One of the key figures driving President Donald Trump’s national security policy outlined a counterterrorism vision on Monday squarely focused on defeating ISIS beyond the battlefield.
Sebastian Gorka’s view of the ISIS threat melds with many in the White House who believe that the U.S. is engaged in a nontraditional war against radical Islam.
Gorka, and others in Trump’s orbit, allege that previous administrations have not properly combatted the ideology they say fuels terrorism, and that the U.S. government has struggled to define the war it is fighting.
“In this current warfare environment, body bags are not a good metric for winning,” said Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, during an event at The Heritage Foundation. “You can kill a jihadi high-value target. But what happens if the next day, 20 people volunteer to replace that jihadi? The last 16 years we have become preeminent in exquisite whack-a-mole. Oh, and we are good at it.”
“We look at physical battlefield actions as the metric for success,” Gorka continued. “We have to understand 80 percent of this war will be fought in the mind, and 80 percent of our conflict will be fought in the media domain.”
Gorka, a former Breitbart News national security editor who has held positions at various military educational institutions, did not outline specific policies that transfer his ideas into action.
But some early actions by the Trump administration, and others reportedly being considered for roles in it, reflect a different approach to counterterrorism explicitly focused on “radical Islamic terrorism.”
At the Heritage event, Gorka defended Trump’s controversial executive order temporarily halting refugee admissions, and travel from seven countries the Obama administration and Congress had designated as posing risks of terrorism.
Lawsuits around the country have alleged that Trump’s order violates the Constitution by intentionally punishing Muslims, and many trial courts blocked aspects of the president’s order.
Gorka, and others in the Trump administration, reject charges of religious intent, and say the chosen countries are sources of terrorism.
“One of the reasons the president signed his executive order [is that] those [targeted] nations are where ISIS and al-Qaeda exist, plus Iran,” Gorka said. “We won’t capture or kill all jihadis. What will happen is they will move. They may go to your neck of the woods. We want to make sure that events like Berlin, like Nice, like Paris, don’t happen in America. We have to understand that ISIS’ battlefront begins when you leave your house in the morning.”
“ISIS’ battlefront begins when you leave your house in the morning,” says @SebGorka.
Gorka’s calls for a tougher response against Islamist radicalism are reflected in other moves being considered by the White House.
The Trump administration is reportedly considering re-engineering a Department of Homeland Security domestic counterterrorism program—known as Countering Violent Extremism—to concentrate on Islamic extremism only. Some counterterrorism experts say this singular focus ignores other forms of extremism, and may harm relations between Muslim community groups and the government.
In addition, the Trump administration, according to The New York Times and others, is debating an order to designate the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamist group in the Middle East, as a foreign terrorist organization.
‘Help Muslims Win the War’
Together, these actions and ideas represent an about-face to traditional U.S. strategy embraced by both Republican and Democrat administrations.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama defined the terror threat in narrower terms as they tried to avoid making it seem the U.S. was at war with Islam.
They argued that a more direct focus on radical Islam would feed into ISIS’ narrative that Muslims are not welcome in the West, and encourage more extremism.
Gorka on Monday defended himself against others in the national security establishment who’ve criticized his rhetoric as inflammatory.
“We are not at war with Islam,” Gorka said. “Let me be explicit here. It’s very easy for our detractors to paint us as Islamophobes. It is absolutely wrong. This is a war inside Islam—war for the heart of Islam. Which version will be preeminent? We have to help Muslims win the war for the heart of their own religion.”
Whereas Obama tried to not legitimize ISIS by overstating its power, and said he believed they did not constitute an existential threat to America, Gorka argues the U.S. government needs to take the claims of the terrorist group literally.
“ISIS is different because it succeeds where every jihadi group failed, and it has captured transnational, transregional territory, which by itself means it is a tier one threat to all people who believe in freedom of religion, freedom of expression, democracy, and representative government,” Gorka said. “ISIS has not just rehashed al-Qaeda’s message of jihad. They have really executed an ideological and theological coup.”
“Every time it [ISIS] tweets or goes on Telegram [a messaging service] and says, ‘We are the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [translation of Syria in Arabic],’ they are a sending very powerful message to that man in his mom’s basement, to that Pakistani immigrant on a fiancé visa in San Bernardino,” Gorka added.
Gorka, and others in the Trump administration, have so far not outlined specific differences on how to fight ISIS and take back territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.
Late last month, Trump issued a directive ordering his new defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, to submit a strategy within 30 days to defeat ISIS.
But Gorka did signal a pullback from one component of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy: relying on elite special operations forces to conduct raids and kill missions. Obama described this approach as less costly and more efficient than traditional combat operations.
Trump’s first counterterrorism operation using special operations forces, a raid against al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate last month, resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, and civilian casualties.
“In the last eight years, we have tended as a government to look at our special operations capabilities as the easy button,” Gorka said. “That is a wholly fallacious understanding of special operations. The whole point of our bravest of the brave is that they are a tactical level deployment meant to effect strategic results—not a tactical level asset for tactical results. We should go back primarily to do what they were created to do. We should be helping others fight their own fights, not fight their fights for them.”
If Trump follows Gorka’s approach to counterterrorism, he envisions a dramatic result.
“What is victory in this war?” Gorka said. “Sebastian Gorka’s definition of victory is very simple. We will have won when the black flag of jihad, when the black flag of ISIS, is as repugnant across the world as the white peaked hood of the Ku Klux Klan and the black, white, and red swastika of Hitler’s Third Reich.”
“Don’t get me wrong, killing terrorists is great,” Gorka continued. “I am down with killing terrorists. But the ultimate victory will have accrued when we delegitimize the ideology of groups like the Islamic State.”