On the night of President Trump’s inauguration, Sebastian Gorka attended the celebratory balls in a high-necked, black Hungarian jacket. Pinned on his chest was a Hungarian coat of arms, a tribute to his father who had been tortured by the communists, and a civilian commendation from the U.S. military.
For years, Gorka had labored on the fringes of Washington and the far edge of acceptable debate as defined by the city’s Republican and Democratic foreign policy elite. Today, the former national security editor for the conservative Breitbart News outlet occupies a senior job in the White House and his controversial ideas — especially about Islam — drive Trump’s populist approach to counterterrorism and national security.
Amid the cheering, music and confetti that night, Gorka talked about Trump’s opening shot in a high-stakes civilizational war, still in its early days.
“Everything’s changed,” Gorka said.
He homed in on three words from Trump’s dystopian inaugural addressthat day: “Radical Islamic terrorism.”
“When he used those three words today — radical Islamic terrorism — he put the marker down for the whole national security establishment,” Gorka told an interviewer from Fox News.
For Gorka and his allies, the words are more than just a description of the enemy. They signal a radical break with the approach that Republicans and Democrats have taken over the past 16 years to counterterrorism and the Muslim world.
Only days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush insisted the terror strikes had “violated the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.”
“Islam is peace,” he told a nation still reeling from grief.
President Barack Obama sounded the same theme routinely during two terms in office.
Gorka has relentlessly championed the opposite view.
For him, the terrorism problem has nothing to do with repression, alienation, torture, tribalism, poverty, or America’s foreign policy blunders and a messy and complex Middle East.
“This is the famous approach that says it is all so nuanced and complicated,” Gorka said in an interview. “This is what I completely jettison.”
For him, the terror threat is rooted in Islam and “martial” parts of the Koran that he says predispose some Muslims to acts of terror.
“Anybody who downplays the role of religious ideology . . . they are deleting reality to fit their own world,” he said.
Gorka is a deputy assistant to the president. He reports to Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and is a member of his Strategic Initiatives Group. Bannon has spoken in similarly apocalyptic terms of a “new barbarity” that threatens the Christian West.
Most counterterrorism experts dismiss Gorka’s ideas as a dangerous oversimplification that could alienate Muslim allies and boost support for terrorist groups.
“He thinks the government and intelligence agencies don’t know anything about radicalization, but the government knows a lot and thinks he’s nuts,” said Cindy Storer, a former CIA analyst who developed the agency models that trace the path from religious zealotry to violence.
Religious scholars are equally withering. “I can’t overstate how profoundly dangerous this is,” said Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Duke University. “This is music to the ears of [the Islamic State]. This is what they seek.”
Gorka has heard all of those criticisms before and fought against them — often ferociously. Last month, as he celebrated at the inaugural ball, those critics no longer seemed to matter. Trump’s victory demonstrated to Gorka and his supporters that the common sense of the American people counted for far more than the opinions of experts in Washington and the cloistered world of academia. His side had won.
Before he wrapped up his inauguration night interview, Gorka said he had one last message for America’s troops — “the guys inside the machine” — and its enemies. He turned toward the host, his medal glinting in the TV lights.
‘The alpha males are back,” he said.
Gorka’s ideas about radical Islam began with his father’s fight against the communists in his native Hungary and his deep Catholic faith.
The elder Gorka and a small group of Christian students in Budapest were sending secret, coded messages to London when he was captured by the communist regime, tortured and given a life sentence. In 1956, he escaped and fled to the United Kingdom, where Gorka was born and raised.
When al-Qaeda struck on Sept. 11, Gorka said, he immediately saw the event through the prism of his father’s decades-old life-and-death struggle.
“Yes, it was jihadi terrorism . . . but, more importantly, that event was linked to communism. It was linked to fascism,” he said. “Why? Because al-Qaeda, ISIS, all of these groups are totalitarians — either you surrender to them or they will kill you.”
His other insight, he said, was that the Washington foreign policy elite was too quick to discount the role of religion.
“Their worldview is fundamentally challenged by anybody who takes religion seriously, and you know what? I take religion seriously,” Gorka said. “Because when you take seven minutes on a video to decapitate another human being by manually sawing off their head, that’s the power that religion can have or a distortion of religion or whatever you want to call it. . . . My father was tortured — tortured for weeks — by the communist secret police in Hungary. I didn’t start decapitating people when I found out what happened to my father.”
Gorka’s core idea is that the United States should partner with a shortlist of Muslim allies — Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt — that he describes as “secular” or willing to separate Islam from the running of the state. Together, they should fight the jihadist religious ideology in the same manner that America fought to discredit communism during the Cold War.
That insight, he said, led him to study Islam, starting with the faith’s ancient texts. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “Would you take anybody’s views on Christianity seriously if they hadn’t read the New Testament? Of course you wouldn’t. So I read the Koran.”
Gorka’s academic credentials, particularly on the subject of Islam, are thin. He went to college in London and spent three years as a reserve intelligence soldier in the British army, focused on the conflict in Northern Ireland. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he cycled through think tanks in Washington and Europe, dabbled in Hungarian politics and taught courses in counterterrorism at the George C. Marshall Center in Germany, which focuses on educating midcareer NATO and allied military officers.
He earned his doctorate from a Hungarian university in 2008 and a few months later landed a faculty job at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA), a new Pentagon-funded school that was still working toward accreditation.
There, he was a dynamic lecturer and an uneven scholar, said retired Col. Mike Bell, the school’s chancellor.
Gorka does not speak Arabic and has never lived in a Muslim-majority country. His knowledge of Islam comes largely from reading English translations of Islamic texts and interacting with foreign officers who account for about two-thirds of the CISA student body and come largely from Muslim nations.
Sometimes, the Muslim students would object to his views of their religion. “I tell them very simply that I am not here to debate Islam,” Gorka said. “Nobody has the right — even a Muslim — to talk for all Muslims.” His goal, he said, was to understand how the enemy interpreted the faith.
In other instances, his fellow professors would challenge his contention that the Koran’s violent passages are the primary driver of terrorism.
“There’s crazy stuff in the Bible, too,” said David Ucko, who taught alongside Gorka for three years at CISA.
Gorka countered that the argument misrepresents Christianity, and he cited the Crusades, which are often invoked as a war against Islam. “The fact is that none of what happened in the Crusades can be justified by the message of Jesus Christ on the cross taking all of our sins upon himself,” he said in an interview. “It’s just not possible. . . . If a crusader killed a woman and child or a heathen, that cannot be theologically justified and therefore it’s wrong and it’s a sin.”
Islam’s martial passages and intermingling of faith and politics makes it different, Gorka said. “If you are pro-fundamentalist in interpretation,” he said, “you have a lot of argumentation on your side.”
Ucko said he quickly dropped the argument “for the sake of harmony.”
Gorka’s former supervisors pushed him to incorporate other perspectives on Islam and publish in peer-reviewed journals where his ideas would be challenged and perhaps tempered, Bell said.
But Gorka insisted that he wasn’t interested in that kind of scholarship.
“What I care about is if somebody in the field is reading my article,” he said. “I see myself as somebody who supports the bravest of the brave — the warfighter. Publish or be damned? I’ll be damned, thank you very much.”
Off campus, Gorka began meeting with conservative members of Congress and lectured regularly at the Army’s Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
In 2014, Gorka left to take a teaching job at Marine Corps University that would give him more freedom and new influential connections. The school is part of the Defense Department, but Gorka was not hired as a government employee. His academic chair was funded by Thomas Saunders III, a major Republican Party donor and chairman of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Saunders and Gorka were related by marriage, but Marine officials who oversaw the selection process said they were not aware of the tie. Saunders said he did not advocate for him.
Gorka began appearing regularly on Fox News and caught the eye of Bannon, who was then editor of Breitbart. Bannon offered him a job at the news outlet. A conservative publishing house signed him to a book contract.
At Marine Corps University, enthusiastic officers eagerly packed Gorka’s lectures, even as many faculty members took a dim view of his work.
“He made a difficult and complex situation simple and confirmed the officers’ prejudices and assumptions,” said retired Lt. Col. Mike Lewis, who served as an assistant professor and Special Operations chair at the school.
Said James Joyner, an associate professor: “The guy he was on Fox News is the guy he was here — bombastic and a showman.”
A few complained that Gorka’s TV appearances, which touted his ties to the school and bashed Obama, made it appear as though the government-funded school for Marine officers actively opposed the commander in chief. The school’s vice president for academic affairs said he raised the matter with Gorka. But the controversy never spread much beyond the university’s Quantico campus.
Shortly after the Islamic State burned alive a Jordanian pilot in 2015, Saunders invited Gorka to New York to do lectures on terrorism and Islam.
Saunders had made his fortune as a managing director at Morgan Stanley and founder of a successful private equity fund. He had done business all over the world. Like many Americans, he said his thoughts often turned to the Middle East and the threat of terrorism.
“What the hell is going on?” he said he often found himself thinking. What possible explanations could exist for the savage behavior he was seeing on television and online?
In Gorka, he had finally found someone with answers. One of Gorka’s lectures took place at the Colony Club, an exclusive all-women’s club on Park Avenue.
“Why do they behead us?” he recalled Gorka asking the standing-room-only crowd. “And why did they choose to burn alive this Jordanian pilot who had flown missions over Syria?”
Gorka explained that the answer could be found in the “Islamic laws of war,” which, he said, ordered Muslims to behead infidels and prescribed an even worse punishment for apostates, who should “suffer as if they are already in hell.”
When Gorka was finished, the “place could not stop talking about terrorism,” Saunders said. “It was spellbinding. . . . This is a true scholar telling you what happened and why. He is very detailed and very specific.”
For much of the past 16 years, Bush and Obama had played down Islam’s role in fueling terrorism. Like many in Washington, they worried about provoking a backlash against Muslims or feeding the jihadists’ clash-of-
“Islam is not part of the problem,” Obama said in his seminal 2009 speech at Cairo University. “It is an important part of promoting peace.”
Such characterizations not only failed to describe the war being waged within Islam but they didn’t match what people such as Saunders were seeing in blood-drenched news reports from the region and hearing on the campaign trail, especially from Republican candidates.
In speech after speech, Trump described the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorists in grisly terms: “Children slaughtered, girls sold into slavery, men and women burned alive, crucifixions, beheadings and drownings. Ethnic minorities targeted for mass execution. Holy sites desecrated,” he said in a fiery 2016 address in Youngstown, Ohio. “. . . We cannot let this evil continue.”
The solution, Trump said, was to mount a Cold War-style campaign that “would take on the ideology of radical Islam.” He spoke of banning immigrants from terrorist hotbeds and imposing religious tests to weed out those who “believe that sharia law should supplant American law.”
Many of the ideas in Trump’s terrorism speeches had their origins in Gorka’s work. Other elements traced back to Frank Gaffney Jr., a senior Reagan-era Pentagon official who founded the Center for Security Policy, a Washington-based think tank.
Gaffney has long been politically radioactive in Washington. He drew widespread condemnation for suggesting that Grover Norquist, a Republican anti-tax stalwart, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In a much-derided piece in Breitbart, he suggested that the logo for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency “bore a disconcerting resemblance to an amalgamation of the Obama campaign’s logo and the symbols of Islam.”
The Washington Times pulled his column and he was barred from speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. “It has been my lot in life to be criticized and even punished . . . for telling the truth,” Gaffney said in a recent interview.
But outside Washington, Gaffney has amassed a considerable following that knows him through his speeches and “Secure Freedom” radio program. Both Gorka and his wife, Katharine, a counterterrorism analyst and a Trump political appointee in the Department of Homeland Security, have been regular guests on the show.
Dire warnings from the likes of Gaffney, Gorka and many others seem to have had an effect on Americans’ view of Muslims. In the first years after the 9/11 attacks, about 25 percent of Republicans said they had an unfavorable view of Muslims, according to soon-to-be-published research by Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since 2012, the percentage of Republicans with negative views has been consistently more than 50 percent.
“Part of the reason for the increase is this campaign on the part of people like Gorka and Gaffney to inflate the terror threat,” Kurzman said. “It’s troubling.”
Gaffney is still too controversial to land a job in the administration, but for the first time in nearly three decades, he has allies in the White House and real hopes, he said, that his ideas will finally be “tested in the crucible of public policy.”
Chief among those allies is Gorka.
Few in Washington noticed when Gorka began advising Trump and his ideas began showing up in the candidate’s speeches. Despite a best-selling book and numerous Fox News appearances, he existed outside the orbit of established national security experts.
Just three days after Trump’s election, Gorka addressed a cheering room of people who had helped pave his way to the halls of power. The audience consisted mostly of retirees who had gathered at the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla.
They were Gorka’s admirers: regular people, deeply afraid of terrorism and eager to listen to a man whose frightening insights would soon be receiving a hearing at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
“I’m accused by many people of being the most serious man on television,” Gorka said in his plummy British accent. “Today, it might be a little different. I am in a different mood. Today, I am going to start with something a tad naughty.”
He moved through the crowd of people who had paid up to $1,500 to hear him speak. “We are happy, right? We are happy,” he said.
There were nods and quiet applause as Gorka fished around in the pocket of his yellow blazer, searching for his remote.
“I am going to show a picture I am not meant to show usually,” he said.
He paused to draw out the suspense before pressing the remote’s button.
Up popped a photograph of a dead, bloodied brown-skinned man, lying on the ground next to an AK-47 assault rifle. The audience began to cheer — first hesitantly and then with gusto. Gorka’s booming voice filled the room.
“We can win now,” he thundered. “We can win!”
Gorka’s former colleagues view his ascent with a mixture of surprise and alarm.
“It’s quite staggering,” said Ucko, Gorka’s former teaching colleague. “If you are a fan, you are enthralled. If not, it’s crazy to think we live in a time when he’s wandering the halls of the West Wing and advising the president. It is surreal.”
At the Pentagon and the State Department, senior officials scrambled to figure out who he was and what his populist foreign policy views might mean for America’s approach to the Muslim world and counterterrorism.
A few changes seem possible. Trump could boost support to strongmen such as Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whom the president has hailed as a stalwart ally in the war against radical Islam. Gorka has described Sissi, criticized by human rights groups for his assault on political opponents, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, as “enlightened” and a “reformer.”
Trump could designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization — a move that Gorka and his wife have long advocated. Such a designation would put the United States in direct conflict with the Middle East’s largest Islamist movement and its millions of followers.
Gorka’s high-profile role in the administration’s earliest days suggests that Trump’s populist foreign policy instincts, at least for the moment, are ascendant.
In the first hours after the troubled rollout of the president’s executive order on immigration and refugees, the White House dispatched Gorka to defend the move on Fox News. Within days, he was everywhere — and loving it.
“There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is Donald Trump,” he told CNN anchor Jake Tapper.
On the BBC, he blasted the media for its “absolutely fallacious” coverage.
On NPR, he insisted that even Iraqis were “thankful” for Trump’s order, which banned them from entering the United States.
Then he disparaged the thousands of protesters demonstrating at airports as the “chattering classes . . . people totally disconnected from the reality of November 8.”
“I find it quite amusing, sadly so,” he said.
The NPR host thanked him for his time.
“It’s been a delight,” Gorka replied, his voice brightening.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.