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A terrorism expert on why Trump's anti-Muslim posturing makes us less safe

Alienating the people whose help we need is a bad strategy.

One Love Manchester Benefit Concert - Atmosphere
Armed Counter Terrorism Officers at the One Love Manchester Benefit Concert on June 4, 2017 in Manchester, England.
Photo by Richard Stonehouse/Getty Images

In the wake of the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London, it’s worth asking: Does Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy and terrorism make us more or less safe?

The president’s response to the latest attacks was what we’ve come to expect: impulsive, reactionary, and counter-productive. He immediately doubled down on his call for a Muslim ban and then, a couple days later, picked a fight with London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Trump’s reaction raises concerns about his capacity to deal intelligently with terrorism. If there is a domestic attack during his presidency, what will he do? Will he overreact? Will he further estrange the Muslim community?

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He’s also a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former staff member of the 9/11 Commission and the Joint 9/11 Inquiry Staff of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

I asked Byman to answer the question: Are we more or less safe under the Trump administration?

His answer is “less safe,” and for two reasons. First, we have no idea what this president is thinking or what he will or won’t do, and that alone is deeply unsettling. Second, by demonizing the American Muslim community, Trump has both increased the likelihood of radicalization and alienated the very people whose help the country needs in the fight against terrorism.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Sean Illing

We’re having this conversation against the backdrop of two recent terror attacks in Manchester and London. What do you make of Trump’s response?

Daniel Byman

The President's response to the London attack is yet another indication of how he shoots from the hip in a crisis and politicizes tragedies rather than taking the high road. This angers allies, worsens domestic tensions, and otherwise makes a bad situation worse. To me it signals that he will pursue whatever policies were on his mind before an attack occurs without considering the new events and information.

Sean Illing

The president just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, where he aligned the United States with the Saudis and other Sunni regimes against Iran and its Shiite proxies. Do you think it was wise for him to openly take a side in this internal Sunni-Shiite conflict?

Daniel Byman

I was troubled by his open embrace of a dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. I recognize the United States has multiple interests in the region and has to work with the governments but he seemed more comfortable with the Saudi government than with European allies, which is upsetting to me.

To your broader point, I think he embraced the Saudi narrative, which is that Iran is the major problem in the region. My view is that the back-and-forth between Saudi Arabia and Iran is dangerous in that it feeds the narrative of groups like the Islamic State.

I believe Trump’s decision to pick the Saudi side makes Saudi Arabia more comfortable escalating this conflict in a way that I think is bad for US interests. I’m fine with the United States increasing pressure on Iran, but I don’t think it should openly identify with Saudi Arabia.

Sean Illing

The narrative undergirding Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia is that the Saudis are partners in a common struggle against terrorism. Do you buy that?

Daniel Byman

Well, it's a bit of a mix. The Saudis are actually a great counter-terrorism partner narrowly defined. If we're trying to find individual terrorists, if we're trying to go after individual funders, the Saudis are often quite helpful. At the same time, they’re supporting an array of causes through both propaganda and money that align them with jihadists. Their actions in Yemen give al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula a lot more freedom there.

The truth is that Saudi Arabia is on both sides of this conflict, and that’s what makes this so difficult. We need them day-to-day and we need partners in the region, but there’s no doubt that they’re part of the broader problem.

Sean Illing

Here’s my big concern, and feel free to talk me off the ledge if my worries are misplaced. Trump is unstable, impulsive, and mostly uninformed about relevant issues. Given his combustible personality and everything he has said so far about terrorism and the Muslim world, I worry that if we suffer another substantial attack on the homeland, Trump will overreact and potentially drag us deeper into the abyss.

Daniel Byman

I'm tremendously worried as well. There are two ways I think about this. One has to do with domestic policy. There's a question of what restrictions we would put in place against American Muslims. How would we think about laws on surveillance? Would his rhetoric be demonization rhetoric that would worsen the relationship between the United States and the Muslim community? All of these things are of significant concern to me.

The other question is on foreign policy. That's trickier because it's harder to imagine dramatic escalations under the current situation. You could imagine deploying more forces to Syria to retake Raqqa, but I can’t imagine the logic of putting more forces on the ground there.

What's pretty clear about this president is that we don't know what he will or won’t do. That’s what worries me the most. He’s erratic and has sent inconsistent messages (to our allies and enemies) and he doesn’t think things through. To me, that just makes the likelihood of a mistake that much higher or an impulsive action that ties the United States down in dangerous ways.

But again, my biggest concern is that I have no idea what this president will do.

Sean Illing

The other gnawing question for me is this: If we can see that Trump is likely to overreact, then so can ISIS or al-Qaeda or any other organization invested in drawing the United States into an intractable fight. Does that fact not create a unique window of opportunity for Jihadist groups to strike the US homeland?

Daniel Byman

I don't want to oversell this. There's a lot going on and Trump's rhetoric is only part of it. To me, the biggest problem is his demonization of the American Muslim community, which may well convince more individuals that their government is out to get them and is the enemy and maybe lead some to become radicalized and join militant groups.

An even bigger danger, though, is that many of the arrests against radicals have come from tips within the Muslim community. Even if you look at the Manchester bomber, I think there were two phone calls from his mosque, from people in his mosque saying this guy's a threat. They're calling the security services, which is what you want people inside that community to do.

If people are convinced their government is not trustworthy, that if they call the police someone's going to come and kick them out of the country or harass them, then they're not going to call. That’s my biggest concern right now.

Sean Illing

I certainly share that concern, but I want to press you a bit more on the question I just asked. Does the likelihood of an overreaction by Trump present a window of opportunity for terrorists?

Daniel Byman

It's always hard to tell. I do think they consider this as one factor but, as your question alluded to, there's a lot going on. Al-Qaeda has been looking to strike for a long time, but it's really off balance and weak. The Islamic State is, in my view, likely to step up attacks because it's being hit very hard in Iraq and Syria. That logic was true under Obama and it remains true under Trump.

Now, I do believe that the effects of an attack could be greater under Trump in light of his impulsiveness, but I’d say that this is just one factor out of many to consider.

Sean Illing

Is Trump making us more or less safe?

Daniel Byman

He’s made us less safe, primarily on the domestic front. He has alienated Muslims and empowered right-wing voices. This is a very dangerous dynamic that is likely to exacerbate the terror problem moving forward.