By Joshua Geltzer and Luke Hartig
This article was featured in Just Security on May 27, 2020.
Three events in the past 10 days have shown that, for all of his talk about getting tough on terrorists, President Donald Trump lacks any real understanding of how to protect America from terrorism. First, there was the FBI’s announcement that the shooter in the December 2019 attack on a military base in Pensacola, Florida, had longstanding ties to al-Qaeda; then came a U.S. citizen’s jihadism-inspired attack on a Texas naval air station; and, nearly simultaneously, there was a shooting in Arizona inspired not by jihadism but by the “incel” ideology. None of these events conforms to Trump’s conception of terrorism as a danger posed by Islamists who come from beyond America’s shores and who can be either bombed by the U.S. military or blocked by a travel ban from coming to U.S. soil. These events instead show that U.S. military action abroad can’t, alone, thwart terrorism; that most attacks on U.S. soil are carried out by American citizens and lawful residents who radicalize here; and that the ideologies inspiring terrorist attacks against Americans are, increasingly, not limited to jihadism.
Trump’s vision of terrorism is clear and well-established—but also simplistic and wrong. Since campaigning in 2016, Trump has insisted that he could “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” pledging in his inaugural address that he would “eradicate completely from the face of the earth” “radical Islamic terrorism.” And he made his signature campaign pledge a ban on Muslims traveling to the United States, implementing three versions of it as president until he found one that the Supreme Court would uphold. That’s Trump on terrorism: bomb the terrorists over there; keep them from coming over here. While multiple terrorism strategies issued during his administration are actually far better and more nuanced, Trump himself has shown that his personal strategy is militaristic and simplistic.
But the past 10 days have laid bare just how foolish that view is.
On May 18, the FBI announced it had gained access to the phones of Mohammad al-Shamrani, who killed three U.S. service members in a December 2019 shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola. The phones’ content revealed that, as FBI Director Christopher Wray explained, “the Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation, by a longtime AQAP associate.” AQAP—al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate—had guided al-Shamrani for years, even as he joined the Saudi Air Force, learned to fly, and eventually found his way to the United States, and to an opportunity to attack Americans. This is a key strategy of modern terrorism: the patient cultivation of an extremist, presumably using encrypted apps that U.S. authorities struggle to crack, while that extremist creates and awaits an opportunity to attack. There was, it seems, no moment over the course of the hundreds of drone strikes in Yemen when the American military could’ve “bombed the shit out of” al-Shamrani: He wasn’t training in some terrorist safe haven but, instead, was a student at the Saudi Air Force Academy. While U.S. military action can (and has) squeezed AQAP, Trump is simply mistaken if he thinks dropping bombs can eliminate completely the type of threat al-Shamrani represents.
Then, just three days later, another jihadist terrorist struck at another military facility on U.S. soil. American citizen Adam Alsahli opened fire at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, injuring one sailor. Alsahli’s online postings reveal apparent support for both AQAP and ISIS. This attack fits a pattern: as our New America colleague Peter Bergen has documented, since 9/11 jihadist attacks on U.S. soil have been overwhelmingly carried out by individuals already lawfully present in the United States. Moreover, in virtually all cases those individuals have radicalized while on U.S. soil. No travel ban or border wall can keep Americans safe from homegrown terrorists. Instead, what’s needed are programs to prevent and disrupt radicalization among vulnerable Americans – precisely the type of programs for which Trump cut funding and eliminated key leadership.
Just hours before the Corpus Christi attack, a gunman opened fire at Arizona’s Westgate mall, injuring three. The suspect, Armando Hernandez Jr., wasn’t driven to violence by jihadism, but (apparently) by the “incel” worldview that increasingly drives right-wing extremists online. This, too, is a face of modern terrorism Trump would rather not recognize: Today, Americans on U.S. soil are facing more terrorist attacks inspired by ideologies other than jihadism, including not just incel attacks but also white nationalist attacks. That’s an evolution that both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have recognized—but not Trump, who slashed programs and offices built during the Obama administration to address this threat.
Even the best approaches to counterterrorism may not stop every attack, all of the time. Good leaders study failures to learn and change. Trump could have used the Pensacola revelation as an opportunity to evaluate why U.S. intelligence was unable to stop this AQAP attack, as it did previous plots. He could have called for an evaluation of military training programs and the vetting of foreign students who partake in the them. After the Westgate attack—indeed, after El Paso and other domestic terrorism attacks—he could have re-invested in stopping right-wing extremists. He could, perhaps most obviously, have moderated his own divisive and xenophobic rhetoric that right-wing extremists have echoed in justifying their attacks.
But he did none of this. And his own failure to learn from tragedy speaks to perhaps Trump’s most fundamental abnegation of leadership when it comes to counterterrorism: his refusal to cultivate the public’s resilience in the face of the attacks that even our dedicated security professionals are unable to stop. After nearly two decades at war, in the face of competing threats to American national security, and as we struggle with the reality that our government under Trump severely underinvested in preparing for a pandemic and is ignoring other existential threats like climate change, the United States appears poised to re-balance away from the post-9/11 focus on counterterrorism. That heightens the probability that the occasional small-scale attack could occur—a tragic possibility but, ultimately, perhaps an unavoidable part of living in a free country. As we confront this future, we’ll need a president able to help us all learn resilience by putting terrorism in context, urging the American people to be vigilant but continue with their lives, and refusing to politicize attacks to stoke fears and divide the country.
Trump’s simplistic combination of bombing and blocking is doomed to fail, just like his belated attempt to close our borders to COVID-19 failed (and likely backfired). And we’ll lament that Trump didn’t use the attacks that happened on his watch to implement a smarter counterterrorism strategy—one that makes counterterrorism sustainable in a world of evolving threats, and that leaves us stronger as a nation.