Though cast as measures meant to make the country safe, the Trump administration’s moves during its first week in office are more likely to weaken the counterterrorism defenses the United States has erected over the past 16 years, several current and former U.S. officials said.
Through inflammatory rhetoric and hastily drawn executive orders, the administration has alienated allies, including Iraq, provided propaganda fodder to terrorist networks that frequently portray U.S. involvement in the Middle East as a religious crusade, and endangered critical cooperation from often-hidden U.S. partners — whether the leader of a mosque in an American suburb or the head of a Middle East intelligence service.
An executive order — issued Friday and titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” — bans entry to people from a list of Muslim-majority nations including Iraq, where U.S. military and intelligence agencies have for years relied on cooperation from Iraqi and Kurdish authorities, not to mention thousands of individual translators and contractors.
“Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism,” Republican Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) said Sunday in a statement. “This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
Already, supporters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, quickly claimed the travel ban as a victory. Postings on social-media sites linked to the terrorist group predicted that President Trump’s order would galvanize Muslims and claimed that it showed that the United States is at war with Islam.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. In tweets Sunday, Trump said, “The joint statement of former presidential candidates John McCain & Lindsey Graham is wrong — they are sadly weak on immigration. The senators should focus their energies on ISIS, illegal immigration and border security instead of always looking to start World War III.”
Separately, in a statement, Trump said the “seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror,” and he noted that Obama had barred refugees from Iraq for six months in 2011.
Trump’s inauguration vow to put America first and “only America” rattled allies. A leaked draft of an order on U.S. detention policies compounded those concerns by raising the prospect of rebuilding the CIA’s network of notorious “black site” prisons around the world. The immigration measures imposed late Friday were seen by U.S. counterterrorism officials and analysts as particularly counterproductive and poorly conceived.
“The whole order is and will be read as another anti-Islam, anti-Muslim action by this president and his administration,” said Paul Pillar, a former top official at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. “It is not targeted at where the threat is, and the anti-Islam message that it sends is more likely to make America less safe.”
Absent from the Trump list: Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nor does the president’s action limit travel from Pakistan, where al-Qaeda’s leadership still resides.
Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden said that the order and other possible measures have probably forced U.S. diplomats, military commanders and agency station chiefs abroad into damage-control mode.
“We’ve got good people who will work hard at it, but there is no question that this has already created an irretrievable cost,” Hayden said. The refugee order “inarguably has made us less safe. It has taken draconian measures against a threat that was hyped. The byproduct is it feeds the Islamic militant narrative and makes it harder for our allies to side with us.”
Despite acute concerns about the impact overseas, analysts said much of the damage may happen in the United States. Counterterrorism officials have for years cast the successful integration of Muslims in the United States as a major security advantage over countries in Europe, where Muslims are more likely to be isolated and marginalized.
Those who study extremism fear that the sense of belonging among U.S. Muslims may begin to fray, increasing the likelihood that a U.S. citizen or resident becomes radicalized, and complicates the already-difficult task for the FBI and local authorities to cultivate relationships with Muslim community leaders.
“It was already an uphill climb,” said Seamus Hughes, a former National Counterterrorism Center official who frequently traveled the country to meet with Muslim community members after terrorist attacks.
Tips to the FBI or local police from concerned parents, religious leaders and concerned Muslim citizens have been “the lifeblood of most terrorism investigations” in the United States, said Hughes, who is now at George Washington University. “I don’t see anyone hesitating to report an imminent threat,” he said, but adding, “I can’t see these orders as helping.”
Marcel Lettre, who oversaw intelligence matters at the Pentagon until earlier this month, said the new measures could affect decisions by allies in Europe or the Middle East, possibly affecting intelligence-sharing and law enforcement cooperation. “The political and policy environment might make it such that their publics will insist that they distance themselves from us in terms of tight partnering,” Lettre said.
But Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement, “In light of attempts by Islamic militant groups to infiltrate fighters into refugee flows to the West, along with Europe’s tragic experience coping with this problem, the Trump Administration’s executive order on refugees is a common-sense security measure to prevent terror attacks on the homeland.”
In terms of overseas partnerships, no relationship has been placed under more immediate strain than that of the United States and Iraq.
Trump used his speech at CIA headquarters on his first day in office to declare that it was a mistake for the United States not to have seized Iraq’s oil reserves after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and to hint that there might be another chance to do so.
The executive order sparked confusion and condemnation in Baghdad. Iraqis who had worked with the U.S. military for years, often at great risk, were among the first people affected by the regulations.
Even before the new measures were issued, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told reporters that his country’s oil “is for Iraqis.”
The comment also explicitly confirmed widely held suspicions in the Middle East of U.S. geopolitical motivations. “It’s about oil and it’s a plot to destroy Islam,” said Dan Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “If you want to combine conspiracy theories, [Trump] is doing a good job.”
Iraqi lawmakers over the weekend insisted that Iraq impose similar measures on the United States. Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric, called the decision to block Iraqi entry while Americans still come and go “arrogance,” and he demanded that U.S. nationals leave the country.
Iraqis also have questioned the omission from the travel ban of certain Gulf and North Africa countries, whose nationals have been involved in high-profile terrorist attacks
Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Abadi, said that the U.S. security partnership with Iraq, including American support for operations against the Islamic State and a robust arms sales program, should make the relationship with Iraq different from other countries on the list.
The new measures take place as the Pentagon continues to rely closely on Iraq in its campaign to defeat the Islamic State. More than 6,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the country, advising Iraqi forces during a major battle in Mosul, the militant-held northern city.
The decision undermines Abadi, straddled between a Western ally whose support he needs to fight militants and Shiite political peers who view the U.S. presence with hostility. Lukman Faily, who served as the Iraqi ambassador in Washington until last year, said that Abadi would try to draw a distinction between Iraq’s security partnership with the United States and the perceived snub contained in Trump’s new order
“It will certainly put the prime minister in the most awkward position,” Faily said. “It will not help him navigate his politics while he’s completing [a major battle] and while he has an oil crisis to deal with.”
Hadithi sought to stress the temporary nature of the order. “We will have a discussion with the American side,” Hadithi said. “If it’s only for a short time to reorganize their visa and refugees work, we will understand it and take it positively.”
It’s not yet clear, however, whether the 90-day period stipulated in the executive order will be extended.
Joby Warrick, Julie Tate and Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.