President Trump’s approach to national security: an assessment so far


The ascension of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, was the culmination of a growing trend in political malaise rousing Western nations who are growing steadily more dissatisfied with existing political orders.

The anti-establishment sentiment that is expressed by Trump’s victory is part of an international drift away from mainstream politics and has seen the rise in popularity of leaders such as Marine Le Pen (Front National, France), Geert Wilders (PVW, The Netherlands), Norbert Hofer (Freedom Party, Austria) and Nigel Farage (former UKIP, UK); two party politics, a model that has long dominated Western governance, is being undermined.

Nationalism and populism, traditionally championed by the political fringe, have moved into the mainstream and have been shaking up the status quo. The trajectory of European politics is indicative of this, with alt-right, populist and nationalist rhetoric being normalised into the mainstream; the age of Trump is a consequence of this shift in behaviour.

According to a Pew survey[1], anxiety about terrorism, globalisation, immigration, disruptive technology and economic stability are priority concerns in Europe and the US, which are driving this anti-establishment sentiment. These issues formed the heart of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which promised to deliver ‘Middle America’ from years of un-representation to a safer and richer future; his election win was a “broad assault on an out-of-touch and unaccountable elite.”[2]

Furthermore, a campaign fuelled by an ‘America First’ stance, earned Trump a way into the hearts and minds of American voters, by appealing to their “erosion in support for American internationalism.”[3] This left many policy makers concerned that Trump’s foreign policy and national security strategy would be characterised by a more inward-looking focus, [4] prioritising partisan politics and nationalist inclination. His pledge to shift the focus towards the domestic is indeed reflective of the wave of political discord that is breaking around the Western world at present.

Figure 1: Voters’ priorities — international and domestic focus, source: Pew online
Figure 2: Voters’ priorities — international and domestic focus, source: Pew online

The accepted ‘outward-looking’ international order since the end of the Cold War — to which the USA has been central– is being undermined by various components of political dissidents and radical leaders — from populists to terrorists. This is a drastic move away from the US’s traditional position on the global stage, and calls into question the US’s commitment to maintaining the accepted world order, especially in terms of international counterterrorism policy and operations. Under Trump, America’s tacit role in preserving NATO, and other international alliances, is no longer certain. Furthermore, their contribution to military, peacekeeping and security efforts that has been seminal to shaping elements of current socio-political situations in various parts of the world, such as the Middle East, Africa, Russia and Asia, is similarly equivocal.

Well over 100 days now since Trump’s inauguration, which provides a window into the strategic insights of the incumbent President and what we might expect to see in the coming four years of his administration. However, the focus of this report will not be to use Trump’s initial six months in order to predict national security policy. Rather it will be to analyse key decisions that have been made to do with national security, with a focus on domestic and international counterterrorism.

Counter terrorism strategy comprises several different operational, legislative and policy tools that are implemented domestically and internationally. The report will consider immigration, border security and countering violent extremism (CVE) within the domestic paradigm and will examine military engagement as integral to international counterterrorism efforts. It will also examine the diplomatic roles that the US is currently engaged in from a counterterrorism perspective. The international focus will be on the Middle East and Africa as these regions are where President Trump has made considerable moves since taking office.

The structure is in two parts. Initially, the report will examine the links between the security architecture, the advisers and how those in key positions will be responsible for shaping America’s approach to counterterrorism. Secondly, the report will dissect the Trump administration’s counterterrorism policy, operational and legislative decisions, against the backdrop of the current security environment. The final part will evaluate the analysis and draw conclusions.

National security and the incoming administration


National security is a fundamental part of any administration’s governance. There are many components involved in making national security decisions, which means that a centralised structure(s) that “consolidate and co-ordinate” these different units is of vital importance to making effective and robust choices.[5]

In terms of departments and structure, the National Security Council (NSC) is a means to “bring the disparate parts of the security agenda together,”[6] to ensure that the threats that undermine the security, safety and stability of society are properly considered and appropriately dealt with. The functions of the American NSC:

“manages and coordinates foreign and defence policies and reconciles diplomatic and military commitments. It is a forum in which new policies are initiated and shaped — it seeks to ensure that the President has adequate information on which to make his decisions and that policies, once decided upon, are implemented.”[7]

In this way, the Council is responsible for managing and deciding upon different ideas proposed by different elements of the country’s national security architecture, from the intelligence to defence policy and from cyber to counterterrorism assessments. The National Security Advisor acts as the President’s aide and adviser on questions of national security as well as the individual responsible for managing and carrying out top-level discussions on relevant issues.

Figure 3: Organisational structure of the National Security Council. Source: Strategic Studies Institute, The US Army War College, online

Staff: Comrades or Contenders

Trump’s national security team selection will be seminal to how the transition of the new administration takes place. Those in key roles, including NSC and CIA heads, Secretaries of Defense and State, and a collection of close advisers will work together to address security threats and shape the USA’s approach to mitigating them.

Although cabinet positions are chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate, other advisory and leadership roles are not necessarily subjected to the same levels of scrutiny. Furthermore, some positions within the security architecture — such as the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, are not selected by the President himself, and are usually staffed by career politicians who serve under all administrations. Herbert Raymond (HR) McMaster is the current National Security Adviser, replacing the original choice for the role, Michael Flynn. Alongside him, are, Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson; CIA Director, Mike Pompeo and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and close counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka.

There’s been large scepticism surrounding the new White House administration choices from the external political community. This has been largely due to two factors: the compromising political leanings and affiliations of certain members in key advisory positions and the spate of disagreements between Trump and his team. On the second point — Michael Flynn — the initial National Security Adviser was forced to resign over potentially breaching diplomatic protocol during conversations with the Russian Ambassador to the US.[8] His replacement, H.R McMaster disagrees with the President’s stance — and that of Bannon and Gorka — on rhetoric and language used to talk about the international terrorist threat. Bannon and Gorka are staunch proponents of the issues posed by ‘radical Islam’, arguing that the threat “derives from Islam itself,”[9] Whereas McMaster does not believe it is helpful to frame the threat within a religious paradigm. Bannon was unusually given a place on the NSC but subsequently removed which stirred tension between him and Trump. The acting attorney General — Sally Yates — was fired for not supporting the President’s travel ban, and the last (so far) in a long line of controversies was the sacking of FBI director, James Comey. These events have highlighted tension and confusion within the administration, which might indicate poor decision making on behalf of the President, failing to put the right people into these roles. On the other hand, it might just be an initial teething period that will be regulated over time; this remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, the concern remains that crucial foreign policy decisions may not be approached with the required robust strategic responses. For example, questions surrounding the nuclear agreement with Iran, [10] America’s role in NATO and Washington’s relationship with Moscow have been met with indecisiveness and vagueness, indicating a lack of consensus and potential instability within the administration. His recent trip to the new NATO headquarters in Brussels instilled little confidence in fellow member states, failing to confirm his administration’s commitment to reciprocated security agreements.[11]

The political leanings and personal world views of certain Oval Office advisers have raised eyebrows and heightened levels of concern among the international community, due to their potentially dangerous influence over the direction of US security policy and legislation. For example, prior to their roles in government, both Bannon and Gorka were executives at the far-right media site, Breitbart. Bannon identifies as a nationalist and has openly entertained misogynistic and anti-Semitic sentiments.[12] Gorka, another self-proclaimed nationalist — which in theory is entirely inoffensive — is a paid up member of the far-right, illiberal Hungarian nationalist organisation, Vitezi Rend (VR), known for its anti-Semitic views, and its previous ties to Nazi Germany.[13] Furthermore, his questionable views on Islam and Muslims, has prompted the New York Times to describe him as an “Islamophobic Huckster.”[14] Bannon and Gorka are keen to ramp up policies that shine the spotlight on the threat caused by the ‘spread of radical ideology’; the Pentagon has been tasked to speed up counter terrorism activities both at home and abroad.[15] In contrast, National Security Adviser HR McMaster distinguished himself from colleagues by criticising the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ under the premise that terrorists are ‘un-Islamic’.[16] Should the personal views and opinions of such close confidantes be imprinted on issues of national security, we could envisage existing social problems such as racism and discrimination being inadvertently normalised and supported in the mainstream. Immigration and visa laws could become tighter and more discriminatory, and ethno-nationalist sentiments could prevail.

Intelligence impaired?

A strong and symbiotic team is a vital component to achieving a robust and long lasting national security strategy. Discord across and between differing security and defence bodies will result in confused and incoherent approaches to policy making. The intelligence community is made up of 17 federal agencies and offices, [17] including the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Although the intelligence community does not make policy, they are responsible for carrying out the research into the security priorities as laid down by the administration.[18] Transparency, trust and communication between the President, his administration and intelligence are essential components for successful Intelligence operations. However, a fractious relationship between the President and his intelligence community has already appeared over alleged Russian intelligence interference with the US elections, accusations that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during his campaign, and also as a result of deep discrepancies on the implementation of the executive order travel ban.

Trump’s response to the Russian hack indictment “smeared the CIA and its sister agencies with accusations of politicising intelligence, gross incompetence and even fabrication.”[19] Former FBI director James Comey came out explicitly denying any authenticity to the allegations of Obama’s ‘wiretapping’[20] — a story which was carried by Trump’s chief strategist’s former media site, Breitbart news. The news of Comey’s sudden dismissal on 9 May 2017 was framed by the administration as a move to re-instil public support into the “crown jewel of law enforcement.”[21] Considering the timing of events, and given that Comey was leading the public FBI investigation “to get to the bottom of Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign”[22] the allegations against Comey may not hold up to scrutiny. In fact, it may be that the President aimed to reverse the damage caused when he publicly took to Twitter to accuse and shame his intelligence community, which undoubtedly contributed towards undermining public trust in these state institutions.

Trump accused the intelligence community and the press, for orchestrating the downfall of Michael Flynn from his post as National Security Adviser: “information is illegally being given to the failing @nytimes and @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (N.S.A and F.B.I?).”[23] The ramifications of these unsubstantiated statements in the public domain are inherently damaging to the reputations of the CIA, the former President and the well-respected New York Times. Continuing to alienate those responsible for the safety and security of the nation will only do a disservice to Trump. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell has argued that Trump’s slanderous attacks on the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community over the “assessment that Russia interfered in our presidential election” will weaken the agency and the much-needed influence it holds in protecting US National Security.[24] He goes on to say: “The key national security issues of the day — terrorism; proliferation; cyberespionage, crime and war; and the challenges to the global order posed by Russia, Iran and China — all require first-rate intelligence for a commander in chief to understand them, settle on a policy and carry it out.”[25]

However, domestic issues with intelligence leaks seem to have transcended borders leading to allies questioning and reviewing the nature of information sharing protocol with the US.[26] In the wake of the Manchester terrorist attack in May 2017, The New York Times leaked critical and classified information that the UK government had withheld from the public due to the nature of the investigation. Bearing in mind there has been much emphasis on the vital importance of increased intelligence and information sharing between allies, this latest indiscretion is yet another embarrassment for the Trump administration. The rationale behind the leaks are unclear — and may even reinforce the President’s series of allegations against the intelligence community. Regardless, it reveals an increasingly worrying pattern of discord, demonstrating the US’s “strongest allies cannot rely on this president or his administration to keep their secrets,”[27]and risks further alienation between the President and his intelligence community.

The executive order to implement the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations on 27 January 2017, was allegedly rolled out without any prior consultation with intelligence officials or senior advisers; the New York Times revealed specifically that Pompeo was left out of consultations prior to the rollout.[28] The piece goes on to suggest that not only were the intelligence community not made aware of the policy before implementation, but allegedly reports suggest that agencies were asked to “build a case for why these countries represent a danger sufficient to justify the redrafted executive order.”[29] This demonstrates that intelligence was used in the aftermath to rationalise already exacted policy, instead of independently gathered intelligence providing the rationale to make policy; perhaps a disingenuous approach to harnessing the skills of the intelligence community?

There is a need now more than ever to demonstrate that there is not discord between the President and his senior intelligence supervisors, not least to restore public trust in these institutions to ensure their safety and security, but also to demonstrate that the President himself trusts those in charge to lead appropriately. However, this is a two-way relationship, and a deficiency in mutual trust — as has been demonstrated by the tensions between the intelligence community and the President — is damaging for Trump on three accounts. Firstly, it risks alienating close allies in government. Secondly it damages a credible relationship in the eyes of the public, who rely heavily on robust partnerships such as these, to ensure their safety and security. Furthermore, the US’s trusted partnerships of information sharing between allies has been compromised, resulting in the need for urgent and robust damage control to repair certain relationships — especially with the UK. An independent review of their intelligence agencies will be the first step.

Counterterrorism and domestic security: ‘mythbusting’

President Trump’s conception of security reflects the current global fixation with terrorism. He vowed to “make America safe again,”[30] by wiping out the threat posed by international terrorism and to wipe out Islamic State in 30 days.”[31] Over the past 15 years, the global terrorist threat has indeed expanded and decentralised considerably, making it much harder for security services to predict and mitigate the threat. It would thus seem prudent of any incoming president to prioritise the security of his citizens upon taking office. However, Trump has narrowed the US’s approach to counterterrorism by drawing direct links between terrorism and immigration (mostly regarding refugees); border security (again, regarding refugees); extremism (violent and non-violent) and Islam, Muslims, and the Arab world. This has justified policy and rhetoric that would be ordinarily characterised as illiberal, racist or hyper-nationalist.

Despite the facts and statistics clearly indicating gun crime, car accidents or drowning in the bath are more likely to kill Americans than terrorists,[32] the unique characteristic of terrorism “combines the wrong-place-wrong-time randomness of a natural disaster with the precision of a hate crime.”[33] However, the hyperbole that goes hand in hand with talking about the terrorist threat has unnecessarily ramped up the fear factor, thus giving ordinary citizens a disproportionate understanding of the scale and nature of the threat. The move towards a “bipartisan approach to national security focused on terrorism [that] has distorted America’s understanding of its interests,”[34] and has allowed the lines between counter terrorism, national security and foreign policy to be blurred. Executive orders like the travel ban, the refugee resettlement suspension, the ban on electronic devices on airplanes and increased military operations in the Middle East and Africa, have all been shrouded in the fear of counter terrorism. This has been a key legitimising factor for executing policy that otherwise seems discriminatory, unnecessary and unhelpful.

For example, experts have undermined the logic behind the indefinite ban of carry-on electronic devices on planes coming from Muslim-majority countries, instituted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on 21 March 2017, from a technological perspective. They have cited the threat as being no different today than previously, and secondly, that the rationale behind stowing the device in the hold rather than the cabin “does not match a conventional threat model” because a potential bomb in the electronic device could be detonated from either place just as effectively.

Similarly, the Obama administration had already instituted travel restrictions on the seven countries that were temporarily banned into the USA in January 2017. The rationale behind ramping up existing policy based on no new concrete intelligence or imminent threat pertaining from these nations explicitly, only undermined the logic behind the ban. Furthermore, a DHS report was unable to find sufficient evidence to support the President’s ban,[35] leaving room to speculate alternative grounds for motivation.

The travel and electronic bans disproportionately target Muslim nations, despite the fact that since 9/11 all the terrorist attacks that killed American citizens in the USA were perpetrated by US nationals: “Not one of the perpetrators was a tourist…and several were non-Muslims. Nor were any of them refugees, or connected to any of the countries in Trump’s two Muslim bans.”[36] Furthermore, even dual national American citizens were not allowed back into the country if they had visited one of those on the restricted list.

The bans came off the back of Trump’s campaign promises, which directly threatened to ban all Muslims from entering the USA justified as preventing attacks on US soil. During 2015, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”[37] Trump’s unequivocal link between the threat of terrorism and the Arab-Muslim population, as exemplified in his statements and subsequent policy decisions, almost vindicates grievances of unfair ethno-religious targeting by their own government.

This exemplifies how policies that are framed within the context of counterterrorism are justified and validated despite the propensity to be discriminatory. Whilst the ban on travel from Muslim majority countries, and the indefinite ban on refugees from Syria (in particular, Muslim refugees[38]) have been legitimised on the basis of curbing transnational terrorism, Trump’s rhetoric regarding the border wall with Mexico is not framed in the context of counterterrorism. Contrastingly, but no less discriminatory, it is framed within the broader sphere of national security- i.e. curbing immigration, drug trafficking and gang crime. Despite Trump’s executive order to set the wheels in place to construct the wall — he even received a series of proposals from companies prepared to develop it — the preliminary federal Budget allocated $772 million to Customs and Border Protection,[39] which, did not include funding for the wall along the US-Mexico border.

Policies that target particular groups of people, based on race, ethnicity or religion in ways that curb their civil liberties and freedoms have been legitimised by framing the issue within a security paradigm.[40] Furthermore, they fuel a victim narrative that terrorist organisations can exploit to recruit. For example, vetting processes for visa application decisions are gradually becoming more and more invasive, but are framed within the narrative of counterterrorism.[41] With the obvious and proven recruiting potential of social media platforms for terrorist organisations, these kinds of checks appear reasonable and sensible. However, social media account history monitoring, under the counterterrorism and national security framework, may provide the green light for further surveillance tactics that could result in potential infringement upon civil liberties in the future.

Another example — albeit short-lived — was the temporary burkini ban[42] issued in southern France in 2016, and Austria’s ruling to ban the niqab (full face veil) in public places[43] in 2017, singularly target the civil liberties of Muslim women, and have been justified on the basis of counterterrorism policy. The framing of public policy issues within a counterterrorism paradigm can be abused for political gain, by playing on the fears of the population.

Countering violent extremism: beyond the Muslim communities

Trump has indicated his intention to change the approach of the national countering violent extremism (CVE) programme to solely focus on ‘Countering Radical Islamic Extremism’,[44] or CRIE.[45] Putting the spotlight on Islam and Muslims undermines the effect of CVE programmes; it sabotages any sincere attempts to engage with Muslim communities by alienating and vilifying them. Furthermore, it deepens pre-existing suspicions that CVE is a way of surveilling entire communities.

Moreover, this refocus onto the Muslim communities ignores the well documented empirical evidence that hate crime in the USA is disproportionately motivated by racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiments, rather than by Salafi-jihadi related movements. In 2016, there was a considerable rise in hate groups,[46] largely driven by an increased anti-Muslim sentiment. Although an accurate national perspective on hate crime statistics is hard to document, local governments are much better placed to record trends. According to New York City police commissioner James O’Neill, hate crimes in 2016 increased 31% from 2015 — from 250 to 328 — and there were 25 attacks against the city’s Muslim population, up from 12. Furthermore, anti-Semitic incidents are up by 9% from 102 to 111.[47]

Figure 4: US Rise in Hate Groups Chart, Source: Southern Poverty Law Center via Al Jazeera

Pilot programmes rolled out by Obama sought to address different forms of violent extremism, including far-right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi programmes. In 2015, the Obama administration siphoned off $10 million funding grants for local NGOs in Los Angeles, Boston and Minnesota to “build community resilience and address the root causes of radicalization.”[48]

However, in May 2017, Donald Trump reportedly froze the $10 million of grants that had been approved for funding in 2015; the organisations to where the funds will be re-directed are now “pending review.”[49] The funding freeze may indeed be the first steps towards re-framing the CVE programme, and simultaneously re-framing the debate to ignore or side-line the threats posed by other forms of violent extremism. One of the earmarked organisations, now ‘pending review’ was Life After Hate — a rehabilitation centre for former white supremacists. The movement is increasingly more active than it has been for years; erasing the threat posed by supporters of such movements threatens the work carried out to combat hate crime and racist attacks.[50]

As experts continue to stress, there is no single profile of a terrorist or one route into radicalisation. The issue of lone actor killings spans different ideologies and mindsets. Dylan Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist murdered 21 people at an African Methodist Church in Charleston in 2015. In March a former army veteran, and a member of white supremacist groups, travelled to New York City from Maryland with the intention to kill black men after harbouring racist sentiments for over a decade. He murdered one man at random with a sword, and subsequently turned himself in.[51] Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people on an attack at a nightclub in Florida (June 2016) as a result of violent homophobic sentiments, acted in the name of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. In Portland, in May 2017, Jeremy Christian — a suspected white supremacist — killed two men (Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best) with a knife, who came to the defence of two girls being harassed with racially charged and anti-Muslim abuse.[52]

The imagined impact that the terrorist threat has on society has meant that policy created in the name of countering the threat, rationalised through national security rhetoric, will be defended in a means to de-escalate public anxiety. The problem is, this type of policy actually stokes public perceptions of fear, creating “conditions ripe for overreaction to a future attack on American soil.”[53] Trump’s suggestion to reframe the issue of CVE as solely a problem to tackle within Islamic communities distinctly fails to recognise the lethal threat of far-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacist related attacks that dominate the hate crimes in the USA. Adherents of violent extremism feed off each other’s intolerance, and create an atmosphere vulnerable to cyclical attacks of retribution. There are a myriad of factors and consideration to consider, which don’t start and end with religion or ideology.[54] All are equally dangerous.

International counterterrorism

International counterterrorism challenges faced by each administration are unique. Not only do administrations need to justify foreign military and diplomatic engagement to the public, they need to be confident in their approaches that will shape future international alliances, foreign policy decisions and socio-cultural developments on the ground. Counterterrorism should be approached multilaterally, and not just through military means; according to Patrick Foran, Trump should employ a three-pillar counterterrorism strategy. This would include military engagement, tackling international corruption and focusing on developing a domestic strategy set apart from the military.[55]

At present, the US is engaged in counterterrorism operations (military and strategic) in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Europe and Latin America,[56] having inherited these from the preceding administrations.

Military operations in the Middle East and Africa

US regional priorities include weakening Iran, protecting Israel and curbing the impact of international terrorism. These interests will therefore shape their involvement and approach to the conflicts. This means increased military and financial backing of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations reinforces its “Sunni allies in proxy battles in Syria, Yemen and Iraq,”[57] with the hope of defeating Iranian Shia allies militarily and strategically.

The existing military operations in the Middle East are of key importance to the broader US counterterrorism strategy. Since 2014, US military personnel have been involved in Operation Inherent Resolve, working on the ground in Iraq and Syria to reclaim territory held by Islamic State.

The botched ‘train and equip’ program (2015) aimed at training Syrian rebel fighters against Islamic State and affiliates, resulted in $500 million spent and five soldiers out of the planned 5,000 successfully trained.[58] Since then, US special forces have continued to work with Syrian and Kurdish opposition commanders, as combat advisers and coordinating ground strikes. In early 2017, there were around 500 special operations forces in Syria. As of March 2017, President Trump signed off on an additional 400 troops to assist in combat to recapture IS stronghold, Raqqa,[59] to work with Syrian forces on the ground providing logistical and fire support.[60]

In Iraq, the US has about 5,200 trainers and advisers on the ground. For context, in 2003, David Petraeus had 23,000 US troops in his command in Mosul alone. [61] US troops have coordinated with Baghdad to organise cooperation between coalition of Kurdish militias and Iraqi Sunni and Shi’ite soldiers to recapture cities from ISIS control. The battle for Mosul is still underway, having begun in late 2016.

The US approach in Syria and Iraq has involved playing a supporting and coordinating role of local troops on the ground. Upon taking office, however, President Trump ramped up counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa. He authorised parts of Yemen and Somalia to be temporarily designated as ‘battlefield zones,’ [62] which “dismantle[d] Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from […] counter terrorism missions outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq.” [63] The status of ‘battlefield zones’ removes the constraints imposed in 2013 by the Obama administration,[64] and allows for the application of looser rules to conduct air raids, ground strikes or drone attacks.

The implications of protracted military interventions — such as the 400 marines deployed in March 2017 to Syria, the 300 Paratroopers to Iraq and the 59 Tomahawk Cruise missiles onto Syria’s Shayrat Airbase — are yet to be seen. Broadly speaking, whether Trump’s decision to strike the Syrian regime marks a large departure from existing US policy in Syria is debatable; on the surface, the gesture implies a strategic shift, but the fact that minimal damage was done to the site, and that Russia was warned prior to the attack, [65] suggests it was mostly a deterrent rather than a strategic shift from the US.

Nevertheless, these bold moves indicate that Trump has played his cards: he is resolute to make good on his promise to ‘wipe out terrorism’ through military means. The $20 million defence budget increase that has just been allotted further reiterates his commitment to expanding America’s military resources for defensive and offensive purposes ($593 billion will go to Defense — nearly $20 billion more than 2016). [66] However, Trump’s ‘risk-ready’ approach may be interpreted as careless. The air strikes and Special Operations raid in Yemen, signed off by the President after five days in Office, ended in disaster with an American commando killed, as well as a number of local civilians, including Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter. [67] According to military officials, limited intelligence and inadequate preparation[68] were the underlying causes for the failed operation; the Obama administration had deliberated over conducting the same raid for months, but refrained because “the Pentagon wanted to launch the attack on a moonless night” which would not have occurred until after his term ended.[69]

The implications of boots on the ground in Somalia (for the first time since 1994) [70] and getting further embroiled in the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq have far larger consequences than defeating ‘terrorists’ militarily. The foreign policy implications with deepening military engagement are problematic for four reasons.

Firstly, escalating American military involvement in Yemen and Somalia — where two lethal terrorist organisations are active — risks weapons from allied forces falling into the wrong hands. Secondly, an escalated conflict will inevitably result in more civilian loss of life, and “potentially killing militants who are not part of the enemy,”[71] which could be detrimental for developments with locals on the ground. Third, an increased US military involvement will result in greater expectations for the US to lead post-conflict negotiations and develop infrastructure. Fourth, under the new guidelines, the US military will be able to “reduce constraints on the use of force”[72] which calls into question the value placed on civilian lives. Additionally, regarding Yemen, it risks being drawn deeper into the entangled web of proxy wars in the region, with implications wider than the existing conflict.

Experience suggests that military operations alone will not end the conflict on the ground; “Somalia’s civil war has refused to burn itself out, despite a lack of major power sponsors and the intermittent presence of UN peacekeepers.”[73] In the same way, the Syrian civil war won’t cease before a fundamental shift of power takes place on the ground, notwithstanding the impact of external influences. Furthermore, the post-conflict negotiation period will be equally — if not more — instrumental in shaping the future for these nations.

Thus, a central challenge to the strategy of ‘liberating’ Raqqa and Mosul, and one that requires careful consideration, is the question of post-conflict governance. In the case of Raqqa, a hypothetical coalition government of Syrians and Kurds is concerning for neighbouring Turkey. In Mosul, the Sunni majority population is unwilling to acquiesce to Shi’ite governance. [74] The post-conflict negotiation period will be equally — if not more — instrumental in shaping the future for these nations and to creating conditions of stability and security.

The existing proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq are nothing new, and anyone who has seen a map of the multiple players within these conflicts will understand the devastating consequences on the ground that arise from geopolitical power balancing. Broadly speaking, Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for regional power and influence, and are using sectarianism to seek regional partners. This ‘regional cold war’ “can only be understood by appreciating the links between domestic conflicts, transnational affinities, and regional state ambitions.”[75] In the case of Syria, the regional balance of power is not the at the root of the problem, rather a symptom; most of the conflict is driven by “parochial [or] personal issues,”[76] and that key motivational factors for rebel groups in the region include regime change and revenge.[77] Taking out the issue of Islamic State, for a moment, the implications of proxy warfare has been the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians against the backdrop of a complex and multifaceted civil war that does not begin or end with the terrorists. Its still unclear whether Trump has a broader, long-term strategy regarding foreign policy in the region once military operations have ceased.

The domestic counterterrorism sphere may also be affected by broadened battlefield zones, and deeper military activity in these nations. Whilst the two battlefields may seem separate, they are in fact deeply intertwined. A key recruitment factor for terrorist organisations — particularly Al Qaeda and Islamic State — stems from perceived Western aggression and indiscriminate killing of innocent Muslim citizens across the world. Military action that has resulted in Muslim civilian deaths has been a vital grievance that has motivated the Salafi-jihadi movement to engage in, what they believe, a legitimate battle against their oppressors. Charismatic figures in Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq have disseminated this rhetoric far and wide, to engage individuals from all over the world to take on the Western aggressors in their home nations and by fighting on the ground within the battlefield.

Anwar al-Awlaki, former leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — killed in a US drone strike in 2011 — is an ideal example of the charismatic leader who mobilised American youths to join the global Salafi movement. His son was killed in a drone strike in Yemen by the Obama regime in 2011, and his daughter was killed by the Trump administration’s Special Operations raid, also in Yemen, in January 2017. Both were dual-national American citizens. Their deaths, at the hands of the US government, crystallised the foreign policy grievances of the Salafi-jihadi narrative, justifying and legitimising their war.

Evaluation and conclusions:

This paper has addressed how the incoming Trump administration has approached existing national security challenges, and has tried to evaluate the implications of current approaches for future considerations of national security. Furthermore, it has assessed the issues that appear to be prioritised by the Trump administration in terms of national security — namely intervening in the Middle East and Africa, curbing immigration and refugee resettlement plans.


It has to be noted that the views and opinions of those in charge will ultimately be responsible for the way that policy is shaped, and the direction in which US counterterrorism and national security policy or legislation is guided. The current far-right wing, and heavily nationalist outlook of a number of close advisers signals a potentially dangerous shift to legitimising discriminatory policies that target individuals and communities based on race, ethnicity or religion. However, the nature of the US system of governance does not enable leaders to abuse their power, rather they are held to account by the legal, judicial and executive arms of government: “we are a nation of laws, not even the president can violate the constitution.”[78] The block on the ban, and subsequent revision of it, is testament to this. Nevertheless, the rhetoric that is being pumped out from White House advisers and affiliates — such as Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Sean Spicer — allows for bigoted and discriminatory ideas and mindsets to be mainstreamed, possibly undermining the good work that the American government departments have been doing in the CVE arena. Policies promoting community resilience, integration and strength building within certain communities are hard to defend as sincere when rhetoric seems to vilify the same communities with whom government is trying to engage.

The political reality that faces the Trump administration is far more complex than initially imagined. Perhaps short-sighted or naive of him — and in his own words: “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”[79] The initial approach to making and rolling out policy decisions based on personal rationale and justification has not held up to scrutiny in the way Trump might have hoped, with congress and the courts stepping in to restrain the President and keep the balance. Congress has stalled the executive order on the wall along the Mexican border, while the courts blocked the travel ban, which was subsequently re-written by relevant security agencies. This shows tremendous discord between the President and his colleagues in government, and their confidence in his decisions in the interest of national security.

Domestic and International:

The churn in political advisers may only be an initial teething period; as with any incoming administration, getting the right people in the right positions is no easy feat. There will inevitably be discord and tension between departments when individuals who identify as strong leaders in their respective fields contribute different ideas, priorities and approaches to geopolitical strategic challenges.

Given that the President is so heavily reliant on the opinions and assessments of his close advisers, it is significant that they simultaneously share and challenge his viewpoints, and that rational conclusions are met in the best interest of the security of the nation. For example, HR McMaster’s reluctance to refer to the terrorist threat as ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ under the premise that terrorists are ‘un-Islamic’, directly contradicts President Trump’s proposed reframing of the national CVE programme to Countering Radical Islamic Extremism (CRIE). This type of discord may be helpful in altering the mindset of the President in the long run, or it could result in innate difficulties and disagreements within the administration about how policy is made and implemented. However, it already appears as though the President’s hardline position on some critical defence issues have already started to shift, perhaps demonstrating a more malleable outlook than was expected — which is a good sign. Trump’s U-turn on NATO, as well as decidedly changing his mind on labelling China a ‘currency manipulator’ are two areas that he has already relented on, despite initial remarks.[80]

President Trump has not fallen too short of meeting his promises regarding national security. A fundamental pillar of Trump’s campaign was his focus on ‘America First’. Many foreign policy analysts identified this an indication of an ideological shift away from the commonly accepted international order, which saw the future of the USA retreating from the global stage in favour of an inward-looking protectionist outlook. However, it seems as though this may not be the case, and Trump’s renewed interest in preserving the NATO alliance, his commitment to building up the US military and continued engagement in counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa indicates that, the USA will remain stalwart in its fight against terrorism, domestically and internationally. On the other hand, Trump’s apparent U-Turn may indicate a more wholesome embrace of the Clausewitzian idea that defence is stronger than offence, thus constructing the nature of his international engagement within the paradigm of protectionism rather than expansionism. Ensuring close allies and partners is an essential component of protection, combined with a strong military.

At this stage, the most appropriate course of action is not to evaluate Trump on his first six months, but rather to assess how the distinct policy decisions he has made since taking Office have impacted the US’s safety and security. I would argue that the defence capabilities of the US are unrivalled, but as highlighted earlier, counterterrorism does not begin and end with military intervention. The situation on the ground — both domestically and where the US is operational internationally — requires a strong soft approach to security and counterterrorism which is in harmony with the administration’s advisers. At present, the soft approach to counterterrorism is significantly being undermined by White House rhetoric, which means the situation on the ground is uncertain and unpredictable.

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[2] Stephen M. Walt, Trump has already blown it, Foreign Policy, 3 February 2017,

[3] Building Situations of Strength: A national security strategy for the United States, Brookings, 24 February 2017,

[4] Public uncertain, divided over America’s place in the world, Pew Research Center, 5 May 2016,

[5] Susana Bearne, et al., National Security Decision-Making Structures and Security Sector Reform, RAND Europe, 2005

[6] Susana Bearne, et al., National Security Decision-Making Structures and Security Sector Reform, RAND Europe, 2005

[7] Susana Bearne, et al., National Security Decision-Making Structures and Security Sector Reform, RAND Europe, 2005

[8] Donald Trump’s security adviser Michael Flynn resigns over contact with Russian official, ABC News, 14 February 2017,

[9] Spencer Ackermann, Trump national security adviser wants to avoid term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, sources say, The Guardian, 25 February 2017,

[10] Ilan Goldenberg, The Coming Chaos: What to expect from Trump’s National Security Team, Foreign Policy, 30 January 2017,

[11] Donald Trump tells Nato allies to pay up at Brussels talks, 25 May 2017, BBC News, [online]

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[13] Casey Michael, Why does this unrepentant racist and nationalist still have a job in the White House? Quartz, 4 May 2017,

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[17] Jami Miscik, Intelligence and the Presidency: How to get it right, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2017,; also see Paul Szoldra, The 17 agencies that make up America’s massive spy network, Business Insider Briefing, 3 May 2013

[18] Jami Miscik, Intelligence and the Presidency: How to get it right, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2017,

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[22] Donald Trump’s Firing of James Comey, The New York Times, 10 May 2017,

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[25] Michael J. Morrell, Trump’s dangerous anti-C.I.A. crusade, The New York Times, 6 January 2017,

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[27] Stephen Bush, The US intelligence leaks on the Manchester attack are part of a disturbing pattern, New Statesman, 25 May 2017,

[28] Michael V. Hayden, Donald Trump is undermining intelligence gathering, The New York Times, 9 March 2017,

[29] Michael V. Hayden, Donald Trump is undermining intelligence gathering, The New York Times, 9 March 2017,

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[34] Jon Finer and Robert Malley, How our strategy against terrorism gave us Trump, The New York Times, 4 March 2017,

[35] Becca Stanek, Early DHS intelligence report on Trump’s travel ban contradicts White House reasoning, The Week 24 February 2017

[36] Rajan Menon, National (in)security: What a Trump presidency really means for Americans at the edge, Salon, 2 April 2017,

[37] Tessa Berenson, Donald Trump calls for ‘complete shutdown’ of Muslim entry to U.S., Time, 8 December 2015,

[38] Daniel Burke, Trump says US will prioritize Christian refugees, CNN Politics, 30 January 2017,

[39] Emily Tillett, Trump touts budget deal as ‘clear win’ for the American people, CBS News, 2 May 2017,

[40] Jon Finer and Robert Malley, How our strategy against terrorism gave us Trump, The New York Times, 4 March 2017,

[41] ‘Extreme vetting’ and social media, The Soufan Group, 5 May 2017,

[42] Lizzie Dearden, Burkini Ban: why is France arresting Muslim women for wearing full-body swimwear and why are people so angry? The Independent, 24 August 2016

[43] Austria to ban full-face veil in public places, BBC News, 31 January 2017,

[44] Julia Edwards et al., Exclusive: Trump to focus counter-extremism program solely on Islam — sources, Reuters, 2 February 2017,

[45] Matthew Rozsa, President Trump’s holy war: Counterterrorism program to shift focus to “radical Islamic extremism,” not domestic threats, Salon, 3 February 2017,

[46] Mapping hate: The rise of hate groups in the US, Al Jazeera, 22 February 2017,

[47] Keith Collins, Are hate crimes really on the rise in America? Here’s a guide to the data, Quartz, 26 November 2016,

[48] Department of Justice Archives, Pilot programs are the key to our countering violent extremism efforts, 18 February 2015

[49] Lucy Pasha-Robinson, Donald Trump freezes funding to groups fighting right-wing terror and white supremacism, The Independent, 3 May 2017,

[50] Lucy Pasha-Robinson, Donald Trump freezes funding to groups fighting right-wing terror and white supremacism, The Independent, 3 May 2017

[51] Andrew Griffin, White US army veteran killed random black man with a sword after deciding to commit racist attack, The Independent, 23 March 2017,

[52] Portland attack: $600,000 raised for ‘heroes’ killed defending Muslim teen, BBC News, 28 May 2017,

[53] Jon Finer and Robert Malley, How our strategy against terrorism gave us Trump, The New York Times, 4 March 2017,

[54] Emma Green, What lies ahead for Obama’s countering violent extremism program? The Atlantic, 17 March 2017,

[55] Patrick Foran, A counterterrorism strategy for U.S. President Donald Trump, Nations & States, 10 April 2017,

[56] Colin P. Clarke, Counterterrorism in the United States, Counterterrorism Yearbook 2017, ASPI, March 2017,

[57] Reva Goujon, What Trump’s next 100 days will look like, Stratfor Worldview, 25 April 2017,

[58] Paul McLeary, The Pentagon wasted $500 million training Syrian rebels. Its about to try again. Foreign Policy, 18 March 2016,

[59] Michael R. Gordon, US is sending 400 more troops to Syria, 9 March 2017, The New York Times,

[60] Michael R. Gordon, US is sending 400 more troops to Syria, 9 March 2017, The New York Times,

[61] Richard Sisk, US preps for more training of Iraqi troops after Mosul, Military News, 24 October 2016,

[62] Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, Trump administration is said to be working to loosen counterterrorism rules, The New York Times, 12 March 2017,

[63] Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, Trump administration is said to be working to loosen counterterrorism rules, The New York Times, 12 March 2017,

[64] Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, Trump administration is said to be working to loosen counterterrorism rules, The New York Times, 12 March 2017,

[65] Bethan McKernan, Syria air strikes: US ‘warned Russia ahead of airbase missile bombardment’ The Independent, 7 April 2017,

[66] Rebecca Shabad, Congressional negotiators reach bipartisan government spending deal, CBS News, 30 April 2017,

[67] Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, Raid in Yemen: Risky from the Start and Costly in the End, The New York Times, 1 February 2017,; and Claire Landsbaum, An 8-year-old American girl was killed I first clandestine military strike under Trump, New York Magazine, 31 January 2017,

[68] Margaret Hartmann, US military sources claim Trump approved Yemen strike without enough preparation, 2 February 2017, New York Magazine,

[69] Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, Raid in Yemen: Risky from the Start and Costly in the End, The New York Times, 1 February 2017,

[70] US troops to help Somalia fight al-Shabab, BBC News, 14 April 2017,

[71] Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, Trump eases combat rules in Somalia intended to protect civilians, The New York Times, 30 March 2017,

[72] Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, Trump eases combat rules in Somalia intended to protect civilians, The New York Times, 30 March 2017,

[73] Lionel Beehner, How proxy wars work, Foreign Affairs, 12 November 2015,

[74] Dan de Luce, Henry Johnson, Who will rule Mosul? Foreign Policy, 29 April 2016

[75] F. Gregory Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War, Brookings Doha Center, №11, July 2014,

[76] Lionel Beehner, How proxy wars work, Foreign Affairs, 12 November 2015,

[77] Lionel Beehner, How proxy wars work, Foreign Affairs, 12 November 2015,

[78] Alan Yuhas, Travel ban in disarray as airlines told they can board barred passengers — reports, The Guardian, 5 February 2017,

[79] Stephen J Adler, Jeff Mason and Steve Holland, Exclusive: Trump says he thought being president would be easier than his old life, Reuters, 29 April 2017,

[80] Trump says Nato ‘no longer obsolete’, BBC News, 13 April 2017,