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Trump vs Biden: Policies countering terrorism and violent extremism

Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

As published in TRENDS Research:

As Joe Biden prepares to take charge of a new administration in the United States, his terrorism-related policies are under scrutiny. It is also worth examining how they compare to Donald Trump’s response to international and domestic terrorism and how the next four years might look in this sphere.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] remains a primary concern for policymakers. However, Trump viewed its territorial defeat[1] in early 2019 and the killing of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi[2] later that year as a complete victory against ISIS.[3]

Trump’s failure to grasp the extent of ISIS’s influence and the nuance of its strategy has led to devastating consequences. He ordered the withdrawal of troops from Northeast Syria, which was seen by many as a betrayal of its Kurdish allies,[4] paving the way for a Turkish incursion into the region. Consequently, the SDF was pulled away from fighting ISIS and their posts guarding ISIS prisoners to fight Turkey.[5] Moreover, Turkish attacks near the prisons and camps where the SDF held ISIS men and women allowed for several escapes.[6]

Notably, ISIS began building its fighting force in Iraq in 2012 and 2013 through a series of prison breaks in a campaign called “Breaking the Walls.”[7] The Trump administration pulled troops from Africa,[8] where ISIS continues to gain ground and supporters.[9] This move dramatically weakens the African countries’ ability and other international allies to fight terrorism effectively.

Beyond his tactical decisions, President Trump’s rhetoric[10] has also been a boon to ISIS and militants in general. His attacks on Muslim Americans, his ban on travelers entering the US from Muslim- majority countries,[11] and his efforts to drastically reduce the number of refugees[12] allowed in the country contribute to the violent extremist narrative that the West is at war against Islam.

Furthermore, his vocal support for torture[13] and increased use of Guantanamo Bay[14] for detaining terror suspects degrade America’s moral high ground, allowing terrorists to claim that no atrocities they commit are different from the actions of the holier-than-thou United States.

It is worth noting that President Trump was endorsed by Kayla Mueller’s parents,[15] whose daughter was held captive, tortured, and eventually killed by ISIS. Their endorsement was a boon for Trump, who claimed that he would have rescued Kayla. In another counter-terrorism success, Trump also secured the extradition of two of the “Beatles,”[16] British men who have since had their citizenships stripped, to be tried in the United States for allegedly torturing American hostages in Syria.

This move is said to be hypocritical as both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had criticized the Obama administration[17] for trying terrorists in a US criminal court rather than in military courts.

Boots on the ground

In contrast to President Trump, Vice President Biden advocated keeping small special operations forces on the ground in Syria[18] and elsewhere and using airstrikes to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups. This decision highlights Biden’s priorities of decreasing military activities when they are not needed while still supporting allies on the ground. Biden strongly criticized Turkey’s incursion into Syria and called President Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds “shameful.”[19] He also favors the closing of Guantanamo Bay and reaffirms President Obama’s ban on torture.[20]

ISIS is not the only terror-related concern in the coming years. Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism worldwide, and its nuclear stockpile is a source of concern for many in the national security arena. In 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] – the “Iran deal.”[21] While the deal was criticized by many, including Israel,[22] as not going far enough to curb Iran’s nefarious activities, the failure to make a new deal has allowed Iran to build up its nuclear stockpile.

In a similar trend of apparently rash counter-terrorism decisions, the strike to kill Qassem Soleimani[23] also drew ire for “lack of evidence” that the assassination was in response to an imminent and known attack. Soleimani was undoubtedly responsible for many deaths, but the killing went against American policy and led to Iran’s counterstrike that resulted in the US forces in Iraq suffering from traumatic brain injuries, which President Trump referred to as “headaches.” [24]

Meanwhile, Biden has pledged to rejoin the JCPOA[25] if Iran returns to compliance. He criticized the strike on Soleimani,[26] calling it an escalation without a practical plan in place. That is not to say that he did not recognize Soleimani’s lethal impact. He thought Soleimani should have been brought to justice legally.

Tackling the Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is also an essential aspect of terrorism-related policies. The Trump administration has sought to designate the Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. Given this push, it is not surprising that President Trump sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a monolith.[27] While the party linked to the group in Yemen is believed to be supported by Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood has active political affiliations in Kuwait, Iraq, Morocco, and Indonesia, where they have often supported US policies.

Like Obama, Biden views the Muslim Brotherhood through a more nuanced lens even though he is less likely than Obama to be painted negatively as a strong supporter of the group. A Biden administration would also be likely to support democratic processes in the Middle East, including elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood may garner significant votes, parliamentary seats, and government positions.

A possible Biden administration would also look different from the Trump administration on the Israel-Palestine conflict.[28] While some ideologues might argue that President Trump has been a strong ally to Israel by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and supporting continued settlements, security experts recognize that such actions have enraged the Palestinians and decreased hope for eventual peace or a two-state solution.

Support for continued settlements has also undermined Israel’s current peace and cooperation with Jordan and Egypt. Moreover, Trump’s decision to cut humanitarian aid to the Palestinians has increased feelings of oppression and hopelessness, which, along with the embassy move and settlements, provide fodder to be exploited by terrorist groups hoping to recruit Palestinian youth.

The Abraham Accords[29] signed between Israel, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates brokered by President Trump was also hailed as a major step forward. The West Bank’s annexation was paused due to the Accords, even though it was not taken off the table completely. Normalized relations between Israel and Sudan are also unlikely to contribute to lasting peace.

Biden has been a staunch Israel-supporter for a long time and is unlikely to make any moves that could jeopardize its security, such as imposing sanctions. Biden has affirmed his support for a two-state solution and has said that he does not intend to move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem but has also voiced his opposition to continued settlements and annexation.

Furthermore, Biden has called for more humanitarian aid to the Palestinians while simultaneously calling on Palestinian leaders to “stop the glorification of violence.” He also maintains that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement “veers into anti-Semitism.”

Nuanced views

Trump’s positions on terrorism and counter-terrorism have primarily been less nuanced and contrast with Biden’s more diplomatic and intellectual approach. However, there is one area of counter-terrorism where the two differ ideologically – domestic terrorism.[30] In agreement with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, Biden recognizes the increasing threat of violent far-right extremism,[31] namely white supremacism and white nationalism.

In contrast, President Trump repeatedly dodged opportunities to condemn these groups, calling neo-Nazis “very fine people” and telling the “proud boys” in the wake of what was indeed a close election to “stand back and stand by.”[32] Then, in the last days of his presidency, President Trump was charged by the US House of Representatives for inciting insurrection in the Capitol Hill riots and impeached.

In this area of ever-growing importance in the counter-terrorism sphere, a Biden administration would surely take the threat more seriously in terms of devoting funds to investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by violent far-right extremists. Debates about whether the United States could even designate a domestic terrorist group aside, a Biden justice department would be more effective in countering this type of violent extremism.

This would be a sharp contrast to the Trump justice department, which has almost exclusively focused on militant jihadism and painting non-lethal left-wing movements like Antifa as terrorist groups while whipping up white supremacist violent extremist groups.[33]

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne and Ellenberg, Molly (January 20, 2021). Trump vs Biden: Policies countering terrorism and violent extremism. TRENDS Research

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years years, she has interviewed 258 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 200 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS.  Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website

Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE. Molly is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, the Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.


[1] Trump hails fall of Islamic State ‘caliphate’ in Syria, March 23, 2019, BBC News:

[2] President Trump: ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead’, October 27, 2019, BBC News:

[3] Danielle Paquette, Souad Mekhennet and Joby Warrick, ISIS attacks surge in Africa even as Trump boasts of a ‘100-percent’ defeated caliphate, October 19, 2020, The Washington Post

[4] “Fake News” and the Trump Betrayal of our Kurdish Allies, October 10, 2019, International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism,

[5] Who are the Real Terrorists in North East Syria? October 13, 2019, International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism,

[6] Miriam Berger, Here’s what we know about the ISIS prisons controlled by the Syrian Kurds, October 14, 2019, The Washington Post:

[7] Bennett Clifford, Caleb Weiss, “Breaking the Walls” Goes Global: The Evolving Threat of Jihadi Prison Assaults and Riots, Combating Terrorism Center, February 2020:

[8] This is exactly the wrong moment to pull US troops out of Africa, The Washington Post, March 1, 2020,

[9] Raineri, Luca, “Explaining the Rise of Jihadism in Africa: The Crucial Case of the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara.” Terrorism and Political Violence (2020): 1-15.

[10] Brian Klaas, A short history of President Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry, March 15, 2019, The Washington Post

[11] Timeline of the Muslim Ban, ACLU Washington,

[12] Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear, Trump Virtually Cuts Off Refugees as He Unleashes a Tirade on Immigrants, October 1, 2020, The Washington Post:

[13]  James Masters, Donald Trump says torture ‘absolutely works’ — but does it? CNN:

[14] David Welna, Trump Has Vowed to Fill Guantanamo With ‘Some Bad Dudes’ — But Who? NPR:

[15]  Caitlin McFall, Parents of slain humanitarian worker Kayla Mueller rip Obama administration, back Trump in RNC remarks, Fox News, August 27, 2020:

[16] Adam Goldman and Charlie Savage, Islamic State ‘Beatles’ Jailers Are Charged in Abuse of Murdered Hostages, The New York Times, October 7, 2020:

[17] Mike Levine, At debate, Pence said Trump team bringing ‘justice’ to ISIS guards. Under Obama, he called such moves ‘naive, dangerous,’ ABC News, October 8, 2020:

[18] Kimberly Dozier, Biden Wants to Keep Special Ops in the Mideast. That Doesn’t Mean More ‘Forever Wars,’ His Adviser Says, Time magazine, September 23, 2020,

[19] Tom McCarthy, Biden warns Isis fighters will strike US over Syria withdrawal, The Guardian, October 16, 2019:

[20] Carol Rosenberg, Biden Still Wants to Close Guantánamo Prison, The New York Times, June 27, 2020:

[21] Mark Landler, Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned, The New York Times, May 8, 2018:

[22] Barak Ravid, Netanyahu Tells Obama Iran Deal Threatens Israel’s Security, Haaretz, April 10, 2018:

[23] Anne Speckhard, PERSPECTIVE: What Are the Legal and Moral Issues and Repercussions of the US Assassination of Soleimani? Homeland Security Today, January 6, 2020:

[24] Veronica Stracqualursi, Trump downplays service members’ concussion injuries from Iranian attack: ‘I heard they had headaches,’ CNN, February 10, 2020:

[25] The Presidential Candidates on the Iran Nuclear Deal, Council on Foreign Relations, July 30, 2019:

[26] Anna Kaplan, Joe Biden on Killing of Qassem Soleimani: ‘Trump Tossed a Stick of Dynamite Into a Tinderbox,’ The Daily Beast, January 3, 2020,

[27] David D. Kirkpatrick, Trump Considers Them Terrorists, but Some Are Allies, The New York Times, May 10, 2019:

[28] President-Elect Biden on Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, November 7, 2020:

[29] Michael J. Koplow, The End of the Arab-Israel Conflict, Israel Policy Forum, September 17, 2020:

[30] Faiza Patel, Biden’s Plan to Roll Back Discriminatory Counter-terrorism Policies, Brennan Center for Justice, September 30, 2020:

[31]  Betsy Woodruff Swan, DHS draft document: White supremacists are greatest terror threat, Politico magazine, April 9, 2020:

[32] Paul P. Murphy, Trump’s debate callout bolsters far-right Proud Boys, October 1, 2020:

[33] Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg, PERSPECTIVE: Why Branding Antifa a Terror Group Is a Diversion, Homeland Security Today, June 2, 2020:

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