Radicalization and the Travel Ban

The policy helps ISIS.

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

In the wake of Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, one of the loudest outcries against it was that it could serve as a de facto rallying cry for the Islamic State. In a recent article, Simon Cottee, curiously, rejected that notion, brushing it off as “conventional liberal wisdom.” In doing so, he politicizes the issue of terrorism.

To make his case, he cherry-picks several quotes from counterterrorism scholars and practitioners—including Paul Pillar, Jessica Stern, and Nada Bakos, an author of this piece—suggesting we share a racist, pinholed view of Islam and counterterrorism. He portrays us as worrying that the ban could lead to the kind of “polarization” between Muslims and everyone else that ISIS explicitly embraces as a goal. But reading our original words in their full context clearly shows that we do not believe in any sort of polarization between Muslims and everyone else. That is the terrorists’ view.

Cottee writes that the assumption that the ban serves as a recruiting tool for ISIS “contains a contemptible implication about Muslims: namely, that they’re not thinking, reasoning individuals capable of agency, but mere vessels of feeling in a larger geopolitical game between America and the jihadists,” adding that “the idea that some of the more ‘vulnerable’ among them … will want to wreak murderous vengeance for it against their fellow Americans is dangerous.” The view that Trump’s travel ban will spur ISIS recruitment, he says, “posits an overly simplistic understanding of jihadist radicalization, linking this exclusively to grievances over domestic and foreign policy.”

There is no doubt that Muslims, like everyone else, are capable of rational thought. But as our combined 50 years of experience in the intelligence community taught us, Muslims, like everyone else—across all religions, ideologies, and nationalities—are equally susceptible to radicalization.

In this regard, as in all others, Muslims are subject to the same laws of human nature. Cottee doesn’t give enough weight to the possibility that some Muslims could indeed feel the lure of radicalization because of the ban; such a response would be an understandable human impulse. In our work, we examined the cases of hundreds of individuals in their transformations into full-fledged terrorists, including many who stopped part way through or deradicalized. The process, at its core, is no different for a Muslim than for a Christian, or for a Yemeni than for an American, though of course the details vary.

Radicalization is a multi-step process with many tipping points—one doesn’t simply wake up one morning and decide to be a terrorist. This ban may be the tipping point to violence for some, while for others it may merely heighten a sense of anxiety and frustration. Whatever an individual’s particular circumstances, the most powerful push toward radicalization is a sense of injustice, humiliation, or betrayal—precisely the situation this ban sets up.

Cottee also dismisses the notion that the ban is a gift to ISIS propagandists, writing that the key evidence to support this claim “is that a small number of anonymous ISIS fanboys have cited the ban as evidence for the ‘true’ face of an anti-Islamic America.Of course ISIS will use this as propaganda. In fact, as Rukmini Callimachi pointed out from Mosul this week, ISIS members have reportedly begun using the term “blessed ban” to refer to the executive order. If it angers Muslims, if it fuels anti-Muslim rhetoric, if it serves as an easy rallying point, ISIS will use it. ISIS supporters are also using the hashtag #muslimban and #refugeecrisis, to direct traffic a pro-ISIS site, where readers can find a picture of a Syrian family detained at Dulles airport.*

Cottee oversimplifies America's complex response to the travel ban. The ban, he writes,has generated a raft of critical commentary from leading politicians, while provoking a wave of vociferous protests in major cities that has brought Muslims and non-Muslims together in solidarity. What the ban has done, paradoxically, is solidify the gray zone against which ISIS is fighting. It has revealed not a satanic American face but a pacific and liberal one.”

But that outpouring of protest doesn’t tell the whole story—we’re certainly not living in some pacified, liberal America. The ban has spurred a range of emotions and aggravated a deep divide in American and indeed Western society, heightening anxiety among all Americans. It has angered allies in the Middle East—Qatar, UAE, Iraq, to name a few, who may strike back by reducing their cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism operations. All of these things benefit ISIS.

Cottee concludes that, rather than making Americans less safe, writ large, the ban will make American Muslims, specifically, less safe. “[I]t will further embolden the far right in America, legitimizing their fear and loathing of the group. The recent massacre of Muslims in a mosque in Quebec could have been long in the planning, but the exact timing of it, just days after Trump’s travel ban was chaotically implemented, may not have been coincidental,” he argues.

This is hardly groundbreaking. Making American Muslims less safe, however, will make all Americans less safe. Violence begets violence—an old, simple, and still-valid concept. Stubborn insistence in framing this issue in political terms will only make it more difficult to reach those solutions that generally reside in the middle ground.  We all have the same goal: reducing violence from terrorism.

One of our strongest objections to Trump’s ban—next to its possible unconstitutionality and ham-handedness—is exploiting the issue of terrorism for political gain. Doing so will only make it more difficult for governments to settle on effective counterterrorism strategies.

* This article originally stated that ISIS's semi-official news agency, Amaq, displayed a photo of travelers detained at Dulles. The photos were on a different, unofficial site for ISIS supporters. We regret the error.