The Trump administration released its new National Strategy for Counterterrorism (NSCT) last month, just before two major terrorist plots transpired – the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and a series of mail bombs sent to Democratic figures. The NSCT shows flaws in the White House’s counterterrorism policies that allowed these recent attacks to transpire. Though the strategy outlines some important CT efforts, such as bolstering international CT alliances and leveraging non-military initiatives to prevent radicalization, the administration has failed to properly implement many of these policies and programs. Thus far, the Trump administration’s domestic and international counterterrorism policies have been too reactionary and are insufficient to ensure long-term success.
Trump’s rhetoric on the shooting in Pittsburgh and attempted attacks on top Democrats highlights a major oversight in his administration’s counterterrorism policy: it fails to consider right-wing domestic terrorism as a serious threat. Though Trump has refused to label these recent attacks as acts of terrorism, academic discourse and even definitions used by U.S. law suggest that terrorism is exactly what they are. The U.S. Code of Regulations defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”[i] Given that both Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc intended to use violence in pursuit of a domestic political goal, we should not hesitate to deem their actions terrorism.
The administration’s rhetoric on these and other non-jihadist terrorist attacks are indicative of a flaw in its conceptualization of what terrorism is and how to prevent it. While the NSCT does address the threat of domestic terrorism, it completely neglects white nationalist, right-wing, or anti-Semitic terrorism. Instead, it fixates on the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism, even in the domestic context. The phrase “radical Islamist” is used a total of 22 times in the 25-page document.[ii] This is disproportionate to the respective risks posed by these types of terrorism, as right-wing extremists have killed 86 people in the US since 9/11, only 17 less than jihadists.[iii]
The administration says it “prioritizes a broader range of non-military capabilities,” including “[its] ability to prevent and intervene in terrorist recruitment” and “build societal resilience to terrorism.”[iv] The White House also stresses the importance of “leveraging the skills and resources of civil society and non-traditional partners to diminish terrorists’ efforts to radicalize and recruit people in the United States.”[v] Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s allocation of resources has not reflected the importance of these initiatives. The White House cut funding to programs aimed at countering domestic violent extremism; downsized the Office of Community Partnerships, which headed the effort to counter jihadist and white-nationalist domestic radicalization; and disassembled the interagency taskforce for Countering Violent Extremism that previously resided in that office.[vi] Journalist Peter Bienhart describes these cuts as stemming from two biases: “ First…Trump officials would rather empower the police to arrest suspected terrorists than work with local communities to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place, as the Office of Community Partnerships did. Second, they believe the primary terrorist threat to Americans is jihadism, not white supremacy. The Office of Community Partnerships committed the sin of working on both.”[vii] The reality is that the NSCT reflects the administration’s neglect for types of terrorism other than those perpetrated by jihadists, while its funding cuts demonstrate the reactionary nature of its domestic terrorism policies.
The Trump administration’s preoccupation with Islamist extremism would lead one to believe that at least efforts to combat this type of terrorism would be sufficient. Unfortunately, even this aspect of the administration’s CT strategy is flawed. In his September 25th address to the UN General Assembly, Trump stated, “Thanks to the United States military and our partnership with many of your nations, I am pleased to report that the bloodthirsty killers known as ISIS have been driven out from the territory they once held in Iraq and Syria. We will continue to work with friends and allies to deny radical Islamic terrorists any funding, territory or support, or any means of infiltrating our borders.”[viii] Yet, contrary to Trump’s claims, the fight against ISIS is far from finished. Indeed, the terrorist organization still boasts up to 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq.[ix] Additionally, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main U.S. partner fighting ISIS on the ground, recently paused their campaign after being targeted by Turkish artillery and airstrikes.[x] This pause is indicative of the US’s failure to work with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. More importantly, it illustrates the Trump administration’s inability to pursue an ultra-nationalist foreign policy while simultaneously shoring up international partnerships. The NSCT argues for “an America First approach to counterterrorism” while at the same time still being “attuned to the important roles of our allies and partners, both foreign and domestic, in our shared counterterrorism efforts.”[xi] The United States’ mishandling of relations with Turkey demonstrates how the “America first” mentality can be at odds with sustaining a successful multilateral fight against terrorism.
The White House treats terrorism as a symptom while doing little to combat the conditions that precipitate it. The US was not party to the Sochi Agreement made in September, which put the onus on Turkey to wrangle terrorist groups in Syria’s Idlib province into complying with the conditions of the ceasefire.[xii] Nor did the US attend the most recent Istanbul summit that focused on finding a political solution to the Syrian civil war.[xiii] The United States’ absence from these consequential meetings runs contrary to the NSCT’s claim that the administration “will work with local stakeholders and civil society to mitigate the grievances that terrorists exploit. Internationally, where United States interests are at stake, [it] will seek and encourage locally driven solutions that target specific causes of terrorist radicalization and mobilization to violence.”[xiv]
The Trump administration has failed to enact policies that address the causes of radicalization and recruitment for terrorist groups. A recent study by Harvard University scholar Vera Miranova finds that fighters join terrorist organizations in Syria for utilitarian reasons: to provide for their family, out of desperation, and to gain the best possible benefits from among a myriad of opposition factions.[xv] This research suggests that what makes a rank-and-file terrorist is the conditions they are subject to and the other options they are faced with, further indicating that the US should be playing a role in mitigating those factors if it wants to meaningfully combat terrorism over the long-term.
Recent terrorist attacks on American soil call for a reappraisal of the Trump administration’s CT strategy. The White House needs to reevaluate the terrorist threats our nation faces and how to both classify and prevent them. Failure to address the fundamental causes of radicalization will ensure that there are many more terrorists with sights set on attacking the homeland.
[i] 28 CFR 0.85 – General Functions (1969).
[ii] National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America (Washington: The White House, 2018), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/NSCT.pdf.
[iii] Ibid, 2.
[iv] Ibid, 2.
[v] Ibid, 2.
[vi] Peter Beinart, “Trump Shut Programs to Counter Violent Extremism,” The Atlantic, October 29, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/trump-shut-countering-violent-extremism-program/574237/.
[viii] Alex Ward, “Read Trump’s Speech to the UN General Assembly,” Vox, September 25, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/9/25/17901082/trump-un-2018-speech-full-text.
[ix] Ryan Browne, “Key US Allies ‘temporarily’ Halt Campaign against ISIS,” CNN, November 1, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/31/politics/sdf-halt-syria-isis-turkey/index.html.
[xi] Ryan Browne, “Key US Allies ‘temporarily’ Halt Campaign against ISIS,” CNN, November 1, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/31/politics/sdf-halt-syria-isis-turkey/index.html.
[xii] “Full Text of Turkey-Russia Memorandum on Idlib Revealed,” The National, September 19, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/full-text-of-turkey-russia-memorandum-on-idlib-revealed-1.771953.
[xiii] Aaron Stein and Faysal Itani, “In Istanbul, Geopolitical Maneuvering But No Progress,” The Atlantic Council, October 29, 2018, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/in-istanbul-geopolitical-maneuvering-but-no-progress.
[xiv] National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America, 24.
[xv] Peter Byrne, “Anatomy of Terror: What Makes Normal People Become Extremists?,” New Scientist, August 16, 2017, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23531390-700-anatomy-of-terror-what-makes-normal-people-become-extremists/;
Vera Mironova, “Rebel Recruitment,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Spring 2016, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/rebel-recruitment.