Trump’s picking the wrong battlefield in the war on terror
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Last week, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order, temporarily banning travel from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Although the order was signed under the pretext of protecting Americans from terrorism, it actually may have put us in greater danger.

In order to understand why his order may not protect the United States from terrorism, you must first be aware of how people are recruited by extremist groups like ISIS.

The recruitment of ISIS terrorists may have begun as an extremist crusade in Iraq, but it has quickly become a global phenomenon that is taking hold of people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems. The image of an iconic terrorist as an old, angry, Muslim man in an off-white thawb and scraggly beard is long gone.


It is now replaced by young men and women of all races and religious upbringings, in tactical gear and ski masks, carrying heavy artillery. From the outside looking into the Islamic State, most people see these men and women as nothing more than evil terrorists with a psychotic penchant for violence. Internally they perceive themselves as freedom fighters or mujahideen, who violate the laws of men to protect their Ummah (community) according to the will of Allah. Ultimately, neither of these perceptions explains the true reason why they were initially conscripted into terrorism.


Prior to recruitment into extremism, many members of ISIS had narratives similar to non- terrorists. Before they joined the Jihad, most of them did not exhibit inherently evil behaviors, nor were they particularly devout in their religion. For example, according to a report from George Washington University, approximately 40 percent of those arrested on terrorism-related charges in 2015 were converts to Islam.

The only thing these recruits  had in common was a void in their lives. This void is what ISIS targets and capitalizes on. Through coercion, fraud, and force, they are able to easily recruit their targets so they can be exploited by war profiteers and Godless opportunists.

Terrorism is not justified by any religion. It is nothing more than a political struggle for power. The only difference is that ISIS leadership attempts to legitimize violent tactics by claiming that deadly force is religiously permissible and required. Most Muslims reject this rationale. Those who become terrorists are typically in need (physiologically or emotionally) and are simply susceptible to manipulation.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a framework for conceptualizing the motivation of all people, including terrorists. Every person is first driven by physiological needs: air, water, food, shelter, and clothing, followed by safety. Once these basic needs are met, each person will then pursue higher level needs, such as belonging and love, esteem, and self-actualization. In order to recruit new members, ISIS will offer to temporarily fulfill missing needs, depending on the target population.

Recruits in Syria and Iraq are conscripted by the presumption that they will be safer with ISIS, then against, and that the Jihadists are better able to provide the resources to meet the basic physiological needs of the community than the local government. ISIS recruiters bribe locals with money, food, and water. 

ISIS targets in western countries join for different reasons. They are drawn to ISIS in the pursuit of love/belonging and esteem, as propagandized in social media and their recruitment materials. To some extent, all recruits are manipulated into believing self-actualization can be obtained through support of ISIS.

Although ISIS recruits are perceived as killing in the name of Allah, the reality is that they are being manipulated and exploited. Their Jihad is only operating under the veneer of religion, it actually has nothing to do with Islam and is not supported by the Muslim majority.

As such, targeting people on the basis of Muslim religion is not an effective exercise for counterterrorism. These actions and anti-Muslim rhetoric may actually give ideological ammunition to terrorists.

Instead, a president who is intent on protecting Americans from terrorism should consider focusing on policies that undermine terrorist propaganda and re-establish international trust in America's leadership, moral character, and mission. Winning the war on terrorism is contingent on our ability to prevent new people from becoming terrorists. 

"With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism." -Malala Yousafzai 

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, where she teaches about the intersection of race, criminal justice and human rights. Research for her forthcoming book on the conscription of terrorists has been featured in media outlets around the world, including CNN and NBC. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and the Huffington Post.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.