The Global Zeitenwende
How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era
Donald Trump has been campaigning on a promise to eradicate the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). The Republican presidential nominee regularly makes belligerent statements such as “I would bomb the shit out of . . . those suckers” and “We have to knock the hell out of them.” He has said that he would send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to fight ISIS and refuses to rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the group. One might expect ISIS to view his candidacy with apprehension. However, interviews with ISIS supporters and recent defectors suggest just the opposite: jihadists are rooting for a Trump presidency because they believe that he will lead the United States on a path to self-destruction. Last week, an ISIS spokesman wrote on the ISIS-affiliated Telegram channel, Nashir, “I ask Allah to deliver America to Trump.” Meanwhile, an ISIS supporter posted on one of the numerous jihadist “channels” hosted by the Telegram messaging application, “The ‘facilitation’ of Trump’s arrival in the White House must be a priority for jihadists at any cost!!!”
Analysis of ISIS chatter on social media and conversations with 12 current and former supporters of the group do indicate that ISIS strongly prefers Trump over the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. When asked to explain their preference for Trump, interviewees offered several reasons. First, Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric plays into ISIS’ narrative of a bipolar world in which the West is at war with Islam. Second, ISIS hopes that Trump will radicalize Muslims in the United States and Europe and inspire them to commit lone-wolf attacks in their home countries. Third, ISIS supporters believe that Trump would be an unstable and irrational leader whose impulsive decision-making would weaken the United States. And fourth, ISIS subscribes to the prophecy of a “Final Battle,” to take place in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq, in which the caliphate will decisively triumph over its enemies. Some ISIS supporters believe that Trump would lead the United States and its Western allies into the apocalyptic clash they have been waiting for.
Although not all ISIS supporters are following the election—some say they aren’t interested or don’t have time to care about the domestic politics of their enemies—many are keen spectators of a bitter and divisive race that they believe has the potential to do serious damage to the United States. According to Khaled, a former ISIS fighter who now supports Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), Trump is becoming well-known among jihadists owing to Al Jazeera’s regular coverage of the election. Azzam, another ISIS defector who still considers himself a jihadist, said he watches television every day just to see what Trump will say next. As the presidential race intensifies, it is clear that ISIS views the impending change in U.S. leadership as an opportunity to advance its ideological and military goals.
ISIS’ view of international relations is based on a stark division between two antagonistic realms: the lands governed by the caliphate, which it calls dar al-Islam (“the domain of Islam”), and the lands of its enemies, known as dar al-harb (“the domain of war”). For a group whose ideology is based on a bipolar universe in which everyone is either a friend or an enemy—there is no such thing as neutrality—it is helpful to have adversaries who are easy to hate.
Trump is “the perfect enemy,” in the words of Tarek, a former ISIS fighter who recently switched sides to one of its Salafi rivals, Ahrar al-Sham. Take, for example, Trump’s vitriolic speeches, which provide a constant stream of material for ISIS’ hyperactive propaganda machine. He has been featured in at least two ISIS videos so far—one about the Brussels attack and the other about the strike in Orlando—as well as a third video released by al Shabab, al Qaeda’s Somalia-based affiliate.
One recent ISIS defector, Samer, said that when he was fighting for the group in Deir ez-Zor, “we were happy when Trump said bad things about Muslims because he makes it very clear that there are two teams in this battle: the Islamic team and the anti-Islamic team.” Khaled expressed a similar view. “When Trump says hateful things about Muslims, it proves that jihadists are right to fight against the West, because the West is against Islam,” he said. A Trump presidency would make it easier for ISIS to justify its bipolar worldview, in which the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds are engaged in an existential clash of civilizations.
When asked why Clinton has not yet been shown in an ISIS video, a recent defector, Adel, said it is because “she never says anything bad about Muslims.” Indeed, it is far more difficult for ISIS to vilify Clinton, who routinely insists that “Islam is not our adversary” and “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people.”
INSPIRING HOMEGROWN TERRORISM
Some ISIS supporters are hoping for a Trump presidency because they believe that it would fuel radicalization in the United States and Europe. As ISIS has suffered territorial losses and military setbacks in Syria and Iraq, the prospect of life in a shrinking and embattled caliphate is becoming less attractive to potential recruits. And so, over the past year, ISIS propaganda has become increasingly focused on encouraging homegrown terrorism and lone-wolf attacks in the United States and Europe and devotes less coverage to the battles it is fighting (and losing) on its own turf.
Former and current ISIS supporters say that a Trump presidency would lend credence to ISIS’ claim that Muslims are unwelcome and unsafe in the West and would therefore facilitate radicalization. According to Maher, a former ISIS fighter who deserted last year but still considers himself a jihadist, “We don’t need to convince Muslims in the Middle East that the West is against them. They already know. The next step for the Islamic State is to reach Muslims in America and Europe.” Adnan, a Syrian who recently left ISIS, offered a similar assessment, saying that ISIS wants to make the West an “incubator” (hadinah) for attacks that are locally bred or inspired. Both men agreed that the group views Trump as the candidate most likely to inspire homegrown terrorism.
For this reason, it was not surprising when, earlier this month, the ISIS-affiliated Telegram channel, Nashir, shared a link to a story about Trump’s views on immigrants with the comment “The filthy monkey Donald Trump describes Muslims in America as ‘animals.’” Nor was it unexpected when, the day after Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, a member of a Facebook group called “The Caliphate is right in spite of the haters” shared an image of the U.S. flag overlaid with the words “War on Terror ISLAM,” with a caption commenting on the election: “Trump urges clashes and confrontation while Clinton prefers diplomacy.”
THE UNRAVELING OF A SUPERPOWER
Other ISIS supporters are hoping for a Trump presidency because they believe that his impulsive personality will weaken the United States. Maher said that the group believes Trump “will lead America to a bad place.” Whereas Clinton would “continue the policies of Obama and bring more of the same,” he believes that Trump will destabilize the United States to the benefit of ISIS and other jihadist groups.
Several former and current ISIS supporters described Trump as “insane” or “crazy”—qualities that they hope will put the United States on a path to self-destruction. Azzam said, “He must be smoking bad hashish to say such crazy things.”
Many ISIS supporters predicted that Trump’s volatile temperament would damage the United States’ reputation and relationship with other countries if he is elected. Adnan said that the perception among jihadists is that Trump “talks like a crazy person—not just about Muslims but about U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia.” Meanwhile, an ISIS spokesman recently said on Telegram that a Trump presidency would be good for the group because he will “cause trouble with Arab despots . . . especially in the Gulf. Trump’s reign in America will unsettle [Gulf] rulers and make them vulnerable. The religious clerics of these rulers will not be able to defend them, and large numbers of people will join jihad.”
Others predicted that Trump would accelerate the decline of the United States as a superpower by provoking new conflicts. According to Maher, “He will make problems with the Chinese and maybe start a third world war.” An ISIS supporter from Iraq, Zaid, said, “I hope and I predict that the Republicans will win [the presidential election] and they will run wild. There will be a devastating war and I believe that America will collapse like the Soviet Union.”
Some were skeptical that Trump would start new wars and predicted that he might instead embrace a policy of isolationism in the Middle East, which would nonetheless result in the erosion of U.S. power and influence. Azzam said he heard from fellow jihadists that “Trump is planning to give the entire Syrian issue to Russia.” Whether interventionist or isolationist, the consensus among those interviewed is that Trump’s foreign policy would be bad for the United States and good for ISIS.
A FINAL BATTLE
ISIS subscribes to an apocalyptic prophecy—attributed to the Prophet Muhammad—that predicts a final battle between the caliphate and its enemies in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq. According to the prophecy, the caliphate’s victory in this battle will usher in the Day of Judgment. Adnan said that when he was fighting in Deir ez-Zor and other ISIS-controlled areas of Syria, the group’s clerics frequently mentioned “Dabiq” in their Friday sermons to motivate and inspire followers.
Interviews and analysis of ISIS-related chatter on Twitter suggests that the group welcomes Trump’s belligerent rhetoric as a harbinger of the apocalypse it has been waiting for. As one Twitter user wrote, “This is the time of Trump. . . . They see it as Armageddon and we see it as Dabiq.” Another said, “Congratulations to us on the victory of Trump! Sit back and relax and watch the end of America at his hands. Dabiq is waiting.” Even a non-jihadist Syrian revolutionary group suggested on its Facebook page that Trump’s popularity is a sign of the impending apocalypse: “Trump has a large following in America . . . and he will provoke the Jews and Christians to fight Islam and Muslims . . . and he will divide the world into two camps: the camp of faith and the camp of hypocrisy, and God knows that the third world war will begin and then the Great Battle (at Dabiq near Aleppo).” From ISIS’ perspective, Trump’s eagerness to wage war against the caliphate makes him an ideal adversary for this prophesied final battle.
In other words, although Trump has promised to eradicate ISIS, supporters of ISIS say that a Trump presidency is exactly what they want. Seemingly unaware of the candidate’s falling poll numbers, an ISIS spokesman cheered on Telegram last week that “all indicators say that Trump is the candidate most likely to win the election. And this is what we want.” Whether or not Trump wins in November, ISIS knows that Islamophobic politicians make the best enemies and will continue to root for them.