrorists is a futile exercise.  Besides, there was no analysis of how terrorist recruitment is impacted by a spectacular success like 9/11.

Ever since the report was leaked, it has been conventional wisdom that the U.S. is assisting in the recruitment of terrorists whenever we do anything to protect ourselves.  The bottom line appears to be that we shouldn't do anything to anger the terrorists, lest we hand them a recruiting tool.

The flip side of this argument is the "give the terrorists good jobs" narrative that presupposes that terrorists are angry because they're poor and unemployed.  What they need are good schools and good job opportunities, and then the terrorist problem will disappear.

If this were true, the only way the program would work is if the terrorists died of laughter.  Lake calls out this ruinously simple-minded thinking and, despite his opposition to Donald Trump and the travel ban, makes valid points about the reality of terrorist recruitment and how the West can counter it.

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