By Dr. Nikolaos Lampas, Adjunct Lecturer in Politics and International Relations-University of Piraeus, Greece.
After a two-year long period, the United States finally has a new President. In January, Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States. The Republican candidate, against all odds, managed to secure the victory against his much more experienced opponent. The 70-year-old Trump is a real-estate developer, former reality-TV star and most importantly the first person ever to win the presidency without previously holding public office or serving in the U.S military (Fahrenthold and Gold, 2016). Upon receiving office, President Trump will be forced to face a wide array of security challenges that threaten the interests of the United States globally. One of these challenges is the threat of terrorism. This short chapter will assess the future risks that the terrorist threat represents for the United States and the way that President Trump aspires to deal with them, through the analysis of his statements during the presidential campaign. In the first section, I will analyze the current issues regarding the terrorist threat for the United States. Subsequently, I will present an analysis of statements of President Trump during his presidential campaign regarding his views on the terrorist threat. Finally, the conclusion discusses potential risks for the United States regarding the threat of terrorism.
Does terrorism still matter?
The tremendous impact of September 11 on the landscape of international security is still visible fifteen years after it took place. The realization that the United States was no longer invulnerable to attacks brought about a significant change in Washington’s focus on counterterrorism. The attacks continue to have a major impact on the discussion regarding U.S national security. This is evident from the attention that all the presidential candidates paid in the debates on ISIS, which is regarded as one of the biggest terrorist threats the United States is currently facing. However, some analysts do not share the same feeling regarding the threat that terrorism poses. According to Rachel Rizzo, “the actual threat terrorism poses to the United States tends to be exaggerated and causes the country to shift focus away from more serious national security issues”(Rizzo, 2016). Her view is supported by a recent Pew Research poll, which shows that only 29 percent of Americans consider ISIS-born terrorism a national security threat. However, the same poll suggests that 83 percent of Americans regard ISIS as a major threat to the United States. Additionally, 66 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats favor the use of the military in order to counter this particular threat (Rizzo, 2016). However, Rizzo’s argument is challenged by another poll from Pew Research which suggests that American voters wanted to hear mostly about terrorism and the economy during the debates (Oliphant, 2016).
These contradicting views highlight an important question. Does terrorism still matter? The quick answer is yes. Terrorism still remains an important issue for the United States. Only in 2016, 13 terrorist incidents took place on American soil and resulted in 65 deaths and 125 injuries. Most notably, the Orland shootings on June 12 was the deadliest mass shooting on U.S soil. Obviously, the number of casualties is nowhere near the level of the 9/11 attacks; however, we cannot ignore the fact that the number of incidents remains high. Additionally, one could argue that most of these incidents are not foreign-inspired terrorism and in a sense, he/she would be correct. However, this categorization depends on the definition of terrorism. When it comes to the question whether terrorism still matters we cannot distinguish between foreign or domestic-inspired terrorist incidents. Thus, just because no other 9/11 has taken place when assessing the risk of terrorism as a domestic threat to the United States does not mean that we cannot safely assume that it is declining.
Terrorism is also a threat to the United States interests globally. ISIS is by far the most important example. The presence of ISIS continues to destabilize the Middle East. The migration crisis that Europe is facing can be attributed partially to the aggression of ISIS. However, perhaps the most important impact of ISIS is that it threatens to undo the military efforts of the United States in Iraq. This is evidenced by the most recent report of the Heritage Foundation regarding the Global Threat Level. According to the report, out of all terrorist groups listed, ISIS and Hezbollah feature as the most threatening and impactful. “The threat posed by ISIS has increased dramatically through a combination of highly publicized acts of brutality, territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, and aggressive campaigns both for recruiting and for inciting ‘lone wolf’ attacks around the globe” (The Heritage Foundation, 2016). Moreover, the report stipulates that alongside the Middle East the region of Afghanistan-Pakistan is considered conducive ground for the nurturing of terrorism. “Cross-border attacks, continued aggression of groups such as the Taliban and LeT, and the appearance of ISIS as a contributor to Afghanistan’s security woes contributed to this assessment. The capability score for the region’s terrorist threat has increased to ‘gathering’ from ‘capable’, mostly because the region’s weakening governing structures have helped to make it a hotbed of terrorist activity”(The Heritage Foundation, 2016).
Trump’s Policy on Terrorism: A mixture of Multilateralism and Isolationism
Trump’s rhetoric regarding the threat of terrorism appears convoluted. While he recognizes the need to deal with the threat of terrorism, and particularly the need to defeat ISIS, he also perceives the issue of foreign-inspired terrorism in terms of domestic immigration. Additionally, despite blaming the policies of the Obama Administration for the situation in the Middle East and the rise of ISIS, some of his policies are simply adhering to those of Obama (Sanger and Haberman, 2016). More specifically, on Trump’s campaign website the headline on his views on foreign policy reads “Foreign Policy and Defeating ISIS”. Trump’s views regarding terrorism and ISIS, for the most part, are a continuation of Obama’s policies. Firstly, he asserts the need for cooperation with allied states in the Middle East region in the fight against ISIS. Secondly, Trump promises to continue pursuing a multilateral approach through coalition building and joint military operations to defeat ISIS. Moreover, Trump also focuses on the issue of defeating the radical ideology of Islamic terrorism, though he somehow ties this effort to winning the Cold War.
However, this is as far as the similarities between Obama and Trump go. Trump’s policies depart from that of Obama in the sense that he somehow perceives the issue of foreign-inspired terrorism in terms of domestic immigration. Trump asserts that as part of his foreign policy he will enforce immigration laws to keep terrorists out of the United States and that he will suspend, on a temporary basis, immigration from dangerous and volatile regions. However, he does not specify how the screening process will take place, how he will enforce the immigration laws, or which regions are going to be included in the immigration ban. Lastly, he promises to establish a Commission on Radical Islam whose goal will be to explain to the American public the core convictions of Radical Islam. Regarding the threat of ISIS, President Trump revealed during his presidential campaign a number of policy approaches he would employ when elected. Trump asserted that cooperation with Russia would be necessary for the fight against ISIS. Moreover, he did estimate that a force between 20,000 and 30,000 would suffice to deal a swift defeat to ISIS, though he didn’t specifically outline his military plans for fear of tipping off his enemies (CBS News, 2016)
In summary, Trump’s policies on terrorism are not as distinct from Obama’s as one would think. He favors, similar to Obama, a multilateral approach despite his isolationist rhetoric, promoting coalition-building and joint military operations. Additionally, he appears willing to cooperate with Russia, though he has not specified what type of cooperation he has in mind, in order to stabilize the situation in Syria and, most importantly, effectively target ISIS. However, his efforts to promote multilateralism will largely depend on the policies he will implement in the domestic front. Should his immigration policies prove to target Muslims, in general, it will cause major concerns to allied nations in the region such as Egypt, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia and will hinder any efforts for cooperation. Thus, what remains to be seen is how President Trump will handle coalition-building and how the US-allied nations in the Middle East will react to his immigration policies.
Prospects of Terrorist Threat for 2017
On February 2016, the United States Department of Defence released its annual Defense Posture for 2017. This document provides an estimate regarding all potential threats that the United States might face the coming year and the steps that the United States takes to counter them. According to the document, in order to deal ISIS a lasting defeat the United States objectives are the following: firstly, to attack ISIS’ two power centers in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. For this purpose, the United States allocated 7.5 billion in FY 2017 for Operation Inherent Resolve. Secondly, to counter the worldwide outreach of ISIS; and, thirdly, to protect the U.S homeland (Carter, 2016) In order to achieve the first objective, the United States prioritized motivating indigenous forces. According to Ash Carter, “it must be local forces who deliver ISIS a lasting defeat because only they can secure and govern the territory by building long-term trust within the populations they liberate” (Carter, 2016: 12-13) Indeed, in October 2016 a coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces attacked and recaptured the city of Mosul. (Norland, 2016). The recapturing of Mosul and the impending attack on Raqqa has forced ISIS leaders to admit defeat and instead focus on terrorist acts in Europe (Sengupta, 2016). Thus, the losses of key areas such as Raqqa and Mosul certainly weaken the position of ISIS in the region. However, this doesn’t mean that ISIS has been dealt with. The new leader of the United States is still facing the daunting task of “consolidating military gains and pursuing more inclusive politics in Iraq and to come up with a solution that will end the sectarian fighting that fuels ISIS”(Gordon, 2016).
The goal of this chapter was threefold. Firstly, to assess whether terrorism still matters for the United States. Secondly, to briefly analyze the views of the new President-elect on terrorism. And, thirdly, to address the potential of the terrorist threat for 2017. The analysis showed that terrorism is still a major consideration for the United States both domestically and in its foreign policy planning and deliberations. Despite the fact that the possibility of a repeat of the 9/11 attacks is very limited, the fact that the number of incidents in American soil is increasing is important. Secondly, regarding the policies of Donald Trump as the new President of the United States, the analysis showed that they are mostly a continuation of Obama’s policies spiced up with Trump’s domestically targeted rhetoric on immigration. We can safely assume that over the course of his presidency his policies will be subject to change, and this analysis constitutes a solid basis for future comparison. Lastly, regarding the risk assessment for 2017, ISIS#s decline and retreat is certainly a positive sign; however, overall success remains subject to the ability of the new president to consolidate these military gains and solve the sectarian fight that fuelled ISIS’ rise in the first place.
- Carter, A. 2016. Defense Posture Statement: Taking the Long View, Investing for the Future. Washington D.C: United States Department of Defence, February.
- CBS News. 2016. Where Donald Trump Stands on Terrorism. CBS, 19 September.
- Fahrenthold, D. A. & Gold, M. 2016. Donald Trump Wins the Presidency in Stunning Upset over Clinton. The Washington Post, 9 November.
- Gordon, P. 2016. The Meaning of Mosul. In: LAUB, Z. (ed.). Council on Foreign Relations, 26 October.
- Norland, R. 2016. Iraqi Forces Attack Mosul, a Beleaguered Stronghold for ISIS. The New York Times, October, 2016.
- Oliphant, B. 2016. In Debates, Voters Want to Hear Most about Terrorism and the Economy 15 August.
- Rizzo, R. 2016. Does the U.S. Overstate the Threat of Terrorism? The National Interest, 14 February.
- Sanger, D.E. & Haberman, M. 2016. Donald Trump’s Terrorism Plan Mixes Cold War Concepts and Limits on Immigrants. The New York Times, 15 August.
- Sengupta K. 2016. ISIS Leaders ‘Accepting Defeat in Mosul and Raqqa and Encouraging Recruits to Commit Terror in Europe’. Independent, 20 October.
- The Heritage Foundation. 2016. Conclusion: Global Threat Level.