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News analysis

Trump's moves to make US safe 'weaken counter-terror defences'

Officials worried President has alienated allies and given propaganda fodder to terror groups

WASHINGTON • Though cast as measures meant to make the country safe, the Trump administration's moves during its first week in office are more likely to weaken the counter-terrorism defences the United States has erected over the past 16 years, several current and former US officials said.

Through inflammatory rhetoric and hastily drawn executive orders, the administration has alienated allies, including Iraq, provided propaganda fodder to terror networks that frequently portray US involvement in the Middle East as a religious crusade, and endangered critical cooperation from often hidden US partners - whether the leader of a mosque in an American suburb or the head of a Middle East intelligence service.

An executive order - issued last Friday and titled Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States - bans entry to people from a list of Muslim-majority nations, including Iraq, where US military and intelligence agencies have for years relied on cooperation from the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities, not to mention thousands of individual translators and contractors.

"Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism," Republican senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain said on Sunday in a statement.

"This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country."

Volunteer lawyers setting up camp at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on Sunday to help immigrant travellers and their families after Mr Trump issued an executive order on immigration. Protesters gathering at the baggage claim area of Detroit Metropolitan Ai
Protesters marching through downtown Seattle during a rally held in response to Mr Trump's entry ban. PHOTO: REUTERS

But in tweets on Sunday, US President Donald Trump said the statement by the two senators is "wrong". He added: "They are sadly weak on immigration. The senators should focus their energies on ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), illegal immigration and border security, instead of always looking to start World War III."

Mr Trump's inauguration vow to put America first and "only America" has rattled allies. A leaked draft of an order on US detention policies compounded those concerns by raising the prospect of rebuilding the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) network of notorious "black site" prisons around the world. The immigration measures imposed late last Friday were seen by US counter-terrorism officials and analysts as particularly counter-productive and poorly conceived.

"The whole order is and will be read as another anti-Islam, anti-Muslim action by this President and his administration," said Mr Paul Pillar, a former top official in the CIA's Counter-terrorism Centre. "It is not targeted at where the threat is, and the anti-Islam message that it sends is more likely to make America less safe."

Volunteer lawyers setting up camp at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on Sunday to help immigrant travellers and their families after Mr Trump issued an executive order on immigration. Protesters gathering at the baggage claim area of Detroit Metropolitan Ai
Protesters gathering at the baggage claim area of Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Michigan, during a rally on Sunday against the US entry ban. PHOTO: REUTERS 

Absent from the Trump list: Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries connected to the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. Nor does the President's action limit travel from Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda's leadership still resides.

Despite acute concerns about the impact overseas, analysts said much of the damage may happen in the US. Counter-terrorism officials have for years cast the successful integration of Muslims as a major security advantage over countries in Europe, where Muslims are more likely to be isolated and marginalised.

Volunteer lawyers setting up camp at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on Sunday to help immigrant travellers and their families after Mr Trump issued an executive order on immigration. Protesters gathering at the baggage claim area of Detroit Metropolitan Ai
Volunteer lawyers setting up camp at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on Sunday to help immigrant travellers and their families after Mr Trump issued an executive order on immigration. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 

Those who study extremism fear that the sense of belonging among US Muslims may begin to fray, increasing the likelihood that a US citizen or resident becomes radicalised. It also complicates the already difficult task for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local authorities to cultivate relationships with Muslim community leaders. "It was already an uphill climb," said former National Counter-terrorism Centre official Seamus Hughes.

Tips to the FBI or local police from concerned parents, religious leaders and concerned Muslim citizens have been "the life blood of most terrorism investigations" in the US, said Mr Hughes.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's moves to make US safe 'weaken counter-terror defences''. Print Edition | Subscribe