Addressing the threat of terrorism, both real and perceived, will be a top priority for the Trump administration. Despite the dearth of Islamic State–directed attacks on U.S. soil, polls from earlier in 2016 showed that 73 percent of Americans saw the Islamic State as a “very serious” threat to the United States, and another 17 percent saw it as “moderately serious”—a rare priority that crosses political lines. Almost 80 percent believed the Islamic State has assets in the United States and the capacity to “launch a major terrorist attack against the U.S. at any time.”
Not surprisingly, terrorism is a political football. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump regularly warned about “a major threat from radical Islamic terrorism,” and tweeted:
Fighting terrorism has been at the top of the U.S. national-security agenda since 9/11, but the terrorism threat, and thus the appropriate means of counterterrorism, is often grossly misunderstood. The danger has evolved, and counterterrorism must change to keep pace. Today, the greatest challenges abroad require the United States to reorient its counterterrorism focus. Simply arresting and killing bad guys is at best treading water; instead, the United States must become more involved in working to stop or at least contain the civil wars that fuel radical movements. Ultimately, the most effective counterterrorism effort could be fostering better governance in troubled parts of the Middle East. At home, the challenges are even more complex: the election exposed failures of societal resilience and led to the public demonization of Muslims, both of which only further empower terrorist groups.
Fighting terrorism has been at the top of the U.S. national-security agenda since 9/11, but the terrorism threat, and thus the appropriate means of counterterrorism, is often grossly misunderstood.
Terrorist groups pose a far greater danger to U.S. interests in the Middle East than they do at home. The fact is that terrorism has changed over the years. With these changes in mind, I offer recommendations for the new administration both in its counterterrorism approach overseas and, more challenging, in its policies at home.
It is difficult to assess the danger of terrorism today because it varies so much by region. In the United States, the terrorism threat has been low since 9/11. Only 94 Americans have died from jihadist attacks—that’s 94 too many, but that’s far fewer than experts (including myself) anticipated in the weeks after 9/11. Indeed, if you exclude Omar Mateen’s 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people (over half the total homeland deaths from jihadists in the post-9/11 period), right-wing terrorists have killed more Americans since 2001. But we don’t hear much about that.