Al-Qaeda and ISIS Must Be Laughing at Trump's Muslim Ban
Sun Tzu said “all warfare is based on deception,” and that rings especially true for terrorists’ strategy.
Long before a proposal to temporarily yet indefinitely ban Muslims from entering the United States sparked support and scorn in a frenzied presidential campaign season, al-Qaeda and ISIS already had the workaround in place. Terror groups have been extremely frank in publicly available jihadi guides about how to evade religion-based suspicion, with directives that would surprise Americans who believe Islamist terrorists are required to wear “Allahu Akbar” on their sleeve.
The spring 2014 issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine, which has served as a practical how-to handbook for “open-source jihadists” such as the Boston Marathon bombers, recommended striking non-landmark targets such as festivals and Christmas events. To strike most effectively, the magazine advised, dress up like jolly St. Nick, complete with a Santa beard, and join others celebrating the Christian holiday.
This made the San Bernardino terrorists’ choice of the county employees’ holiday party an unsurprising one.
"Be creative in your Jihad. This is 'Open Source Jihad'. Surprise the enemy, don't follow a particular protocol," read one tip, stressing, "the right man in the right place devastates the enemy."
This past October, supporters of the Islamic State repackaged principles from a series of old al-Qaeda lectures into a modern-day operational guidebook for small cells, noting that the ideal lone jihadist candidate "should make sure to not look particularly attached to religion.”
“You shouldn’t be going too often to places like mosques, Islamic institutes or Islamic libraries. You should also wear western-style clothes as to appear neutral and not draw attention to yourself,” read the handbook. “Keep your political and religious point of views to yourself.”
When searching for a safehouse for living or preparing for operations, the text continues, the would-be jihadi should "make that apartment look un-Islamic.” Jihadis are advised to go beardless for at least two weeks to allow time for their face to get some sun.
The PDF guide, posted in online forums popular with jihadis, added that it's "permissible … to wear a necklace showing a Christian cross” in order to seamlessly blend in.
It also advised jihadis to fill their tech gadgets with "entirely un-Islamic" material including "songs, music clips, funny videos, etc. No Quran app, no hadith app."
Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani-born, Saudi resident wife of Chicago-born Syed Rizwan Farook, was by all observations devout before swapping her niqab for tactical assault gear in December’s San Bernardino attack. But as soon as any ban on Muslim refugees, immigrants, or visitors coming to the United States is potentially enacted, you’ll see terror organizations put into action their guidelines to watch, learn, adapt, and not get caught -- if they even have foreign operatives in mind in the first place. Immigration in order to conduct a terror attack is very clearly not Plan A for these groups: When a jihadi is “already established in the West, his entire life is a cover story -- and a very strong one at that,” stated the October guide.
Regardless of how many photo essays the Islamic State distributes showing bonfires of confiscated cigarettes or gruesome application of the hadd for thieves, terror operatives have shown that they’re more than happy to display a fluid interpretation of faith to meet their diabolical goals. From the 9/11 hijackers who enjoyed time at the strip joint to the Brussels bomber who watched ISIS videos while smoking pot and swilling booze, the successful terror operative is the opposite of someone rolling out the prayer rug in front of the neighbors five times a day. The original al-Qaeda lecture that shunned the idea of meeting co-conspirators at a nightclub to discuss plots for fear of police raids focused on other illicit activity was updated by ISIS guide authors to stress that "the loud music, the drunk people and the crowd" could make a nightclub "a good location to secretly discuss the details of an operation -- if the brothers are dressed accordingly and not acting too weird."
In ISIS’s ultimate apocalyptic goal, deception is allowed. And for all the Quranic verses peppering their magazine, ISIS doesn’t care if the former Baathist military official who wants to strategize their city-sacking is somewhat irreligious or whether a disgruntled nuclear facility worker in a European country fasts during Ramadan.
It would be nice if every potential terrorist came with a calling card, but their evolving strategy to evade detection is precisely why smart counterterrorism policy that recognizes the actual tactics and training of today’s terrorists is vital. Blocking Muslim entry wouldn’t result in a stream of Quran-clutching jihadis being turned back at the border, but it would invite jihadists to try on their new Christian or agnostic disguises in the name of war.