Who says Donald Trump doesn’t keep his promises? On the campaign trail, the reality TV star pledged to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State. And that’s what he has been doing since coming to office: In August, for example, the United States-led coalition dropped more than 5,000 bombs on ISIS positions, “the most of any month in the three-year campaign to defeat ISIS,” according to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command.
Bombing the shit out of ISIS has become Trump’s signature move. “What we’re doing is every time we are attacked from this point forward … we are hitting them 10 times harder,” the president told reporters on Friday, in the wake of the latest ISIS-inspired terror attack in New York City, vowing that the U.S. would “hit [ISIS] like you folks won’t believe.”
But here’s the problem: Trump may want to sound tough and strong yet his strategy — if you can even call a response based on bombs, bombs, and more bombs a “strategy” — only makes the United States a much bigger ISIS target and puts many more innocent American lives at risk.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the federal criminal complaint against Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek immigrant accused of using a truck to murder eight people in Manhattan last week on behalf of ISIS. He began planning the attack, it states, “approximately one year ago.” Saipov, the complaint continues, “was motivated to commit the attack after viewing a video in which [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi … questioned what Muslims in the United States and elsewhere were doing to respond to the killing of Muslims in Iraq.”
Sound familiar? Well, Saipov isn’t of course the first Al Qaeda or ISIS attacker to refer to the deaths of Muslim civilians abroad as a motivating factor for murderous violence inside the United States. Faisal Shahzad, the Time Square bomber, told a federal judge in 2010 that he wanted to avenge U.S. drone strikes in his native Pakistan that “kill women, children, they kill everybody.”
The Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, in the words of a former colleague, “had been unhappy about U.S. foreign policy and had made several comments that the U.S. should not be in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the two Boston Marathon bombers, told interrogators, according to the Washington Post, that “the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack.” Eyewitnesses say the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen told the 911 dispatcher that he had attacked the Pulse nightclub in 2016 “because he wanted America to stop bombing” Afghanistan.
As Marc Sageman, a leading terrorism expert and former CIA case officer, once said to me: “At what point are you going to start listening to the perpetrators who tell you why they’re doing this?”
The political and pundit classes, however, don’t hear the words “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” or “drones”; they are too busy obsessing over the phrase “Allahu Akbar” or examining the length of an attacker’s beard. And so it remains one of the the biggest taboos of all: Citing the role that a belligerent U.S. foreign policy seems to play in provoking terror attacks against the United States.
The day after the truck attack in Manhattan, I hosted Sageman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where I teach a weekly class on ‘Terror, Islam and the Media.”
A forensic psychiatrist who was deployed to the CIA station in Islamabad, Pakistan, during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, Sageman has since studied the biographies of hundreds of extremists and served as an expert witness in countless U.S. terror trials. He has no time for taboos. “Political violence is first and foremost political,” he told my students, explaining how “neo-jihadists” tend to be driven by a mixture of “disillusionment” with peaceful protest and “moral outrage” over attacks on their fellow Muslims abroad.
“There would have been no [ISIS] attacks” inside the U.S., Sageman claimed, had the United States stayed out of Iraq and Syria. The first ISIS-inspired attack on U.S. soil, he reminded the class, was in Garland, Texas, in May 2015, nine months after the Obama administration began bombing ISIS in August 2014.
The former CIA officer outlined how he believes “political violence” — a phrase he prefers to “terrorism” — can be understood via a rather straightforward and Newtonian process of “action and reaction.” We bomb them, they bomb us. They bomb us, we bomb them. It has become, writes Sageman in his recent book “Misunderstanding Terrorism,” “an ever-escalating cycle of mutual violence.”
A plethora of official reports and studies have come to similar conclusions. As the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board observed in 1997, four years before 9/11: “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.” In 2004, three years after the attacks on the Twin Towers, another study by the DSB averred: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’ but rather, they hate our policies.” The co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, tried to include an “acknowledgment” in the commission’s final report that “the presence of American forces in the Middle East was a major motivating factor in Al Qaeda’s actions.”
Yet to mention such verdicts is to invite scorn, derision, and ridicule, not to mention accusations of “apologism” and “denialism.” The real denial, however, is of the clear role played by foreign policy grievances in the so-called radicalization process.
Meanwhile, the president of the United States openly boasts of how he plans to respond to an attack on American civilians allegedly motivated by the “killing of Muslims” in the Middle East by … killing more Muslims in the Middle East. This is madness. To be clear: U.S.-led coalition airstrikes since 2014 may have removed more than 60,000 ISIS fighters from the battlefield, but they have also resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. According to an Airwars investigation for The Daily Beast, “more than 2,200 additional civilians appear to have been killed by Coalition raids since Trump was inaugurated,” and “in every month of 2017, more alleged civilian casualty events have been attributed to the U.S.-led Coalition than to Russia.” In May, for example, a U.S. airstrike on a western suburb of Mosul, Iraq, killed more than 100 people, including women and children.
Are we seriously expected to believe that such deadly attacks by the U.S. have no consequences? That there will be no response? No blowback?
If Trump doesn’t want to listen to me, or Marc Sageman, or the Defense Science Board, or the co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, perhaps he might listen to his former national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn. With a possible indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller beckoning, few now remember that, in the summer of 2015, 18 months before he left the Trump administration in disgrace over his alleged contacts with Russia, Flynn was willing to admit to me, on my Al Jazeera English show, that “the more bombs we drop, that just … fuels the conflict.”
We bomb them, they bomb us. They bomb us, we bomb them. Will it ever end?