Since September 11, 2001, ninety-four people have been killed in the United States in ten attacks carried out by a total of twelve radical Islamist terrorists. Each of the attackers was either an American citizen or a legal resident. More than half of the ninety-four murders occurred last year, when Omar Mateen, who was born on Long Island, killed forty-nine people at a night club in Orlando.
According to the comprehensive terrorism database maintained by the New America Foundation, since 9/11 there have been three hundred and ninety-six people involved in American terrorism cases, which New America defines as “individuals who are charged with or died engaging in jihadist terrorism or related activities inside the United States, and Americans accused of such activity abroad.” Eighty-three per cent of these individuals were American citizens or permanent residents. (Seventeen per cent were non-residents or had an unknown status.)
And yet, for more than two weeks, President Donald Trump and his top White House aides have been obsessed with highlighting a threat that does not exist: jihadist refugees and immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
It’s true that both worldwide terrorist attacks and terrorism-related cases against plotters in the United States have spiked since 2013, an increase largely attributed to the fallout from the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State. I talked to several counterterrorism experts this week, and they all believe that there will be another attack.
“I do believe the world faces a serious and growing terrorist threat,” Evan McMullin, the former C.I.A. officer and Republican who ran for President as an independent candidate against Trump, said. “But Trump, either by ignorance or malice, is distorting the nature of that threat by targeting very well-vetted immigrants, including legal permanent residents and refugees. He simply does not have a strong national-security case to make against these people, which is why it is reasonable to wonder if he has some ulterior motive for taking such extreme steps against them.”
Yesterday, Trump’s campaign to highlight this threat took a bizarre turn when he accused the media of burying coverage of terror attacks. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported,” he said in remarks to troops at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa. “In many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons.” The White House later released a list of attacks since 2014 that it insisted had not received enough attention.
This is the second time in a week that Trump has accused others of not understanding the threat posed by terrorism. Over the weekend, he used Twitter to attack the federal judge who put a halt to Trump’s immigration ban. He called James L. Robart, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the Senate, a “so-called judge,” and later added, “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
One of the questions raised by Trump’s claims that the media and the courts have endangered the country is what he would do in the event of a terrorist attack.
Jack Goldsmith, a former senior Justice Department official in the George W. Bush Administration, who helped design the post-9/11 anti-terror legal architecture, recently suggested that Trump might actually want his travel ban to be overturned. That way, in the wake of an attack, he can use the judiciary as a bogeyman and justify any new efforts to push through more extreme measures.
I asked Goldsmith and others what the menu of options might be for a President Trump empowered by the justifiable fears Americans would have in the aftermath of a serious attack. “If it is a large and grim attack, he might ask for more surveillance powers inside the U.S. (including fewer restrictions on data mingling and storage and queries), more immigration control power at the border, an exception to Posse Comitatus (which prohibits the military from law enforcement in the homeland), and perhaps more immigration-related detention powers,” Goldsmith wrote in an e-mail. “In the extreme scenario Trump could ask Congress to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, which would cut off the kind of access to courts you are seeing right now for everyone (or for every class of persons for which the writ is suspended).”
He pointed out that President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and ignored courts that insisted he didn’t have such power. “The point of the example is that the only question is not what powers Trump might ‘ask for,’ ” Goldsmith said, “but also what powers he might assert or assume or grab, and what he can get away with.”
John Yoo, who as a lawyer for the George W. Bush Administration was the fiercest defender of its most extreme post-9/11 policies, including the use of torture, recently wrote an Op-Ed in which he said he was alarmed by Trump’s attempt to expand the powers of the executive branch. (This was as if Trump had written an essay arguing that he was concerned about developers adding their names to buildings in lettering that was too large.) Yoo told me, “If there is another terrorist attack, I could see Trump seeking all of the powers that the President can exercise during wartime. The domestic powers would have to be approved by Congress, such as limitations on habeas, domestic warrantless surveillance, and an internal security act. We really haven’t had a system like that since the Second World War or the Communist cases of the nineteen-fifties.”
Matt Olsen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told me that he didn’t agree with Goldsmith’s suggestion that Trump actually wants the executive order overturned, but he said that he thought Trump was laying the groundwork for arguments he might make after an attack. “This is a win-win for Trump,” Olsen said. “We can assume there will be another terrorist attack in the U.S. If the executive order is in place, he will point to the attack as support for the executive order and the need to expand it to other countries with bad dudes (Muslims). If the executive order has been struck down, Trump will blame judges and Democrats for the attack.”
Olsen was also concerned that Trump might undo many of the changes that Barack Obama put in place to rein in the excesses of the Bush era. “As for other options in a post-attack scenario, just look back to 9/11,” he said. “C.I.A. black sites, enhanced interrogations, Gitmo, and warrantless surveillance will all be on the table. In addition, regardless of nationality, there will be changes to immigration and refugee policies.” He added that he could also imagine an effort to loosen restrictions on surveillance inside the United States.
Todd Breasseale, the former assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, was also alarmed. “I had a very similar discussion with a former senior intel official on this very issue, before Jack’s column,” he told me. “We both wholly believe that Trump needs a bogeyman. But, more importantly, he needs distraction and a blame source. In terrorists, he has his bogeyman. In his control of the prevailing press narrative via tweet, he has distraction. And, in the judiciary, he has a source of blame for why his way was right from the beginning.” Breasseale added, “I am fully confident that an attack is exactly what he wants and needs.”
Breasseale said that he was most concerned about the potential of Trump using existing D.H.S. tools. “He could create a registry of various religions, sects, and provenance—all within the law—all to amp up fear and suspicion, releasing the information in ways that meet his narrative,” he said. “D.H.S. has a means to track this information and publish it in real time. It gets very specific: military-aged males from East Timor, geriatric women from Japan, Muslim children from Pakistan—you name it. You can see how the right information with the wrong context could manipulate public angst. He could also order raids and removals within the law. Worse in some respects: he could remain unpredictable, continuing the chaos we saw with the Customs and Border Patrol folks.”
Trump’s efforts to hype the threat from terrorism during a period of domestic calm should be regarded with extreme skepticism. As McMullin noted, “Trump’s strange focus on the terrorist threat” was “out of step with reality at the moment” and was “a telltale sign of a leader contemplating policies that would otherwise be unacceptable.”