Terrorism Challenges Facing the Trump Administration
The new Donald Trump administration will attempt to manage many challenges, but cannot eliminate them. After all, these forms of political violence have existed since time immemorial and will continue for generations.
Characterizing the terms hate crimes, extremism, and terrorism in the current political context requires a careful analysis of facts, law, and political calculations – sometimes not as straightforward as one would expect. For instance, while the U.S. government has lists of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) and state-sponsors of terrorism, there is no statutory domestic terrorism list.
Nevertheless, various U.S. government agencies, including the FBI, have referred to some U.S. extremist groups as terrorist entities.
The Obama administration has been criticized in some circles for failing to describe al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS), and similarly ideologically aligned groups as violent jihadists. The incoming administration will have to weigh which terms it chooses to use when referring to individuals, groups and nations that appear to use extremist/terrorist tactics.
The term domestic extremism means individuals or groups that follow a variant of ideologies that support the threat and/or use of violence for political, religious or social objectives. One type of domestic extremism includes those who disdain others due to a person’s immutable characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity and disability. Such bias, as exhibited in criminal acts, has been termed hate crimes. Lone wolves and cabals inspired by hate-based ideology, as well as those formally linked to a hate group, perpetrate such crimes.
Increasingly troublesome are recent attempts to ignite a “race war” in the United States, among them: the June 2015 Dylan Roof murder of nine parishioners at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina; October 2016 failed plot by a militia-hate aligned cabal that sought to bomb an apartment complex housing Somali immigrants in Garden City, Kansas; and the November 2016 planned attack by an African-American couple to kill police in Trussville, Alabama.
In November 2016, the FBI released hate crime statistics for 2015, noting that there were “5,850 criminal incidents and 6,885 related offenses that were motivated by bias against race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity.” About 48 percent of the perpetrators of these crimes were white, 24 percent were black, with the race unknown for the remainder. The most frequent types of bias attack were based on race/ethnicity/ancestry (59.2 percent), religion (19.7 percent) and sexual orientation (17.7 percent).
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 2012 there was a 60-percent underreporting of hate crimes. Hate crimes are significantly underestimated due to victims not notifying police of such incidents and police departments failing to recognize the role of bias in selected crimes.
Those who advocate or threaten violence on behalf of single-issue themes – environmentalism, animal rights and abortion rights, for instance – have been deemed domestic extremists. Too, individuals and groups aligned with antigovernment movements – be they militias, sovereign citizens, anarchists, or others – have been classified as American extremists.
Foreign-Linked Terrorism, State-Sponsored Terrorism and Global Terrorism
Homegrown violent extremism (HVE) comprises U.S.-based individuals of whatever citizenship who are influenced by a FTO, but act independently of it. Presently, there are more than 60 U.S. government-designated FTOs that conduct terrorism internationally, and threaten U.S. national security in one way or another. The majority of these FTOs are violent jihadists from the Middle East.
During the Obama administration, 25 groups were designated as FTOs, while five FTOs were delisted. Depending on how U.S.-Mexican relations evolve, and the Trump administration’s perspectives on Mexican drug trafficking organizations (MDTOs), it is possible that proposed legislation to designate MDTOs at FTOs could be resuscitated. In July 2014, 19 Republican senators proposed to designate the pro-Russian separatist organizations Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic as FTOs. This effort probably will not gain traction if U.S.-Russian relations improve during the next four years.
In 2015, the U.S. government listed Iran, Syria and Sudan as state-sponsors of terrorism. Countries formerly listed as state-sponsors of terrorism include Cuba (removed during the Obama administration) as well as Libya, Iraq and North Korea (delisted during the George W. Bush administration).
U.S. State Department statistics on international terrorism in 2015 were frightful: 11,774 terror attacks occurred globally, resulting in more than 28,300 deaths and 35,300 injuries. Terrorism took place in 92 countries, although the majority of the attacks and deaths occurred in six countries (Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan). Compared to the previous year, in 2015, there were declines of 14 percent and 13 percent in the number of terror attacks and persons killed, respectively.
The risks of terrorism are particularly grave as one considers that terrorists and terror states have now an avid interest in using biological, chemical and radiological weapons, coupled with crippling cyberattacks. Syria and IS have used chemical weapons on numerous occasions. Various terror groups and terror states – among other countries – are undertaking cyberattacks and other cyber activities.
What Does the Future Hold?
How the threat of extremism and terrorism will evolve in the coming years is somewhat unclear. On the home front, there is evidence to suggest that some hate-based supporters, including those aligned to white nationalism, seem emboldened by President-elect Trump’s victory. The alt-right movement, and some hate groups, claimed that Trump’s triumph was an affirmation of their ideals.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there were more than 700 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation in the two weeks since national elections. In a November 23, 2016, meeting with the New York Times, President-elect Trump was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to energize the group [alt-right], and I disavow the group. It’s not a group I want to energize, and if it is energized, I want to look into it and find out why.”
Interestingly enough, SPLC’s figures show that the number of hate groups accelerated from 676 in 2001 to 926 in 2008 during the George W. Bush presidency. In 2000, the figure was 602. The number of hate groups actually fell overall during the Obama presidency. During his administration, there was an initial expansion of hate groups from 932 in 2009 to 1,018 in 2011. Those figures then declined dramatically to 784 in 2014, prior reaching 892 groups in 2015.
A white nationalist resurgence – political and otherwise – may spur other fringe elements of contrasting ideological spectrums to threaten or resort to violence. An escalation of hate crimes against minorities – particularly blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and the LGBT communities – could result in militancy among segments of the population at large.
Environmental and animal rights extremists may accelerate their unlawful actions should they believe the Trump administration as buttressing corporate interests over their goals. Perceived support by the new administration of energy interests, including oil drillings (e.g., Dakota Access Pipeline), might lead to expanded aggressiveness by radicals aligned with environmental and indigenous interests.
Anarchist activity could escalate due to the election of a billionaire. Yet, the perceived anti-globalism stance of the incoming administration may soften such perspectives. It remains to be seen whether pro-life judicial appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court would precipitate violence by those in support of pro-choice.
Southern Poverty Law Center figures for the 2015 noted 998 antigovernment “patriot” groups, of which 276 were characterized as militias. The number of these groups increased during the Obama administration, rising from 512 patriot groups (with 127 militias) in 2008. In 2012, these figures reached an all-time high of 1,360 patriot groups (with 321 militias). By comparison, during George W. Bush’s presidency, the levels of patriot groups and militia groups declined from 158 patriot groups (with 73 militias) in 2001 to 149 patriot groups (with 42 militias) in 2008.
The impact of the election of Trump on militias and sovereign citizens is difficult to discern at this point. One train of thought is that Trump’s support of the Second Amendment may placate militias. However, anti-immigrant-focused militias may view President-elect Trump’s call for deportation of illegal aliens and the building of a wall with Mexico as a confirmation of their goals. Some within that camp may take that as carte blanche to proceed with their anti-immigrant pursuits. Others may forgo hate crimes, and wait for the government to deal with those issues on its own.
Sovereign citizens will likely view the incoming administration as the latest example of an illegitimate, de facto government that infringes upon true citizens. The sovereign citizen movement will probably continue to experience natural growth, including a high frequency of belligerency and “paper terrorism” against police and other government employees, including judges and prosecutors.
It is probable that HVEs – violent jihadists in the main – will be prompted by calls from FTOs to carry out attacks in the United States and against American interests abroad. What has been perceived as anti-Muslim rhetoric during the presidential campaign could fuel an attractive narrative that violent jihadist groups and propagandists will propagate offline and online.
Nonetheless, absent this narrative, violent jihadists have been effective in carrying out terror attacks and attracting adherents for decades. A most telling example of these undertakings is the 30,000-plus foreign fighters who migrated from over 100 nations to the IS. The incoming administration’s policies in addressing HVEs and IS may become among the most weighty terrorism issues (beside hate groups) that will arise in the next four years.
Depending on the new administration’s military and other approaches to defeat the IS, there could be more casualties for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Syria, as well as expanded financial costs. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the financial costs of U.S. operations against the IS during the period August 8, 2014 – October 15, 2016, was $10 billion.
As of November 2016, IS has been weakened significantly in Iraq and Syria, in terms of lost territory, leadership and operatives killed, and support in the region. Other countries in the Middle East and Europe have witnessed cascading effects of the conflicts in terms of significant military and economic costs, an influx of millions of refugees, and political instability (including the accession of hardline, nativist political groups in some European countries).
Since the declaration of the IS, there have been more than 150 terror attacks in more than 30 countries, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths. Likewise, there have been over 100 IS-related prosecutions in the United States between June 2014 and Fall 2016. In June 2016, FBI Director James Comey stated that there were some 1,000 IS-related investigations taking place in all 50 states.
Whether there will be an escalation of Iranian-sponsored terrorism in general, and against American interests, in particular, depends on diverse matters, such as the Trump administration’s posture on the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran’s roles in the Iraqi/Syrian conflicts and Yemini civil war, and Iran’s support of Hezbollah.
The new administration’s stance on the role of President Assad in a post-conflict Syria – should that ever arise – will likewise impact whether Syria remains on the list of state-sponsors of terrorism. Growing tensions with existing state-sponsors, or other nations may harden U.S. government policies vis-à-vis such states. A rapprochement with some nations (e.g., Russia and Turkey) or strain with others (e.g., North Korea, Ukraine, selected Middle Eastern and NATO countries) could similarly modify American perspectives on the terror front and beyond.
Last, it is crucial to recall U.S. military casualties during recent conflicts as actions taken – and not pursued – may have manifold, transformative implications for many years: Operation Iraqi Freedom (4,411 deaths and 31,953 wounded in action; March 2003 – August 2010), Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan only; 2,216 deaths and 20,049 wounded in action; October 2001 – December 2014), and Operation Inherent Resolve (anti-IS activities; 30 deaths and 21 wounded in action; August 2014 – November 2016).
There are many daunting domestic extremist and international terrorist threats that the United States and the global community will need to address in the coming years and beyond. These cataclysmic forces may challenge the very essence of governments, industry, non-profits, non-governmental institutions, and the public at large.
Hopefully, President-elect Donald Trump and his national security team will succeed in managing the extensive perils that await them through effective policies in the political, diplomatic, military, economic, legal, law enforcement, strategic communications, and other spheres. Additionally, it is possible that the Trump administration will face unexpected foreign policy and terrorism events akin to those that confounded President Bush (e.g., the 9/11 attacks) and President Obama (e.g., the Arab Spring).
If so, multiple policy options must be considered very careful as initial impulses for one approach may, in retrospect, prove less than ideal. Unfortunately, an errant policy may not be recognized for months or years afterwards, sometimes making a reversal in strategy quite difficult.