With bellicose foreign policy and his hostility to Muslims, Donald Trump has fashioned himself as a major threat to jihadist extremists, but they themselves see his posturing also as an opportunity, according to analysts who study their communications.
In some quarters of the dark internet, where supporters of the Islamic State and other extremist groups linger, the presumptive GOP nominee has emerged a rallying point of sorts. To them, he is the “perfect enemy,” as one Islamic State defector told a researcher interviewed by TPM, and they are using his posturing to advance their own agenda, according to another analyst.
As Trump emerged as the presumptive GOP nominee — and specifically after he called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States — experts who monitor the activity of terror networks have raised concerns about a possible backlash driven by his rhetoric. Hillary Clinton herself said in a December Democratic debate that Trump was “becoming ISIS’ best recruiter” — a comment viewed with general skepticism at the time and vehemently rebuffed by Trump himself.
But what has emerged instead is perhaps more complicated.
“It’s clear they find his comments, they find his demeanor, they find his approach, in some way serving the goals of ISIS in some manner, whether it be in having a ground war in Syria or weakening the United States,” Laith Alkhouri, a counterterrorism analyst and co-founder of the threat intelligence firm FlashPoint, told TPM. “They believe that with the U.S. weakening down that the Caliphate will actually rise.”
Alkhouri researches online networks used by terrorist groups and their supporters, including one dark web site he described as a “holistic jihadist web forum” the also serves as an Islamic State mouthpiece.
One such discussion began with a meme posted by a user of a homeless person in California holding a sign that says “Give me $$$ or I will vote for Trump,” which the commenter captioned, “even the American beggar knows the danger of Trump on the Americans.”
The replies that followed predicted that Trump “ will be a disaster to America,” while celebrating that he could bring the end-of-days battle in Syria that jihadists call for.
“Trump’s governance will be the destroyer of America and its traitor Arab allies,” one commenter said.
According to Alkhouri, the jihadist supporters’ desire to see Trump become president is two prong. One one hand, they think he will weaken the United States — politically, economically and internationally — and thus is a figure to be mocked. On the other, Trump has also made promises to be more aggressive with the Islamic State — such as “I would hit ISIS so hard you wouldn’t believe it” — that they believe will drive home their us-against-the-West messaging.
“They believe that while Trump is running for the highest office in the world potentially, he is somebody that they can mock, they can joke about, and in some manner they believe that this guy who, if anything, if anything, is advancing their agenda, instead of going against their agenda,” Alkhouri said. “That is pretty disconcerting. People talk about ISIS not releasing anything about Trump, well clearly ISIS followers, or at least many of them, believe that Trump is the guy they would want to see in the White House.”
Dov Zakheim, a conservative foreign policy adviser, asserts that Trump’s rhetoric would be used as a recruiting tool.
“If he gets elected it could be a rallying cry for ISIS and al Qaeda and all these extremist groups,” Zakheim said. “They could say ‘see they really do hate you, and if you are Muslim and you think you can get along in the West, you are kidding yourself. “
Zakheim said that Trump “didn’t create ISIS but he’s a racist,” and ISIS “will exploit any vehicle they can exploit.“
Mara Revkin, a PhD student at Yale who has studied ISIS governance, told TPM that in her interviews with both current Islamic State supporters and defectors, Trump is viewed as the ultimate enemy, someone who may push the U.S. into a ground war in the Middle East.
Revkin–who has traveled a total of four times to Turkey and Iraq this year for her research– said that one Syrian Islamic State defector told her in Turkey that ISIS uses Trump in their propaganda because he is the “perfect enemy.” Revkin added that the Arabic might translate more directly as “excellent enemy.”
“His anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim rhetoric totally validates ISIS claims that Muslims are unwelcome in Europe and the U.S., and that they would be better off living in its so-called caliphate,” she said. “ISIS exploits these inflammatory statements to mobilize its supporters around the idea that the West—and America in particular—is hostile to Islam.”
Revkin reported that an Islamic State sympathizer from Anbar province in Iraq, with whom she had been corresponding over Twitter direct message, told her that any of the Republicans were preferable for ISIS to Democrats.
“I hope and I predict that the Republicans will win [the presidential election] and they will run wild,” the sympathizer said. “ There will be a devastating war and I believe that America will collapse like the Soviet Union.”
It’s worth noting that jihadi extremists don’t all follow the same patterns, and different groups with different loyalties find different reasons to cheer for, or to condemn, Trump. Supporters of Shiite extremists groups will applaud Trump’s comments dismissive of Saudi Arabia while criticizing him for being anti-Muslim, according to Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher and an adjunct at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“You enter this world when you’re looking at it, where a lot of it is completely illogical in terms of the linear posing of what’s out there,” said Smyth, who also runs the blog Hizballah Cavalcade. “Whatever fits their messaging, they will use and twist and develop.”
It’s also not anything new for Middle East extremists to be keeping a close eye on American politics. They engage in everything from intra-party squabbles to criticisms lobbed at prominent politicians, Alkhouri said.
“Jihadists are always up to date with what’s going on in American politics,” Alkhouri said. “It’s a primary issue to keep tabs on, because, in one way or another, it affects the war on the Islamic State.”