We are becoming who ISIS says we are.
I work for a geopolitical intelligence firm. I read and write about terrorism all day, every day. And I say confidently here what most of you probably already believe anyway: The refugee ban is inept and offensive and will only cause problems.
But whoever actually wrote the ban—which was Rudy Giuliani for certain, and probably also Steve Bannon—also knows the ban is inept and offensive and will only cause problems. And that, in fact, is the point.
And given what I know about the current state of the Islamic State, here’s what I believe the purpose of the ban might be: To lay the groundwork for a holy war.
I know: If I had read that phrase even one year ago, I would have stopped reading right there. So I forgive you if you stop here, because I know what I sound like.
But facts are facts, folks. The comments section is at the end.
First, a total ban on Syrian refugees (except Christians) and a vague travel ban on anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries chosen seemingly at random does nothing to keep you safe. Truly nothing. The people who wrote the executive order know this because it is obviously and factually true, and they have access to the same facts we all do, and, believe it or not, they actually do use those facts. The people crafting these orders are intelligent people. They aren’t perfect evil geniuses, but they aren’t stupid. The man they represent, though, is a lunatic.
The likelihood an American is killed by a Muslim immigrant in a terrorist attack on American soil is so low it’s almost impossible to grasp. It’s one in 3.6 billion. You might have heard that number before. It’s been going around. But of even those deaths, over 98 percent were in 9/11. So really, your odds are truly almost zero. (At least they were a week ago.)
The visa-issuance process plays a crucial role in detecting individuals with terrorist ties and stopping them from entering the United States. Perhaps in no instance was that more apparent than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 Americans.
Right now, you should be thinking that this doesn’t make much sense. If so, good.
Because even outside of 9/11, no successful terrorist attack on American soil has been orchestrated by a transnational group, such as al Qaeda or ISIS. All successful attacks in America since then have been committed by self-radicalized young men (and one woman) who were either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
—San Bernardino: One American-born U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent; one legal permanent U.S. resident of Pakistani descent
—Orlando: American-born U.S. citizen of Afghan descent
—Ft. Lauderdale: Puerto Rican, member of the national guard and Iraq veteran
—Boston bombers: Ethnic Chechens from Kyrgyzstan (one citizen; one legal permanent resident) who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts
—Chattanooga: U.S. citizen from Kuwait whose parents were from Palestine and Jordan
—The failed Times Square bombing: Pakistani-American
—The failed “underwear bomber”: Nigerian
—The failed “shoe bomber” who ruined airports for everybody: Richard Reid; born in the U.K. to a white British mom and a Jamaican dad
—Ft. Hood shooter: Born in Virginia to Palestinians
—And the 9/11 hijackers? Fifteen were from Saudi Arabia; two were from the United Arab Emirates; one was from Lebanon; and one was Egyptian
—Bin Laden himself? A Saudi who orchestrated 9/11 from Afghanistan and was killed in Pakistan
—Bin Laden’s top deputies, including the current leader of al Qaeda—all Egyptians
NONE OF THOSE COUNTRIES IS ON THE REFUGEE BAN.
The banned: Syria; Iraq; Iran; Somalia; Libya; Sudan; and Yemen.
A few countries not banned: Saudi Arabia; Afghanistan; Pakistan; Egypt; the UAE.
The terrible irony here is that the people Trump banned have nothing to do with terrorism except that they’re getting killed by terrorists a hell of a lot more frequently than anyone else. In Syria and Iraq, for instance, at least 500,000 civilians have been slaughtered in the past few years, many by the Syrian government which, yes, runs the country we won’t let them leave. Or just read about Sudan and Somalia for ten minutes. These are people who have lost everything and have nowhere to go. We are a country with everything to offer.
There are reasons countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan aren’t on Trump’s list. Here’s the administration’s line on that: “It’s seven countries previously identified by the Obama administration.” Sean Spicer said that phrase three times in his Jan. 31 press conference without clarifying what Obama identified them as.
Obama cited those countries for some changes in visa laws—but not for people from those countries. Obama’s changes only affected citizens of our 38 closest allies. Weird? If a citizen of, say, the U.K. was also a dual citizen of Iraq, or if that person had traveled to Iraq recently, then that person would now have to apply for a visa. Not just come waltzing into the United States, like citizens of those close allies had done before.
Why did Obama make that change? Well, that leads me to the next section…
First: ISIS is pretty much finished. Second: We aren’t fighting ISIS, though. We’re really fighting a story, and you can’t bomb a story. Stories don’t die, they only start to sound ridiculous. The closest a story comes to death is when people stop believing it. ISIS is a great example.
In the beginning, did Barack Hussein Obama create ISIS? The answer is kinda complicated: No fucking way.
ISIS was around in Iraq during the Bush years, but grew once the U.S. got out. Sure, Obama withdrew. Perhaps too quickly. But he inherited that withdrawal timeline from Bush. Also, Iraq simply wanted us the hell out of there. Obama even offered to leave a few thousand troops in the country, but the Iraqis wouldn’t have it. They wanted to run their own country.
And by “run their own country” I mean “mete sweet, sweet revenge on the Sunnis.” The history is complex, but after we pulled out of Iraq, the Shi’ite government did some fairly horrible things to the Sunni population, which used to run the country in the guise of one Saddam Hussein. Alienated Sunnis grew angry and ISIS, which purports to be Sunni, took them in. They gave them food, plumbing, trash collection, weapons. A story to believe in.
A story: That’s how ISIS grew strong in the first place. When the Iraqi government went too far, ISIS rallied its new faithful to battle and seized the opportunity. Iraqi soldiers didn’t want to die for their country, so they threw down their guns and went home. ISIS flourished.
The big lesson here, which we will see come up again, is that ISIS isn’t the result of a military blunder. It’s the result of a cultural blunder.
But ISIS is collapsing. Don’t fall for Trump’s sleight of thumb. Even he knows it’s true. Hell, take it from Rudy. ISIS today is more like the starting high school quarterback who put on thirty, forty pounds and takes down four to six beers a night at Champ’s and talks as if he’s BMOC. C here is for caliphate. And there’s not much of a C left.
Yes: ISIS is the Uncle Rico of jihad.
I understand this sounds a lot like Obama calling ISIS “al Qaeda’s J.V. team.” But Obama was waving them off when they were an unknown quantity. Today we are taking them on, and we are actively and provably defeating them. ISIS is a tremendous, murderous, barbaric threat to the region—I can’t overstate that—but it’s certain they will fall. Probably this year.
Uncle Rico can still drink himself into a blind rage, you know.
Sure, the Islamic State used to be the bad boys. The group had this high-production-value good-versus-evil, apocalyptic thing going on, which appealed to a lot of angry, alienated, impressionable young wannabe jihadists who felt outsided and demeaned by Western culture and were dying—literally, I suppose—to find a life with meaning.
Here’s the ISIS war story: “The West is at war with Islam. If we win, you will achieve spiritual glory.”
That’s it. That simple, emotionally and spiritually charged story attracted thousands and thousands of foreign fighters to the caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
But ISIS claimed that territory at the cost of mobility. When the group established a caliphate it also established a target. Whoops.
As a result, ISIS has been bombed down and driven back into a few strongholds, such as Mosul (Iraq, where a brutal battle has been going on for months) and Raqqa (Syria, the group’s capital). Senior leadership has been picked off in precision U.S. drone strikes, and it’s a pretty sure bet that al Baghdadi, the leader, will be killed this year. Victory in Mosul will be a long and bloody grind, but inevitable. After Mosul falls, Raqqa will go next.
Those battles will be awful: ISIS is flailing like a cornered animal. It will be an unspeakably brutal year there, but the caliphate, geographically, won’t survive it.
But ideology isn’t a geographical feature.
This leads me to Rudy’s second point: ISIS has spread around the world where al Qaeda never did.
Rudy was wrong about al Qaeda here. But let’s look at the ISIS side. The Islamic State has a unique view of jihad: Step one, create a caliphate in the Middle East and fight the West there in a final confrontation; step two, establish a global caliphate. Al Qaeda—ISIS’s nemesis—sees jihad the other way: You have to take the fight to the West before establishing a caliphate.
Weirdly, there is actually no better evidence for the fact that ISIS is losing than Rudy’s fearmongering: ISIS has spread around the world. That’s the exact opposite of its own creation myth. The group, under intense military pressure, reversed its story a couple years ago when it began asking foreigners to stay home and wage jihad where they are by any means available. Plan A didn’t work, so now it’s Plan B. A real place of strength, yeah?
Truth is, it is too dangerous for fighters to travel to Syria, ISIS is too weak to win in Syria, and it can’t get fighters into America.
The sort of genius thing about this, though, is that ISIS actually looks even scarier today. Right? It’s not just hideous videos from sandy places. We’ve seen attacks around the world. Paris. Brussels. Nice. Orlando. Istanbul. Berlin. San Bernardino. But most of these attacks (and all “ISIS” attacks in the United States) are not linked directly to ISIS. They are only linked by the story: Someone who wants to play a part in the jihadist war story that the West is at war with Islam.
And as ISIS collapses, fighters will leave the Levant. Some, from the U.S., will try to return here. Some, from Europe, will try to leverage their European passports to come to America. That’s why Obama made those changes to the visa law.
We’ve seen the terror these grassroots jihadists can sow in Europe. But the United States has had intense screening (“extreme vetting”) in place for years now, and it requires hundreds of papers, blood tests, background checks, and even retina scans. The returning radicals are not a problem. If they were a problem, we would be seeing the types of attacks the Europe is, at that tempo.
We need to worry about the radicals who never left.
This all, obviously, has nothing to do with President Trump, who wears a toupee and puts it on his head every morning with his tiny little hands. He’s just lucky enough to preside over the collapse of ISIS, and we’ll have to hear him take all the credit every goddamn day. I’d bet $1,000 he says al Baghdadi was a badder hombre than Bin Laden ever was.
The big question, though, is what this benighted lunatic will do to win the peace. Have you heard one word about his strategy to prevent these groups from rising again in the vacuum? Will Americans have to secure Iraq? For how long? Is that what Trump promised you?
No, President Trump, who said he knows more about ISIS than the generals, doesn’t know anything about ISIS. ISIS isn’t what middle America should be afraid of. Middle America should be afraid of an afraid middle America.
Bannon certainly knows this. How could you not? I mean, ISIS has never coordinated an attack in the United States. The most likely terrorist to kill you in America is a white man. If you’re afraid ISIS is going to kill us all, you are being played, hombre, stoked into a violent rage against your fellow man for the sake of a racially-charged power grab by a cadre of billionaires who don’t give a shit about your safety.
You are becoming who ISIS says you are.
Not only that, you are being told to become who ISIS says you are. You aren’t writing your own character.
So the bigger question: How to wage war on the war story—the story that we are at war with Islam? Our plan seems pretty damn clear to me. Fight fire with fire: Islam is at war with the West. In fact, last year Trump said “I think Islam hates us.”
I don’t mean to tell you something you’ve no doubt heard a thousand times, but Islam isn’t at war with us, and we aren’t at war with Islam.
Steve Bannon, though, believes otherwise. Strongly. Terrifyingly strongly.
ALERT: Donald Trump and ISIS are telling the same story.
Quick: Who poses a bigger threat, a returning five-year-old U.S. citizen with an Iranian mother or an immigrating 23-year-old from the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek When Sean Spicer was asked what was essentially that question, he said the five-year-old was, because “to assume that just because of someone’s age and gender that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.”
But if someone is from a suburb such as Molenbeek or a Tunisian community in Milan then it’s different. Different categories of wretched refuse, I suppose. Like breaking down your recycling numbers. Except this refuse just so happens to break down on strictly religious lines.
It’s no coincidence the spike in grassroots attacks in the past year or so parallels the spike in anti-immigrant and in particular Islamophobic rhetoric spouting from the puckered sphincter where a mouth should be on a certain perfidiously-coiffed world leader whom everyone in the country has now imagined being peed on by prostitutes while wearing a toupee.
In the 2000s, there were eight grassroots jihadist attacks in America. In the 2010s, already 20. But the Quran hasn’t changed one word since Donald Trump announced his campaign.
No: Islam hasn’t changed. America has.
This year, we’re going see the consequences of a United States that abandons its principles. We will see a rise in religious violence so dramatic that we aren’t prepared for it. There’s empirical evidence that hate crimes against Muslims have risen since the election. Such as this attack that happened hours after Trump announced the refugee ban.
After San Bernardino, Trump tweeted out the “total and complete shutdown” crap. For the next five days, hate crimes against Muslims surged indisputably.
And last Sunday night, a full two days after the travel ban went into effect, a young white man who professed his admiration for the President of the United States of America and Marine Le Pen entered a mosque in Quebec City and shot to death eight people he’d never met, while they were praying, because they said a certain god’s name.
Trump hasn’t said anything.
That same day, though, jihadists celebrated the travel ban as a recruiting tool, with one apparently dubbing Trump “the best caller to Islam.” Who else celebrated it? No one outside of white supremacists and Donald Trump’s inner circle.
So ISIS is dying, but we just threw them a lifeline. Why would we do that?
Now let’s give Bannon the benefit of the doubt and see where that takes us.
—Trump excused Christians from the ban
—Ideology is not a geographic feature
—All deadly terrorist attacks in the United States have been carried out by U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents
—Donald Trump and ISIS are telling the same story
—We are becoming what ISIS says we are
—Grassroots jihadist attacks in America will go up
—The statistically most deadly terrorist threat in America is white men
Steve Bannon has characterized our era as entering a global holy war against Islamic jihadist fascism. And at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning, Trump read these lines from a prompter:
“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us…. Terrorism is a fundamental threat to religious freedom. It must be stopped and it will be stopped. It may not be pretty for a little while. It will be stopped.”
Bannon is creating the global holy war that was never really there. If you follow counterterrorism carefully, you would know this war would never, ever become global in any true sense other than sporadic attacks at different dots on the map. It is not World War III. But it could become one if we tell the wrong war story. This executive order is meant to add fuel to that war and bait religious violence in America, which will be done by, but mostly against, Muslims. Those attacks will be exploited to justify doing some truly terrible things to our civil liberties. Starting with Muslims and going who knows where. And other Americans will use these jihadist attacks to justify backlash of their own.
After the Quebec attack, Donald Trump, Jr., favorited a tweet that said his dad will get a “tremendous spike in political capital” when the gunman was revealed to be a Muslim. Fox News tweeted erroneously that the suspect was a Moroccan. The information at the time was that there were two suspects, one Moroccan and one Quebecois. Fox conveniently left half of that out. The Moroccan turned out to be a witness. Sean Spicer, when asked about the attack, said it was “a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant and why the president is taking steps to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security.”
As of this writing, it remains unclear just what the fuck Spicer was talking about.
But today a man with a machete and two backpacks rushed a group of soldiers outside the Louvre. He was shot but not killed. No serious injuries to anyone. No explosives in his backpacks. I’m not sure what he thought a machete could do to a group of armed soldiers. He was apparently Muslim.
But of course Trump tweeted it out this morning: “A new radical Islamic terrorist has just attacked in Louvre Museum in Paris. Tourists were locked down. France on edge again. GET SMART U.S.”
As jihadists often do, that attacker apparently screamed, “Allahu Akbar” — god is great. Witnesses in the Quebec City mosque attack said the shooter, a white Canadian nationalist and Trump supporter, also shouted, “Allahu Akbar” as he opened fire with unfathomable humor on the Muslims he hated.
Which god’s name do you say when you send out your prayers for those people? Does that make their lives or deaths any more or less meaningful than they were?
It is time to fight a personal jihad against fear. Give supermarket gift cards to your nearest refugee assistance non-profit or center. Vote. Protest with as many people as you can, in front of as many cameras as you can. Offer your homes and bikes to people who are already here. Hire refugees. Tell elected officials how you feel.
After all, this is a war of war stories, and we have an advantage there. Remember Quebec, and remember that Donald Trump said nothing.
America akbar. This is the greatest country in the world.