ISIS: A History of the Terrorist Organization and Political Misdirection

In the three years prior to Donald Trump taking office, the United States, like many nations around the world, had been increasingly plagued by the attacks of Islamic extremists. Though this type of terrorism was not entirely uncommon, particularly in regions of the Middle East, President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 had created a breeding ground for jihadists to flourish, including the group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).  The terrorist organization had been wreaking havoc in areas in the Middle East for some time, but it was not until early 2014 that the group entered a much broader sphere of public consciousness through a series of attacks that increased with frequency and brutality. Adding to the attacks were the horrifying details surrounding the kidnapping and eventual murder of an American humanitarian worker, Kayla Mueller, who had traveled to the region before being kidnapped by ISIS, which further increased the public’s awareness of the terrorist organization.

In Washington, President Obama seemed unconcerned with the growth of ISIS, or the threat of more widespread attacks, and his reaction to the terrorist organization was dismissive, even referring to the group as the “jayvee team,” in an interview with The New Yorker. His confidence was, perhaps, bolstered by his killing of Osama Bin Laden several years earlier.

But, in the coming months, the attacks by Islamic extremists would become more widespread, reaching far outside the Middle East, prompting Obama to take action. In a live, televised address to the nation, the President attempted to calm the public’s increasing anxiety over the spread of the jihad, particularly those affiliated with ISIS. This time, Obama took a far more serious tone and aimed directly at ISIS, condemning the “barbaric” group and presenting the American public with his comprehensive strategy, which he assured would “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist organization.

Despite these assurances, it became apparent in the following months that Obama and his administration had underestimated ISIS, as the group, along with other unaffiliated jihadists, continued their rapid spread throughout the world. In 2014, CNN began compiling a list of ISIS-claimed attacks — By the summer of 2016, CNN reported 143 attacks in 29 countries. Not included in the list, were jihadist attacks by those unaffiliated with ISIS, such as the Lindt Café siege in Sydney which would make headlines alongside the ISIS attacks. During this time, citizens across the globe became increasingly accustomed to attacks by Islamic extremists in countries such as Germany and France. Countries that had welcomed millions of Muslim refugees as they migrated from war-torn areas such as Syria and Libya.

Sadly, Islamic terrorism was not confined to the streets. The taunting of figures such as “Jihadi John,” who would be recorded beheading ISIS victims, would further infiltrate the public psyche as the videos circulated on various news sites and social media. By this point, ISIS had largely become the face of Islamic terrorism. In just two short years, the terrorist group had gone from being relatively unknown to one of the major talking points of the 2016 election. The Pew Research Center listed “terrorism” as the number two most important issue to voters.

Early in his campaign, Donald Trump had come under scrutiny for his blunt criticisms of President Obama’s efforts to deal with Islamic extremism, including ISIS. Trump blamed Obama and his administration, including his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for what he considered to be disastrous Middle East policies that not only allowed Islamic extremism to grow, but to spread. The Obama administration’s strategy in withdrawing from Iraq, his decision to get involved in Syria, and his efforts in Libya which led to the overthrow of their leader, Muammar Gaddafi, all created their own humanitarian and refugee crisis. In fact, the 12 million people displaced in Syria alone created the largest wave of refugees to hit Europe since World War II.

In the eyes of Donald Trump, those decisions and their consequences, combined with lax immigration policies, were responsible for ISIS and other Islamic extremists’ ability to rapidly spread, including radicalizing Muslims who already lived in the host nation. Trump’s blunt proposed solution for America was to call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Trump also took aim at the largely Muslim nations much closer to the crisis and questioned why they weren’t participating in shouldering more of the refugee crisis “You have the gulf states. You have Saudi Arabia, you have Bahrain, you have Qatar, you have some of the richest countries – they’re not taking any, and they’re right there” he told George Stephanopoulos in an interview on ABC’s This Week in October 2015.

But, as Trump questioned the national security risks and how much of a role America should play concerning the refugees, his democrat opponents urged America to do more. Early in her campaign, Hillary Clinton expressed her desire to welcome more refugees from the Middle East. When speaking about Syrian refugees, Clinton stated  “I think the United States has to do more, and I’d like to see us move from what is a good start with 10,000 to 65,000” in her appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation.

In the weeks to come, Trump’s rhetoric would be increasingly scrutinized by Democrats as well as those in the media. But, as the attacks in the United States and Europe continued, the issue would become more of a hot topic. In November came the Paris attacks, two days of attacks in which jihadists sworn to ISIS terrorized the city, killing 130 before the 7 attackers themselves were killed.  Just one day before, President Obama had declared ISIS “contained.”

This attack shocked millions around the world and, in a show of solidarity, millions changed the colors of their social media profiles to display the colors of the French Flag. But, France had already suffered a number of Islamic attacks that year, including the attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo that killed 17, not including 3 perpetrators.  Adding to the shock was the network of accomplices who helped orchestrate the attacks. Shortly after the Paris attacks, a married couple in San Bernadino, California went on a shooting spree that would kill 14. The perpetrators, both Muslim immigrants, were eventually killed by police. Like in Paris, news of a larger group of accomplices was revealed.

Days later, during a lengthy phone interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Trump was again asked about his proposed solutions for Islamic extremism. Despite growing criticism, he continued emphasizing the need to pause immigration.  When asked about whether or not it was unconstitutional to have a ban on all Muslims “It’s not unconstitutional keeping people out, frankly, until we get a hold of what’s going on” When asked what his message was to Muslim Americans right now “We love you. We want to work with you. We want you to turn in the bad ones. We want you to practice vigilance. We know that you know a lot, in many cases. We want you to turn in the bad ones. We all want to get along. We want to get back to a normal, peaceful.” 

Many had asserted that Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were merely a publicity stunt, but his message seemed to be resonating with voters as his popularity was becoming more and more apparent. Democrats began taking direct aim at Trump in their campaign speeches as the media began scrutinizing every detail in Trump’s many campaign speeches.  At a November 21 rally in Alabama, Trump spoke about the recent attacks in the U.S. and Europe and renewed his calls for stricter security measures, including immigration. At one point, Trump spoke about the September 11, 2001; attacks in which just 19 men perpetrated the largest terrorist attacks in American history. Trump made a brief comment about seeing “thousands and thousands” of people cheering in Jersey City, New Jersey as the World Trade Center came down, and it was that comment which the media fixated on.

The following day, Maggie Haberman of The New York Times acknowledged that “There were cheers of support in some Middle Eastern countries that day, which were broadcast on television.” Referring to the celebrations of the attacks in areas such as Palestine, where swathes of Muslim men, women, and children took to the streets on the streets a celebrated the attacks. Haberman did not dispute the existence of news reports of people in New Jersey cheering on 9/11, she did, however, emphasize that “A search of news accounts from that period shows no reports of mass cheering in Jersey City.”

Perhaps the number was an exaggeration, Perhaps it was a mistake or perhaps the specific number did not matter to Trump as much as the mere fact that there were individuals not far from the site caught celebrating the attack. In any event, Trump defended his comments the following day in an interview with ABC’s This Week,  telling host George Stephanopoulos “There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down, and that tells you something. It was well covered at the time.” Outlets,  like CNN, played a portion of that quote but took an entirely different tone than The New York Times by appearing to dismiss Trump’s claim entirely –(CNN) “No one can remember that, no one” CNN anchor Carol Costello stated emphatically. She went on to state, “to be clear, there are no reports, no reports, and no video that matches Trump’s claims.”

At a campaign rally in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Trump took direct aim at CNN bringing an article by The Washington Post written on September 18, 2001, just one week after the 2001 attacks, and read it to the crowd: “In Jersey City, within hours of two jetliners’ plowing into the World Trade Center, law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties” Trump paused momentarily to emphasize the description of what he had just read before continuing “on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.” Trump seemed satisfied to have made his point and, the following day, the moment made national headlines. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons.

Just before Trump began to read from the article he prefaced by speaking about the reporter who had written it in 2001  “Written by a nice reporter” Trump stated “Now, the poor guy, you got to see this guy “Oh, uh, I don’t know what I said! I don’t remember! He’s going like I don’t remember! Maybe that’s what I said?!” as Trump flailed his arms and dramatically convulsed his body. It turns out, the reporter who wrote it is disabled. Headlines of Trump’s apparent “mockery” of a disabled reporter circulated throughout the world, and any discussion regarding his reading of The Washington Post article in the moments after were largely absent from much of the news stories and commentary regarding the event. Though Trump denied he was mocking the reporter the video would continue for months, even being used in various campaign videos attacking Trump. The attacks on Trump’s image were just beginning, and, over the next year, his Democratic opponents would be given plenty of ammunition.

Like many presidential contenders, it wasn’t uncommon to have protestors appear at campaign rallies, nor was it uncommon to have them immediately removed, especially in the case of Donald Trump.  But, it was a Muslim woman named Rose Hamid, who garnered unique attention after being escorted from one of Trump’s rallies. In the midst of one of Trump’s campaign speeches, Hamid, a flight attendant and self-described Muslim activist, quietly stood up wearing a traditional hijab and a bright blue shirt reading “Salam I come in peace.” As with others in the past, the crowd began to loudly boo before Hamid was removed. Though Hamid admitted in an interview that the people around her were polite, and friendly and had no issue with her before standing up in protest, the image of a peaceful Muslim woman standing defiantly before a booing crowd would only further contribute to the portrayal of  Donald Trump, and his supporters, as not only being intolerant, but xenophobic. Even reputable outlets like the BBC claimed she was thrown out not for her silent protest, but for the T-shirt and Hijab that she was wearing. Trump’s critics seized on these images to make their case that Trump’s proposed policies were not intended for national security purposes, but rather, due to a personal bias Trump had for Islam.

Meanwhile, for Democrats, there seemed to be a reluctance or, perhaps, resistance to acknowledge the issue of the Islamic ideology motivating the extremist attacks. At times, democrats seemed to want to distance themselves from the attacks altogether.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, over 80 world leaders from Europe and around the world joined French President François Hollande to march in the streets of Paris to denounce terrorism. The crowd was estimated to be 1.5-2 million people. Noticeably absent was President Obama. While Obama would face criticism and praise for his decision not to attend, the White House offered no explanation for the absence. News outlets such as CNN explored the possibility that it was perhaps due to the strains of the security measures required for a Presidential trip of that sort.

Obama and other democrats would face criticism again later that year when Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, a Kuwait-born U.S. naturalized citizen, stormed a military installation in Chattanooga and killed five U.S. service members before he was killed by police. Adbulazeez had been described as a popular athlete in his high school with good grades and had, what appeared to be, a well-adjusted life with no signs of radicalization. But, in the days before his deadly rampage, had “praised the most devoted disciples of the prophet Muhammad for waging jihad to establish Islam.” After the shooting, Democratic Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton released a statement calling the shooting “an act of senseless violence” and echoed other officials when she said it was an “instance of domestic terrorism.” Similarly, President Obama would avoid acknowledging the Islamic extremist ideology motivating the attack. Later, it was confirmed by the FBI that the shooter had been inspired by foreign terrorists, though they said they were not able to confirm which group it was. Finally, in an act that outraged many, the White House refused to lower the flag to half-staff in honor of the victims, before ultimately bowing to public pressure five days later.

The trend had become apparent, and after the ISIS-claimed bombing on the Brussels airport which killed 32 (not including 3 perpetrators) and injured 340, Senator and Republican Presidential Candidate, Ted Cruz, criticized Obama for not acknowledging the Islamic element behind the attacks “Today’s attacks in Brussels underscores that this is a war. This is not an isolated incident. This is not a lone wolf. This is a war with radical Islamic terrorism. ISIS has declared jihad on Europe, and on the United States of America,” Cruz said.

Trump, too, would use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the motive behind the Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando just a few months later. At the time, Omar Mateen’s attack on the Pulse Night Club shooting was the worst mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history. During the attack, Mateen called 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS. And, just as he had in the past, Trump emphasized the role Muslim communities play in turning over radicalized individuals to law enforcement “people who they know are bad,” adding “they do know where they are.” Later, the gunman’s wife, Noor Salman, told the FBI her husband would watch violent jihadi beheading videos and that he “had been preparing for jihad by going to the gun range to practice and by spending money on ammo” and asking her questions such as “What would make people more upset, an attack at Disney or a nightclub?” Though she admitted she was concerned that Mateen was going to commit an act of terrorism, she said, “I wish I had done the right thing, but my fear held me back. I wish I had been more truthful,” Salman was later arrested but found not guilty of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and of obstruction of justice.

During his response to the Orlando shooting, Trump had also publicly criticized both Clinton and Obama for refusing to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” This time, Clinton parted with Obama in an NBC phone interview stated “We have to defeat radical jihadist terrorism and we will. And, to me, radical jihadist, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing. I’m happy to say either.” The following month, shocking images circulated on social media of the shooter’s father sitting directly behind Hillary at a campaign rally. The failure of Clinton’s campaign officials to detect the father’s presence undermined much of the confidence she had hoped to restore.

By this point, the U.S. election was 3-months away, and the hits to Trump’s public image would keep coming as figures like Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father whose son was killed, would take center stage in their rebuke of Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration policies. Khan would become, perhaps, the most prominent public opponent of Trump’s immigration policies after he stood before the Democratic National Committee and addressed Trump in his speech asking “Let me ask you, have you even read the U.S. Constitution” before pulling out a small copy of the constitution and holding it up and stating “I will gladly lend you my copy!” The moment was met with roaring applause by the democrats attending and became a major talking point and was highlighted by numerous media outlets, but this wasn’t the only headline-grabbing swipe that Khan would take at Donald Trump.

These criticisms seemed to have no impact on Trump as he remained relentless in his policy outlook. Just weeks later, Trump unveiled his three-pronged plan on how to deal with ISIS, which included an extreme vetting process. This included omitting those who have hostile attitudes toward the United States or its principals. The policy was denounced by democrats and institutions such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who stated that “Extreme vetting’ is just a euphemism for discriminating against Muslims.” Despite these claims, and the other claims made by democrats during the tumultuous campaign  Trump’s message resonated with many Americans and on November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. There were mixed emotions Americans anxiously waited for a new leader to take office. Meanwhile, the attacks by extremists continued.  At Ohio State University, Abdul Razak Ali Artan went on a stabbing spree before running over others with a car, injuring 11. Eventually, he was shot and killed by a police officer. ISIS praised the attack and said Artan had responded to their call to attack civilians of coalition countries.  In Europe, On 19 December, Anis Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian asylum seeker, hijacked a truck in Berlin and drove it into a Christmas market in Berlin. The attack claimed 13 lives, including the original driver of the truck. ISIS claimed responsibility and later released a video of Amri pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn into office and immediately turned his attention to terrorism, naming. John Kelly as the Director of Homeland Security, and, without hesitation, had Executive Order 13769 drafted and signed within a week as part of his multilateral approach to handling the terrorist organization, “I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. Don’t want them here,” Trump stated. “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.” The media pointed out that the ban was on seven nations whose citizens were largely Muslim. This led many in the public to believe that the order was a ban on all Muslims and, in response, Trump released statements to the media stating “To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” Trump said in the statement “This is not about religion – this is about terror and keeping the country safe. There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order.”

Most of the provisions in the Executive Order were only good for 90 days and were immediately met with legal challenges. Rather than waiting for the legal challenges to make their way through the courts, the Trump administration took note of the aspects being challenged and revised a new order to clarify, omit, or add provisions that prevented further legal challenges. The revision to the initial order was signed on March 6, 2017, President Trump Signed Executive Order 13780, which quickly became known as Travel Ban 2.0 and, given the revisions, the Trump administration was confident that the order could survive the impending legal challenges. The news coverage over Trump’s success was short-lived as Khizr Khan, the gold star father who had spoken out fiercely against Donald Trump, once again made headlines just moments after the signing of the Executive Order.

Citizens were shocked to learn that Khan had been scheduled to make a speech in Toronto, Canada when he abruptly had to cancel, and announcing that his travel privileges were suddenly “under review.”  Khan released a statement stating “This turn of events is not just of deep concern to me but to all my fellow Americans who cherish our freedom to travel abroad,” Khan said. “I have not been given any reason as to why. I am grateful for your support and look forward to visiting Toronto in the near future.”

Various media outlets, including Politico, pointed out the fact that the change in Khan’s travel abilities came on the same day as the Trump administration’s revised travel ban on the “resident of six majority-Muslim nations.” Speculation over the “Travel Ban” grew, as Khan’s account flew directly in the face of Donald Trump’s claim and seemed to confirm critics’ worst fears.

Making far less news in the days to follow was the shocking revelation that Khan’s story appeared to have been entirely made up, as was discovered by some of the very outlets that had broken the story just days earlier. Some of these outlets followed up with Khan, as well as with customs officials in the United States, who assured the media that not only does customs not contact travelers in advance of their travel outside the U.S., but they also emphasized that any U.S. citizen, like Khan, with a passport is allowed to travel aboard. Though Khan’s story seemed to have unraveled, it did not get the attention that his claim had gotten just days before. Khan did not explain the motivation behind his claim and refused to answer any questions. Khan’s response to The Atlantic simply stated “I have no comments” The Washington Post and Reuters received a similar response, and shortly after, the scandal faded into obscurity. Regardless, the damage had been done, and Khan’s claims only further contributed to the image of Trump’s policies being an attack on all Muslims.

Ultimately, in June 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Trump’s Executive Order and it was from this point on that ISIS’s reign of terror as well as other jihadists seemed to be at an end more quickly than it began in the United States. After December 2017, less than one year into Trump’s Presidency, there would not be a single reported ISIS attack in the United States for the remainder of Trump’s term. Furthermore, Trump’s efforts outside the United States proved effective and by December 2017, ISIS had lost 95% of its territory in Syria and Iraq. The Trump administration continued to target ISIS cells outside the United States, making targeted attacks in key strongholds. In 2019, Trump announced that the group’s leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead. The ISIS leader responsible for the staggering growth and spread of the terrorist organization had killed himself during a U.S. military operation in northwest Syria. Afterward, ISIS attacks throughout the world would become less and less frequent.

The drastic reduction in terrorist attacks and the speed at which the reduction occurred went largely unacknowledged by much of the media. Likewise, the attention of many Americans had shifted as they were bombarded with a variety of new controversies and allegations surrounding President Trump. Despite the constitutionality of Trump’s Travel Ban being upheld by the Supreme Court, many would continue to believe that the efforts he made to curtail terrorism were based more on xenophobia rather than national security. While the onslaught of terrorism that swept the United States and Europe during that period has been largely forgotten in the media, a few outlets have managed to take a look back at that tumultuous period and give credit to the former President for his contributions to defeating ISIS in the Middle East. Unfortunately for Donald Trump, that former President is Barack Obama.

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