Trump’s counterterrorism and domestic security: ‘mythbusting’

It would seem prudent of any incoming president to prioritise the security of his citizens upon taking office. However, the hyperbole that goes hand in hand with discussing the terrorist threat has unnecessarily ramped up the fear factor, giving ordinary citizens a disproportionate understanding of the scale and nature of the threat. Despite the facts and statistics clearly indicating gun crime, car accidents or drowning in the bath are more likely to kill Americans than terrorists, the unique characteristic of terrorism “combines the wrong-place-wrong-time randomness of a natural disaster with the precision of a hate crime.” The move towards a “bipartisan approach to national security focused on terrorism [that] has distorted America’s understanding of its interests,” and has allowed the lines between counterterrorism, national security and foreign policy to be blurred. Executive orders like the travel ban, the refugee resettlement suspension, the ban on electronic devices on airplanes and increased military operations in the Middle East and Africa, have all been shrouded in the fear of counterterrorism. This has been a key legitimising factor for executing policy that otherwise seems discriminatory, unnecessary and unhelpful.

From a distance, these policies seem objectively to be in the best interests of the nation: keep the bad guys — and any potential bad guys — out of the country. However, the bans came off the back of Trump’s campaign promises, which directly threatened to ban all Muslims from entering the USA justified as preventing attacks on US soil. During 2015, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” This idea does not hold up to scrutiny considering since 9/11 all the terrorist attacks that killed American citizens in the USA were perpetrated by US nationals. Trump’s unequivocal link between the threat of terrorism and the Arab-Muslim population, as exemplified in his statements and subsequent policy decisions, almost vindicates grievances of unfair ethno-religious targeting by their own government.

Policies that target particular groups of people, based on race, ethnicity or religion in ways that curb their civil liberties and freedoms have been legitimised by framing the issue within a security paradigm. They simultaneously fuel a victim narrative that terrorist organisations can exploit to recruit. For example, the temporary burkini ban issued in southern France in 2016, and Austria’s ruling to ban the niqab (full face veil) in public places in 2017, singularly target the civil liberties of Muslim women, and have been justified on the basis of counterterrorism policy. The framing of public policy issues within a counterterrorism paradigm can be abused for political gain, by playing on the fears of the population.

Putting the spotlight on Islam and Muslims undermines the effect of CVE programmes; it sabotages any sincere attempts to engage with Muslim communities by alienating and vilifying them. Furthermore, it deepens pre-existing suspicions that CVE is a way of surveilling entire communities. For example, Trump’s intention to change the approach of the national countering violent extremism (CVE) programme to solely focus on ‘Countering Radical Islamic Extremism’, or CRIE, flagrantly ignores the well documented empirical evidence that hate crime in the USA is disproportionately motivated by racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiments, rather than by Salafi-jihadi related movements.

According to New York City police commissioner James O’Neill, hate crimes in 2016 increased 31% from 2015 — from 250 to 328 — and there were 25 attacks against the city’s Muslim population, up from 12. Furthermore, anti-Semitic incidents are up by 9% from 102 to 111. However, in May 2017, Donald Trump reportedly froze $10 million of grants that had been approved for CVE initiatives in 2015; the organisations to where the funds will be re-directed are now “pending review.” The funding freeze may indeed be the first steps towards re-framing the CVE programme, and simultaneously re-framing the debate to ignore or side-line the threats posed by other forms of violent extremism. One of the earmarked organisations, awaiting approval was Life After Hate — a rehabilitation centre for former white supremacists. The movement is increasingly more active than it has been for years; erasing the threat posed by supporters of such movements threatens the work carried out to combat hate crime and racist attacks.

As experts continue to stress, there is no single profile of a terrorist or one route into radicalisation. The issue of lone actor killings spans different ideologies and mindsets. The imagined impact that the terrorist threat has on society has meant that policy created in the name of countering the threat, rationalised through national security rhetoric, will be defended in a means to de-escalate public anxiety. The problem is, this type of policy actually stokes public perceptions of fear, creating “conditions ripe for overreaction to a future attack on American soil.” Trump’s suggestion to reframe the issue of CVE as solely a problem to tackle within Islamic communities distinctly fails to recognise the lethal threat of far-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacist related attacks that dominate the hate crimes in the USA. Adherents of violent extremism feed off each other’s intolerance, and create an atmosphere vulnerable to cyclical attacks of retribution. There are a myriad of factors and consideration to consider, which don’t start and end with religion or ideology. All are equally dangerous.