Shadow Government

Has Trump Read His Own Counterterrorism Strategy?

The president’s views don’t seem to line up with those of his team.

U.S. President Donald Trump hosts a cabinet meeting in the White House on Aug. 16. (Oliver Contreras/Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump hosts a cabinet meeting in the White House on Aug. 16. (Oliver Contreras/Pool/Getty Images)

The Trump’s administration last week finally issued its long-awaited National Strategy for Counterterrorism. The document claims to mark “a shift in America’s approach to countering and preventing terrorism.” In reality, it exhibits considerable continuity with the Obama administration’s approach, which in turn built on adaptions President George W. Bush made during his second term. Trump’s strategy reflects new developments—the Islamic State’s emergence, increased use of social media by terrorist groups, and the challenges related to foreign fighter returnees—but most of the objectives and lines of effort look remarkably similar to the ones found in President Barack Obama’s 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism. In places where it departs from previous strategies, this one still falls squarely within the paradigm of what we might expect from a more traditional administration.

All of this suggests the work of seasoned professionals, as opposed to that of their boss, who traffics in what Joshua Geltzer and I have called faux counterterrorism: policies, such as an anti-Muslim travel ban or a border wall, that are shaped by political imperatives and ideological agendas that masquerade as counterterrorism. As with the National Security Strategy, released last year, the disconnect between Trump’s views and the document his team produced raises questions about whether the president is aware of its contents, much less on board with them.

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The strategy’s emphasis on maintaining foreign partnerships in order to advance and sustain U.S. counterterrorism efforts is a welcome area of continuity. It was apparent not long after the 9/11 attacks that military campaigns with a large U.S. footprint were neither successful nor sustainable. As al Qaeda expanded in the wake of the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration began to put greater emphasis on building the capacity of partner forces to help them combat al Qaeda franchises and other jihadi threats. Obama built on this practice and explicitly made working by, with, and through partner nations a cornerstone of his counterterrorism strategy.

Getting other countries to carry more of the burden enabled the United States to expand its reach while conserving resources and military strength. The Obama administration also intended to make gains more sustainable by giving local actors ownership of the fight. Trump’s strategy adopts precisely this approach, declaring its intention of “collaborating so that foreign governments take the lead wherever possible, and working with others so that they can assume responsibility in the fight against terrorists.” Cooperation is only loosely cloaked in Trumpian terms— “America First does not mean America alone”—and the means of pursuing partnerships are positively mainstream: diplomatic engagement and reliance on multilateral and international forums. This language is a far cry from the bullying rhetoric Trump commonly uses, especially with NATO, to berate allies and demand they do more—or else. It also openly contradicts the blatant opposition to all things multilateral embodied by John Bolton, the current U.S. national security advisor.

Many U.S. allies and partners continue to work with the United States on counterterrorism for numerous reasons, not because of Trump’s bellicosity but despite it. They cooperate because they see shared priorities when it comes to threats and are aware of how they can benefit from the unique, high-end capabilities that the United States can provide. Many countries wish to maintain a working security relationship with the United States for political or economic reasons that will continue to be relevant well after Trump’s stay in the Oval Office is over. And because of the way security cooperation is structured, their counterterrorism professionals have developed patterns of cooperation with U.S. counterparts. In short, a partner’s interests determine whether it helps or hinders U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

While Trump’s inclinations to withdraw the United States from the world have not voided international security cooperation altogether, they have created uncertainty for allies and partners. In interviews I’ve conducted over the past several months, counterterrorism policymakers from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia have expressed alarm about whether the United States is still with them when it comes to counterterrorism. Many of them made clear that they are planning for the eventuality that America first does in fact mean America alone.

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Like all the best (and worst) strategies, the Trump administration’s counterterrorism strategy promises to use “all available instruments of United States power” as a part of a whole of government approach to achieve its aims. Normally, one would forgive this cliché, especially since it is most likely an earnest objective for the counterterrorism professionals who crafted this strategy. In this case, however, it is worth pausing to remember that Trump has repeatedly declared his preference for U.S. military action over all other instruments of national power. Trump cut spending for civilian security sector reform and economic development in his proposed budget last year while he worked to increase military assistance. It is also worth remembering that this summer leaders from both parties came together and pledged to fight his attempts to bypass Congress and roll back billions of dollars from the foreign aid budget.

When it comes to terrorism prevention—the administration’s preferred term for countering violent extremism—there is genuine debate among experts over what types of initiatives the United States should pursue abroad. Some experts argue for a narrower focus on specific initiatives, such as countermessaging, whereas others believe the United States must also work with partner nations to address societal risk factors for radicalization and recruitment, such as poor governance, lack of rule of law, and relative economic deprivation. Promoting political reforms and economic development to address these risk factors is not only expensive. It also requires considerable political investment from the United States and a partner nation. At the same time, narrow interventions are often insufficient. Trump’s strategy still leans heavily on them, which is not unexpected given his position on cutting development and other foreign aid.

The gap between the inclinations expressed in the strategy and the actions of the president who issued it is especially notable with regard to its emphasis on working closely with civil society organizations. Unlike other aspects of counterterrorism, where governments—and their security forces and intelligence services—are the sole partners for the United States, terrorism prevention requires cooperation with local communities. The Obama administration emphasized cooperation with civil society organizations and other nongovernmental actors ranging from religious leaders and teachers to local businesses, precisely because their roles are recognized as being critical to countering radicalization and recruitment.

However, there is only so much the United States can do when trying to support civil society in other countries, as partners in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia are increasingly restricting its space to function. Egypt, one of America’s closest partners in the Arab world, and also a country with a long history of jihadi violence, is one of the most egregious offenders. Last year, it passed a new law regulating NGOs that experts assert will crush civil society. The space for civil society to operate is also shrinking in Pakistan, where journalists, in particular, are under threat.

These trends did not begin during the Trump administration, and his counterterrorism strategy implies the United States is committed to pressing partner governments to allow civil society to function. Yet Trump’s rhetoric and actions tell another story. Since taking office, he has been openly hostile to promoting good governance and rule of law abroad. Trump’s embrace of authoritarianism—to the point of expressing respect for and sometimes even envy of foreign dictators—makes it harder for the United States to dissuade other countries from pursuing the types of repressive policies that undercut civil society organizations that mitigate the terrorist threat. His repeated claims that the media is the enemy of the people exacerbate the problem, signaling to autocrats everywhere that they have carte blanche to crush dissent. For evidence of this, look no further than the alleged murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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The strategy’s acknowledgement of the threats posed by “domestic terrorists who are not motivated by a radical Islamist ideology” is a welcome surprise. As the document notes, domestic terrorism is real threat. Giving this threat increased attention and dedicating a larger share of government resources to it is long overdue. Considering Trump’s laser focus on Islamist militants and his courtship of the far-right in the United States, it is also a step that many would not expect his administration to take. Yet, although the strategy represents an encouraging departure from earlier ones, there are at least three reasons to be skeptical of whether this will translate into action.

First, the focus is unclear. Even as the new strategy acknowledges that terrorism can and often does come from sources other than Islamist militants, it muddies the water by lumping right-wing extremists—who were responsible for the largest number of deadly attacks in the United States since 2001—together with far less lethal actors, such as animal rights organizations. As with any multidimensional threat, dealing with domestic terrorism effectively requires precision. The Trump administration’s strategy took two steps forward by identifying the problem but a big step back by muddying the waters in terms of the actors involved.

Second, the U.S. legal code defines domestic terrorism but does not identify any penalties associated with it. That’s why the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was convicted of murder, and the Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof was convicted of federal hate crimes despite the fact that both men’s actions clearly met the U.S. definition of terrorism. That lack of clarity constrains U.S. law enforcement from countering domestic terrorism as effectively as possible. Rectifying this deficiency would require Congress to amend the law, which sounds easy enough in theory. In practice, Republican lawmakers lashed out at Obama administration efforts to focus right-wing extremism. The fact that Trump’s counterterrorism strategy acknowledged domestic terrorism is commendable. It will only be meaningful if this acknowledgment leads to action, such as dedicating more government resources to combating the threat and giving law enforcement the tools it needs to go after both domestic terrorists and their supporters.

This highlights the third, and perhaps greatest, challenge to action against domestic terrorism: politics, and specifically the politics of Trump. He panders to right-wing extremists, plain and simple, famously waiting to condemn the white supremacists responsible for Heather Heyer’s murder and other violence in Charlottesville—and then equating them with people who came out to protest against them. Many of the actors that who under the umbrella of far-right extremism are either involved in or supportive of extremist violence in the United States and have been energized by Trump’s election. Ku Klux Klan members, right-wing militia members, and neo-Nazis, among others, have marched side by side at pro-Trump rallies. With this in mind, the latest counterterrorism strategy’s focus on domestic terrorism is a welcome addition, but it would be genuinely shocking if the administration were to make a real, concerted effort in this area.

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It is hard to quibble with the overall thrust of Trump’s counterterrorism strategy, which reads like a traditional interagency product that could have been developed by any administration. This is arguably better than the alternative—the strategy could have been written to reflect Trump’s broad-brush emphasis on radical Islam, conflation of terrorism with immigration, and “bomb the shit out of them” approach to the problem. The question, however, is not just whether Trump is aware of his team’s ideas but whether his rhetoric and actions will continue to undermine them.

Stephen Tankel is an associate professor at American University, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a former senior advisor at the U.S. Defense Department. @StephenTankel

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