Consider this sign of the times: In late August, U.S. officials expressed confidence they had finally killed Ibrahim al-Asiri, the most fabled al Qaeda bombmaker of the post-9/11 period. Asiri was reported to have created undetectable bombs and experimented with implanting them inside operatives’ bodies. He had been involved in the near-miss of the “Underwear Bomber” in 2009 and had nearly succeeded in killing former Saudi counterterrorism chief Muhammad bin Nayef. Asiri had haunted the sleep of counterterrorism officials, including me, for years.
Yet his apparent death, which might once have been a page one story, got scant coverage, with no news stories appearing in the New York Times or the Washington Post. In the lede of an op–ed he penned to note this “major counterterrorism success,” former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell wrote, “Amid all the controversies and scandals from Washington dominating our news cycle. … [Asiri’s death] did not get the attention it deserved.”
Of all the unexpected developments of Donald Trump’s presidency, surely one of the more unlikely ones has been the slow but steady ebbing of the nation’s profound, at times almost boundless, fixation on the threat of terrorism.
The development is unexpected because over the 17 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, jihadist extremism has come to dominate America’s threat landscape like nothing else since Soviet Russia did during the Cold War. What’s more, as poll after poll has shown, terrorism has been far and away the only foreign policy issue Americans care deeply about and the prism through which their sense of national security is defined.
In 2015, for the only time in a decade, terrorism tied the economy as the No. 1 concern of Americans.
No wonder, then, that despite the absence of any event resembling 9/11 for all those years, the sense of peril could easily be inflamed by Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign—a year-and-a-half long carnival of fearmongering and Islamophobia. Candidate Trump promised to shut the nation’s doors to Muslims and create a national registry of those in the country, disparaged Islam for being sick at heart, and vowed to wipe out terrorists everywhere and kill their families for good measure.
Trump’s no-holds barred demagoguery—building on years of political parties jousting over the terrorist threat and its related wars, media coverage that was often supersaturated, and actual attacks in California, Florida during the presidential campaign—helped drive concern over terrorism to a peak. In 2015, for the only time in a decade, terrorism tied the economy as the No. 1 concern of Americans. Fully 51 percent of those Americans polled in late 2015 said they feared they or someone in their family would be a victim of terrorist violence, and multiple surveys found large numbers of Americans saying they believed the threat was greater than at any time since 9/11. In the election, terrorism was the number two issue of concern for voters, with 80 percent of voters citing it—just four points behind the economy.
All indications suggested that this campaign was only the beginning—that a broadened counterterrorism crusade and energized fear-fanning lay in store after the just-inaugurated Trump vowed to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism,” which, he promised, the world would “eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.” Indeed, the new administration immediately rolled out the first draft of the executive order blocking entry to the U.S. for citizens from seven Muslim countries. The drama of that effort played out across courtrooms from Maryland to Hawaii over 18 months and concluded with a 5-4 Supreme Court decision upholding a ban that had gone through multiple rounds of cosmetic surgery so it could pass muster with the justices.
But while the ban worked its way through the courts, it became clear that Trump had done little else to keep the focus on terrorism. He swore during the campaign that he had a secret plan for destroying ISIS but none was ever unveiled. The fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continued largely along the lines conceived in the Obama administration, though the Trump team removed some targeting restrictions, increasing significantly the amount of ordnance dropped along with civilian casualties.
Perhaps most important, Trump scandals have swept away all before them, refocusing public attention on the question of campaign collusion with Russia, trade wars, chaos in the White House, attacks against the press and such contretemps as stripping former CIA chief John Brennan of his security clearance. The media, a central player in the feedback mechanism of public opinion, redirected its energies, and today only a small fraction of terrorism stories make the front page of the dailies compared to only a few years ago.
At the New York Times, star reporters with experience in intelligence and law enforcement such as Mark Mazzetti, Scott Shane and Adam Goldman have been reassigned to the Trump maelstrom. Greg Miller, the Washington Post’s stalwart terrorism and intelligence reporter, has been anchoring that paper’s book on Trump and Russia. In the endless panel discussion of Trumpian outrages that CNN has become, former CIA official Phil Mudd no longer dissects the details of jihadist plots but contextualizes White House misdeeds and vents his well-founded anger at White House shenanigans.
While some might claim the decline in coverage reflects a decline in terrorist activity, that argument is weak: The New York City rental truck attack on October 31, 2017, that killed eight caused more fatalities than all but three incidents in the U.S. since 9/11. The attack received a fraction of the attention of earlier terrorist events.
Polling gives only limited help in determining public concern today about terrorism: Most surveys on the subject are conducted right after attacks. Interestingly, there wasn’t one after the New York City incident, and there haven’t been many others of late. Gallup found in March that 40 percent of those asked were very concerned about future terrorist attacks in the U.S., a notable decline from 48 percent in 2016. (For comparison: The number in 2002, just months after 9/11 was 49 percent.)
Trump himself appears to have forgotten about the subject. Talk of terrorism has virtually disappeared from his shambolic rally performances. When he spoke in Phoenix late last month, he flogged a long decomposed horse by criticizing Barack Obama for refusing to use the term “radical Islamic terrorists” and then boasted briefly about extreme vetting. At a late July rally in Tampa, he made no mention of the subject at all.
The lull in attention to terrorism raises questions: Is this a good thing? If so, is it durable?
The answer to the first is, on balance, yes. U.S. public opinion had become a runaway train on issue of terrorism, to the detriment of our broader interests. That’s a natural consequence of a political debate on terrorism that had lost touch with reality—as when in 2014 Senator Lindsey Graham declared on Fox News Sunday, “I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists’ ability to operate in Syria and Iraq.”
One of the Pentagon’s first steps in its rebalancing has been to direct a reduction in operations in Africa
Though partisans on both sides of the aisle take the terrorist threat seriously, Republicans tend to rate it as substantially greater concern, typically by a margin of 20 or more percentage points. In New Hampshire, where I live, 2016 Republican presidential primary candidates such as Chris Christie and Marco Rubio spoke about their determination to allay the fears about imminent attack they heard from the inhabitants in the tiny towns and villages of the state—a scenario of almost indescribable preposterousness. All of this took place in an America where the chances of being killed by a foreign terrorist were infinitesimal.
Within the government, the consequences of the terrorism fixation were also manifest. Former White House Coordinator for the Middle East Rob Malley and former State Department Chief of Staff Jon Finer have written in Foreign Affairs about how the counterterrorism machinery competed with—and ran afoul of—the rest of the foreign policy process in the second Obama term:
In one example from our time in government, in 2016, officials taking part in the more specialized counterterrorism side of the process debated whether to kill or capture a particular militant leader even as those involved in the parallel interagency process considered whether to initiate political discussions with him. That same year, those involved in the counterterrorism process recommended launching a major strike against ISIS leaders in Libya even as other officials working on that country worried that overt U.S. military action would undermine Libya’s fledgling government.
For the record, Malley and Finer describe a policy process far more tangled and convoluted than the one I knew in the first Obama term. Both, however, are acute observers, and I have no reason to doubt their account. It is hard to imagine that the time spent on the terrorism did not also limit the administration’s bandwidth for other matters. Historians one day will undoubtedly examine whether more attention should have been paid to a Russia whose behavior had grown in a few years from episodically difficult to deeply hostile.
One important benefit of the declining obsession with terrorism is that it has allowed the biggest agency in the government, the Defense Department—which appears to have recognized U.S. over-investment in one threat area—to begin reallocating resources. Defense Secretary James Mattis early in the year unveiled a new National Defense Strategy in which the threat of extremist violence was replaced by “growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia.”
Given that the “high-end threat” from al Qaeda to carry out catastrophic attacks that kill thousands (other groups like ISIS are less interested in this kind of complex covert operation and are more attracted to holding territory) appears to have been reduced by that group’s disarray, while Russia seeks to undermine the global rules-based order and China works to expand its influence on several continents, this change is appropriate if not overdue. One of the Pentagon’s first steps in its rebalancing has been to direct a reduction in operations in Africa, which has triggered a predictable bureaucratic food fight over priorities. It remains to be seen if this decrease will diminish the capabilities of poor but determined countries like Niger to strengthen their counterterrorism efforts.
None of this is to suggest that the terrorist threat is over and won’t come back. Although ISIS has been defeated in Iraq, many analysts believe the group still has plenty of fighters in the field who went to ground instead of trying to combat a vastly more powerful foe, and that the group will mount an offensive sometime soon. Terrorist groups thrive in conflict zones, and the continuing chaos in Yemen is a perfect setting for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to grow its forces. The challenge of dealing with foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria continues to occupy governments around the world. While the level of terrorist violence globally has been declining for the last couple of year, it is nonetheless at a historically high level, and isn’t likely to fall off sharply anytime in the foreseeable future.
And these are just the challenges of the moment. Jihadism will remain a potent force for years and probably decades to come for several reasons: With a few exceptions, especially among the oil monarchies, the Middle East and such Muslim majority countries as Pakistan remain in poor, sometimes disastrous shape. Economic stagnation is endemic, with job creation a shadow of what it should be. Most people in the region lack real political voice or representative institutions. In the West, especially in Europe, integration of Muslim minority communities is uneven at best, leaving many frustrated at their limited prospects. These big structural facts aren’t going to change quickly. The United States will need to continue investing in counterterrorism for a long time to come.
At the same time, it’s worth recognizing the America is well protected by excellent border controls, capable law enforcement and remarkable intelligence and military capabilities—as the targeting of Asiri underscores. With barely more than 100 people killed in the United States by jihadist operatives since 9/11, the record is a strong one that argues for taking this moment to revise our collective thinking about the terrorist threat. That is, the time has come to absorb the notion that jihadist terrorism is a fact of the contemporary world, that it can be managed but not eradicated and that we have developed excellent though not perfect tools for that task. That understanding, it seems to me, is the precondition for avoiding the kind overreaction that helped lead us into Iraq and created near hysteria in 2014 when ISIS appeared on the scene.
If anything, social media seems to be increasing the reverberation of news opinion that feeds outsize anxieties.
Will those realizations sink in? The president might be talking less about ISIS, but America continues to be in the grip of a Trump-accelerated xenophobia, as his continued emphasis on cutting off immigration and the rise in hate crimes since he launched his campaign has demonstrated. And it’s unlikely that our president is committed to the Pentagon’s new focus: Considering his campaign platform and his much-noted warmth toward Russia, one has to wonder if Trump even read the cover memo on Mattis’ document reordering U.S. defense priorities when it crossed his desk for approval.
In light of over-the-top polarization, there is no reason to believe that our politicians won’t revert to the kind of outbidding on terrorism that had prodded the expansion of the counterterrorism machinery at the expense of so much else. And the nature of the media hasn’t changed: If anything, social media seems to be increasing the reverberation of news opinion that feeds outsize anxieties. A lot may depend on how much time there is until the next substantial attack, and, of course, what that event looks like. It’s not a test I’m looking forward to.
Ambassador Daniel Benjamin is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and served as coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department 2009-2012.