In the final years of the Obama administration, the president and his top advisers worried constantly about the growing threat ISIS posed to the United States.
Part of their fear was about the potential attacks themselves — the dozens who could be killed by a gunman inspired by the group’s ideology, the hundreds who could be wounded by a suicide bomber drawn to its calls for all-out war on the West. But much of their worry was over the political impact. Small-scale terror attacks, for all their horror, wouldn’t pose an existential threat to the US. But they could provoke America into overreactions that would cause serious and lasting damage.
So Obama and his team carefully scrutinized every policy and every speech. They thought about how to keep Americans calm after an attack, how to prevent the US from launching large-scale — and ill-advised — military responses, and how to protect the rights and safety of American Muslims. They wanted to tamp down panic and calls for a violent reaction, not fuel them.
“It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people,” Obama told Vox’s Matt Yglesias in a 2015 interview. “[But] we've got to make sure we're right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn't counterproductive. I would argue that our invasion of Iraq was counterproductive to the goal of keeping our country safe.”
The bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, is the exact sort of attack the Obama administration feared. Dozens dead and injured, many of them little girls. The perpetrator, Salman Ramadan Abedi, is a 22-year-old British Muslim. The attack was designed not just to kill but, in the classic and literal sense, to terrify.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May responded much as the Obama administration might have. She worked hard Tuesday and Wednesday to reassure an anxious public without demonizing Muslims or ordering security services to specifically target them.
“I do not want the public to feel unduly alarmed,” she said. “The people of Manchester ... proved that cowardice will always be defeated by bravery, that evil can be overcome by good, and that our values — the liberal, pluralistic values of Britain — will always prevail over the hateful ideology of the terrorists.”
But what if Monday’s attack had happened not in Manchester, but in Minneapolis? What if it wasn’t May responding, but President Donald Trump? Would he work to calm an anxious public and prevent anti-Muslim violence — or would he push for policies that would make a bad situation worse?
Despite Trump’s moderate rhetoric in his recent trip to the Middle East, this is still the man who attempted to ban Muslims from entering the United States, proposed shutting down mosques allegedly linked to extremism, and signaled openness to setting up a registry of US Muslims. His past rhetoric about the religion strongly suggests that the words he would use after an Islamist attack would directly target the religion and its adherents.
“I think Islam hates us,” he said in a 2016 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
We haven’t yet seen how Trump’s overall approach to terrorism would play out in the event of a mass casualty terrorist attack in the United States. But it’s worth noting that many of the president’s advisers, most notably senior strategist Steve Bannon, take a very dark view of Islam and Muslims. Trump also has a history of responding emotionally and aggressively to news events; his original proposal of a Muslim ban on the campaign trail came as a direct response to the terrorist attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 people (an attack for which ISIS claimed responsibility, even though the shooters had no concrete links to the group).
“The ideologues that Trump seems to be appointing in top government positions are more likely to exploit [a] crisis to the advantage of their political agendas,” Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a January interview with Rolling Stone.
The events of the past 16 years have shown that presidents have extraordinary power to fundamentally alter the laws and culture of the US after a terror attack, including normalizing notions (like holding terror suspects without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) that would have once been unthinkable. Trump’s reaction would have serious long-term repercussions for both American Muslims and the country at large — and many experts are scared about what he might do.
“Given how Trump ran for office, and the really Islamophobic tendencies in the base that put him in office, you have to ask the question: Would there be pressure for a wide-scale crackdown of some kind?” says Daniel Benjamin, a Dartmouth scholar who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism official during Obama’s second term in office.
A terror attack could lead Trump to crack down on America’s Muslim community
Since Trump’s victory in November, civil libertarians have been sounding alarm bells about how a large-scale domestic terrorist attack would shape his already aggressive proposals on counterterrorism, including the Muslim ban that has so far been blocked by federal courts.
“With a domestic terrorist attack, those policies could become supercharged,” Romero said in the Rolling Stone interview.
During the campaign and the early parts of his administration, Trump outlined a series of policies that he could draw on. I have mentioned some of these — like shutting down mosques and setting up a Muslim registry — but there are other, equally scary ones.
Trump promised on the campaign trail to employ a form of torture “much worse” than waterboarding. A draft executive order leaked in January would have revoked the Obama administration’s ban on the offshore “black site” facilities that were used for the indefinite detention and brutal interrogation of terror suspects during the George W. Bush administration. It would also have repealed the current ban on interrogation techniques that aren’t in the US Army Field Manual, including waterboarding.
The draft order was never officially issued, in part because of the vocal opposition of top officials like Secretary of Defense James Mattis. But if America was suddenly faced with the shock of dozens or hundreds dead in a terror strike, you could imagine Trump moving to reopen black sites and give interrogators a green light to mistreat prisoners.
Trump has also praised the idea of surveillance programs specifically targeting Muslims. After the November 2015 attacks in Paris, he proposed a similar policy, saying, “I want surveillance of certain mosques,” in the US.
This, too, has precedent dating back to America’s post-9/11 reaction. In 2002, the NYPD launched a counterterrorism program that focused on the city’s Muslim community and its mosques; as part of the effort, the police sent undercover operatives into mosques and recorded license plate numbers of people who attended services. In the wake of an attack, one could imagine Trump instructing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to try to develop a similar program at the federal level.
Nor is Trump limited to his own list of ideas from the campaign. “He’s mercurial, he’s unpredictable, he likes showing strength,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Trump’s policies are hard to predict.”
Benjamin, the Dartmouth scholar, warns in particular about the return of another post-9/11 Bush administration policy: hauling in Muslim Americans as “material witnesses,” while detaining and interrogating them for months. More than 1,000 people were rounded up.
“Would they want to go back to using the material witness provisions for larger-scale incarceration and interrogation and the like?” he asks. “My hope is that the FBI would push back strongly on that, but with Trump we’re in a different political universe.”
And then there’s the Muslim ban. Experts think Trump would probably use an attack as a means of getting around the legal roadblocks that are currently holding it up.
“You’ve already seen some of his supporters say, ‘Look at Manchester; how could you not be for the Muslim ban,’” says Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University who studies counterterrorism.
So far, courts have consistently ruled that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric from the campaign “tainted” the policy permanently. Because Trump and his allies had admitted that the goal of the so-called “travel ban” was to limit Muslims specifically from entering the United States, courts found that the details of how they tried to do that (which Muslim countries were on the list of banned passports, for example) was less important than the obviously discriminatory intent. That’s why both the first order and the second, slimmed-down version were both held up in court.
But presidents have relatively broad legal authority when it comes to national security policy. Trump’s legal arguments in favor of some kind of travel ban might carry more weight if he were able to defend them as way of preventing new mass casualty terrorist attacks rather than as an attempt to keep a controversial and legally suspect campaign promise.
Indeed, Trump has already set the stage for trying to pass a third executive order in the wake of an attack. Immediately after two courts blocked the ban’s implementation in February, Trump blamed the judges in those cases for any future attacks:
The judge opens up our country to potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests at heart. Bad people are very happy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 5, 2017
Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 5, 2017
It’s likely that Trump will return to this rhetoric — and perhaps even use it to try to justify a new executive order — in the event of a future attack. It’s likely that he’d do it even if the perpetrator weren’t actually an immigrant or refugee.
That’s because it’s clear from the totality of Trump’s comments that his counterterrorism instincts lean toward policies that restrict the freedom of Muslims in general, regardless of whether they’d have prevented a specific attack. Imagine if Trump saw footage of dead American children on cable news — and this time, they’d been massacred in a terror strike under his watch.
“He used such dramatic language during the campaign about what he would do,” Benjamin says, “that I think he would find it had to resist exploiting a situation like this.”
Bush and Obama worked to prevent anti-Muslim hate crimes. Would Trump?
As much as one might criticize George W. Bush’s policy reactions to 9/11 — and there’s a lot to criticize — there was one area at which he excelled: what he said after the attack and, crucially, what he didn't.
On September 17, 2001, President Bush gave a speech at the Islamic Center of Washington, DC, urging Americans not to fear Islam and to embrace Muslim Americans as fellow citizens.
"When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world," he said. "Some don't want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing [hijabs], they're afraid they'll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America."
This was a consistent theme of Bush’s message. After 9/11, he made speech after speech stressing that America was not at war against Islam itself and sought to embrace the religion and its adherents. This was partly strategic, a way to undercut jihadists' narrative of representing "true" Islam in a religious war against the US.
But Bush, who emphasized Muslim contributions to human civilization and to the US, also seemed genuinely committed to preventing any backlash against Muslims in the US.
"America rejects bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith," he said in a 2003 address during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country. Every immigrant can be fully and equally American because we're one country."
It’s hard to quantify, but there’s a real sense among experts that this limited the spread of anti-Muslim animus among ordinary citizens. In concrete terms, Bush helped prevent the spread of violence targeting Muslims.
“Most everyone believed that Bush’s immediate post-9/11 signaling made a difference,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “It certainly made a difference in terms of shoring up, for a lot of members of Muslim communities, their perception of their place within American society.”
The words Obama used after terror attacks basically resembled his predecessor’s. When you ask Obama’s staff, they say that this was a conscious effort to use the bully pulpit to tamp down on public fear.
“There was always concern that fear can lead to irrational policies or allow us to abandon values and principles,” says Tommy Vietor, Obama’s National Security Council spokesperson from 2011 to 2013. “Part of [preventing] this is how the president addresses the American people in the wake of something happening.”
Trump’s rhetoric would probably be very, very different.
“I worry about rhetoric that could cast blame very quickly ... demonizing American Muslims,” Byman says.
Trump’s speech at a counterterrorism center in Saudi Arabia last week was certainly an improvement on past rhetoric. His discussion of Islam sounded like it could have been ripped from an Obama or Bush speech.
"This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Trump said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
But the Trump we’ve seen at other times, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks like Paris or San Bernardino, was very different.
This is a man who once told a fake story about a US general executing 50 Muslim prisoners in the Philippines using bullets dipped in pig’s blood, citing it as inspiration for how he wants to deal with captured terrorists today. This is a man who blamed “political correctness” for blocking Americans from telling the truth about “the hateful ideology of radical Islam.” This is a man who had to be told, by some of his advisers, that his preferred phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” signaled that America blamed all of Islam for jihadists’ actions, not just the extremist fringe of a religion with more than a billion adherents.
The trendline on anti-Muslim hate is already going in the wrong direction. Data from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) shows that hate crimes surged by roughly seven times between 2014 and 2016; the broader category of “anti-Muslim bias incidents” (which includes hate crimes as well as things like workplace discrimination and biased treatment during air travel) nearly doubled over that same time period.
A major terrorist attack would accelerate this trend — the question is how much worse it would get. Trump’s rhetoric could make a major difference.
“[Hate crimes] would go up in any event. They went up dramatically after 9/11 despite Bush’s efforts,” Byman says. “I think they would go up far more when you have a government sending signals that [Islam is the problem].”
Would Trump play into the terrorists’ hands?
Provoking these kinds of overreactions, in both policy and rhetorical terms, is in part the goal of Islamist terrorism. Gartenstein-Ross argues in his book Bin Laden’s Legacy that jihadists have long aimed to provoke “overreactions” by the US government in response to attacks. The goal is to force the US into costly and lengthy foreign wars or policy changes that supercharge the terrorists’ narrative of a war between the West and Islam.
The Iraq War is the most famous example of this strategy succeeding. “Prior to 9/11, if you look at debates inside the administration, the Iraq hardliners were losing out,” Gartenstein-Ross says. Afterward, of course, they prevailed — launching a war that left thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, weakened America’s strategic position in the Middle East, and, ultimately, created ISIS as we know it.
A crackdown on Muslim civil liberties and return to clash of civilizations rhetoric would be counterproductive in similar, though obviously not identical, ways. For that reason, there would almost certainly be elements of the US government — particularly some of the more levelheaded Cabinet-level officials, like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — who would try hard to prevent such a crackdown from taking place.
McMaster is a three-star Army general who worked hard to make his soldiers sensitive about Islam while fighting in Iraq; he’s led the charge internally against the “radical Islamic terrorism” phrase. You could also expect pushback from counterterrorism professionals in the FBI and broader intelligence community.
But at the same time, there would be a lot of pressure inside the government for a more aggressive response.
Several powerful members of the administration — including Bannon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and speechwriter Stephen Miller — have links to a hardline anti-Muslim ideology that calls itself the “counter-jihad.”
Counter-jihadists believe that Islamic doctrine itself is the root of the terrorism problem; they have proposed incredibly aggressive steps including shutting down roughly 80 percent of mosques in the United States. While Trump’s advisers may not go that far, they would likely push for a harsher stance than McMaster and other top national security officials would want.
This would set the stage for a major showdown inside the administration.
“The constraints imposed by our legal system, by the permanent government, by the way that we’ve been doing this ... would be considerable,” Benjamin says. “But let’s not forget that Jeff Sessions is attorney general.”
There would likely also be some resistance to a hardline stance from the public. Byman notes that Bush got away with a lot of his post-9/11 infringements on civil liberties because, generally speaking, the public trusted him to handle the crisis. Trump’s record-low approval ratings could put him on a short leash.
At the same time, though, public opinion will almost certainly change — perhaps dramatically — after a major terror attack.
Research by two political scientists, Bethany Albertson and Shana Gadarian, finds that the more anxious people are about terrorism, the more likely they are to support “sacrificing civil liberties for safety” and “foreign policy that relies on the military.”
They also found that showing people news clips about terrorism under laboratory conditions — even without there being an actual major terrorist attack in the news — could effectively supercharge this effect. The more people were thinking about terrorism, the more likely they were to support getting tough on it — and this was true even among (typically less hawkish) Democrats.
“During times of threat, we expect that anxiety can override the strong effects of partisanship in creating support for protective policies that citizens may not support in calmer times,” they write.
So take that finding, and then imagine the fallout from a bloody ISIS attack on a Taylor Swift concert in Atlanta. Republicans wouldn’t be the only ones baying for blood. The difference is that America’s last president tried to tamp down those calls. Its current leader would likely join in.