White House terrorism expert says we must defeat ISIS like we defeated the Nazis

Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka spoke to Sinclair Broadcast Group at the White House on May 25, 2017. (SBG)

As President Donald Trump’s travel ban executive order took another hit in court Thursday, a top White House aide argued the president’s hotly-contested policies are vital to preventing terrorist attacks like the bombing that occurred in Manchester earlier this week.

“These people are cowards, they’re losers, as the president rightly labeled them,” Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, said of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. “They can be defeated and we will obliterate them.”

In an interview with Sinclair Thursday, Gorka offered a full-throated defense of the president’s approach to counter-terrorism, comparing Islamist extremists to other scourges that have been largely decimated.

“We didn’t say Nazis or the KKK or the communism is just the norm, you have to get used to it,” he said. “We defeated them as well.”

Gorka’s attitude may win some new converts after a suicide bomber killed at least 22 people and wounded many others at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England on Monday. Terrorism experts say the outrage over such a tragedy could leave the public more susceptible to security measures they otherwise would reject.

On Thursday, a federal appeals court upheld a decision blocking Trump’s executive order that would temporarily bar residents of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Supporters of President Trump on social media and cable news have already appropriated the Manchester bombing as further evidence that the ban is necessary.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, asked on Fox News if "anyone wants to argue we shouldn't have an executive order restricting who's coming into the country so we know who these people are?"

Breitbart, Gorka’s former employer, posted an article Thursday claiming the attack “vindicated” Trump because it demonstrated the threat coming from Libya, one of the countries that would be banned. The alleged Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, was born in Britain in 1994 to Libyan parents. He traveled to Libya and Syria in the months before the attack.

Gorka made a similar argument in support of the travel ban after another U.K.-born Muslim launched an attack in London in March.

“The war is real and that’s why executive orders like President Trump’s travel moratorium are so important,” he told Fox News at the time.

As a native British citizen, Abedi would not have been affected by Trump’s travel ban in the U.S. or a hypothetical similar ban in Britain. If Britain had completely banned Libyan refugees in the early 1990s, that would have kept his parents out. Even the most extreme vetting is unlikely to have identified their unborn son as a future threat, though.

“The logic that an attack committed by someone who would not have been affected by the ban would strengthen the case for the ban does not make sense at all,” said Evelyn Alsultany, a professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on anti-Muslim racism. "It reveals that the ban itself is misguided.”

On Thursday, Gorka said the shift in the U.S. approach to preventing terrorism under Trump goes beyond controversial flashpoints like the travel ban or the border wall.

“I don’t think it's a question of open borders simply,” he said. “I think it's a larger issue of individuals that are learning very dangerous skillsets in war zones like Libya, like Syria like Iraq. They come back home to the nation of their citizenship and they get onto the radar screen.”

In many cases, a terrorism suspect has been known by law enforcement before the attack. Some had even been interviewed or surveilled at some point, but either agency rules or lack of resources led authorities to back off.

Gorka denounced eight years of “obfuscation and censorship” under the Obama administration and praised Trump for identifying radical Islam as the enemy.

“The president talks truthfully about it,” he said. “Even in the middle of the Islamic world in Riyadh, he has said this is evil. These people must be driven out of the houses of worship, out of the communities.”

Trump delivered a speech on Islam in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Sunday in which he sought help from Muslim countries in combating Islamist extremism, but he notably did not use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Gorka also criticized the Obama administration for treating terrorism as a result of societal factors rather than ideology.

“First things first, you have to understand it’s ideas that make people want to become terrorists,” he said. “We have to take those down as well.”

That take-down will require a coalition of Muslim nations and NATO allies, and Gorka described Trump’s foreign trip as an effort to build that consensus.

“We’ve heightened our collaboration with our allies,” Gorka said. “Specifically what happened this week in Saudi Arabia, we’re talking to our Muslim partners, rebuilding those relationships that were really taken apart, that were neglected under the Obama administration. The key element in this victory will be when our Sunni Muslim allies help us defeat the threat of groups like ISIS.”

Despite Gorka’s talk of the failures of the last eight years, terrorism experts identified few substantive counterterrorism policy changes that have emerged in the early days of the Trump administration.

“Beyond tone, you’re going to see more continuity than change,” said Matt Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He added that this was also the case in the transition from George W. Bush to Obama.

Levitt did note a transformation in the framing of immigration policy as a counter-terrorism issue.

“The one area where you may already be seeing some shift is a focus on border security and the sense that we need to be doing more to keep terrorists from getting into the country,” he said.

While Trump is not completely rewriting the military strategy against ISIS at this point, Danny W. Davis, director of the Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security Program at Texas A&M University, said he does appear to be changing the rules of engagement and the command structure.

“He’s delegating to the military commanders the ability of planning where to attack,” he said.

Obama also attempted to work with Arab leaders against ISIS, but Davis said reporting on Trump’s Saudi Arabia visit suggests he is providing more “positive leadership in that direction.”

“It looks like to me Trump is trying to step up and do a little more leading,” he said.

Davis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, is concerned about the balance between freedom and security and the risk of allowing the horror of the Manchester attack to drive the U.S. toward more restrictive policies.

“You don’t want to give up civil liberties and we don’t want law enforcement to go crazy,” he said. “In this country, we have to keep our constitutional rights protected.”

Others do see Trump’s Middle East visit as a more decisive break with the ideas of the past.

“President Trump’s speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was very impressive,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio. “Just saying, ‘Hey, we need your help because this is a threat to you guys too.’ I mean, it’s very hard to differentiate who are the good practitioners of Islam and who are the bad ones when some of the good practitioners are silent on these evil acts.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich described Trump urging Muslim nations to help stamp out extremism as a “titanic foreign policy shift” in a Washington Post op-ed.

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, also sees a notable change in style and focus, but not a welcome one. He fears that the Trump administration’s focus on radical Islam will take attention and resources away from fighting the political violence of the hard right and far left.

“We really have a diverse threat matrixand I think the counter-terrorism policy has to take that into account,” he said. “It’s almost like whack-a-mole.”

He also suggested that the travel ban threatens to undermine Trump’s effort to unite and win the trust of Muslim allies, both within the U.S. and abroad.

“The travel ban is like doing surgery with a chainsaw,” he said. “It emanates not from a deep knowledge but rather a modeled perspective that at the worst appears to view Muslims as a whole as an undifferentiated pool of potential terrorists.”

A terrorist attack often leads to a reevaluation of current policies, but Levin said the key is to consider whether an approach is efficient and effective, not just ostensibly tough or restrictive.

“An intemperate and non-nuanced response has the risk of escalating the extremism that we’re trying to eradicate,” he said. “We can’t just appeal to lowest denominator politics. We have to have a really thoughtful and substantive, lengthy approach to this issue.”

According to Levin, that might ultimately include a serious overhaul of immigration policy, but it does not validate the travel ban order.

“We have a very strong national intelligence and diplomatic community that the president would be well-suited to listen to rather than dictate to,” he said. “We have among the top experts in the world and it’s important to listen to them as opposed to respond impulsively to the last attack that takes place somewhere.”

Gorka indicated that sort of careful review is underway with regard to some aspects of the immigration system, including the visa waiver program.

“The administration is looking into all the systems that provide access to the United States for foreign nationals, whether its refugees, asylum seekers or other types of individuals,” he said. “The system is brokenWe will fix it.”

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