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Analysis: A sweeping order is unlikely to reduce terrorist threat

  • Author: Scott Shane, The New York Times
  • Updated: January 28, 2017
  • Published January 28, 2017

Rarely does an executive order announce a more straightforward and laudable purpose than the one President Donald Trump signed Friday: "Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States." But the president's directive is unlikely to significantly reduce the terrorist threat in the United States, which has been a minuscule part of the toll of violence since 2001. Many experts believe the order's unintended consequences will make the threat worse.

While the order requires the Department of Homeland Security to issue a report within 180 days providing detailed statistics on foreign nationals who commit acts of violence, terrorism researchers have produced rich and revealing data. For instance: Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, no one has been killed in this country in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from, or whose parents emigrated from, any of the seven countries named in the order's four-month visa ban: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, according to Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina.

Of Muslim Americans involved in violent extremism of any kind — for instance, charged with plotting terrorism or supporting a terrorist group — only 23 percent had family backgrounds in those countries, said Kurzman, who just published the latest of his annual studies of Muslim Americans and terrorism.

The larger point of experts is that jihadi attacks garner news attention that far outstrips their prevalence in the United States, and the president's order appears to be designed to address not a rational calculation of risks but the visceral fears that terrorists set out to inflame.

There was a random quality to the list of countries: It excluded Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the founders of al-Qaida and many other jihadi groups have come from. Also excluded are Pakistan and Afghanistan, where persistent extremism and decades of war have produced militants who have occasionally reached the United States. Notably, perhaps, the list avoided Muslim countries where Trump has major business ventures.

Nor did the list include the European countries in which disenfranchised Muslim communities have become hotbeds of militancy, leading to major attacks in the name of the Islamic State in Paris and Brussels. Because no visas are required for travel by most European citizens to the United States, and because of the volume of tourism and business, prohibiting travel from Europe would have been far more difficult and consequential than banning it from only the seven countries named.

By Kurzman's count, 123 people have been killed in the United States by Muslim terrorists since the 2001 attacks — out of a total of more than 230,000 killings, by gang members, drug dealers, angry spouses, white supremacists, psychopaths, drunks and people of every description. So the order addresses, at most, 1/1,870th of the problem of lethal violence in the United States. If the toll of 9/11 is included, jihadis still account for just more than 1 percent of killings.

"My advice to the new administration would be to declare victory," Kurzman said. For the average American, he added, "your odds of being victimized by a terrorist attack are infinitesimal."

But terrorists — the root of the word means "to cause to tremble" — do not operate in the realm of dry facts and statistics. Their purpose is to terrify, and they use random and spectacular violence to do it, with an invaluable assist from the saturation coverage on cable television and news websites that such outrages inevitably draw.

To the rational calculations of Kurzman, one might simply reply with the list of U.S. cities where horrific jihadi attacks have occurred in recent years: Boston; San Bernardino, California; Orlando, Florida — place names that conjure up images of ghastly wounds, bullet-ridden corpses and frightened people running for cover. In Gallup Polls, the number of Americans “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about such attacks generally hovers between 30 and 50 percent, with understandable spikes after new attacks.

In the political realm, where emotions and symbols hold sway, Trump’s order may reassure some Americans that they are safer from terrorism, and more generally, from concerns that Muslim immigrants may bring an alien culture. (While ostensibly addressing terrorism, it also says that the United States should be protected against those with “hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles” or those “who do not support the Constitution.”)

The trouble with such reassurance, even if it is effective, is that it comes at a high cost, in the view of many experts on terrorism. That cost will be counted not just domestically but also abroad, where the United States relies on allies, including Muslim countries, for intelligence and other help against terrorism.

“In my opinion, this is just a huge mistake in terms of counterterrorism cooperation,” said Daniel Benjamin, formerly the State Department’s top counterterrorism official and now a scholar at Dartmouth. “For the life of me, I don’t see why we would want to alienate the Iraqis when they are the ground force against ISIS.”

[Muslims fear that Trump’s visa ban betrays friends and bolsters enemies]

At home as well, Benjamin said, the president’s order is likely to prove counterproductive. The jihadi threat in the United States has turned out to be largely homegrown, he said, and the order will encourage precisely the resentments and anxieties on the part of Muslims that fuel, in rare cases, support for the ideology of the Islamic State or al-Qaida.

“It sends an unmistakable message to the American Muslim community that they are facing discrimination and isolation,” Benjamin said. That, he said, will “feed the jihadi narrative” that the United States is at war with Islam, potentially encouraging a few more Muslims to plot violence.

For an action aimed at terrorism, the order appeared to garner little or no support among experts and former officials of every political stripe with experience in the field. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said if the temporary visa ban was used to review and improve immigration vetting procedures, it might be justified.

But he added that he knew of no obvious problems with those procedures, and no specific plans to address such issues over the 120-day ban.

“The order appears to be based mainly on a campaign promise,” he said.

Schanzer said he was frustrated that during the Obama administration, there had been inadequate attention to the ultimate driver of refugee flows and jihadi terrorism in the United States and elsewhere.

“We have several bloody, complex and interlocking conflicts in the Middle East,” he said. “It’s the job of the new administration to come up with policies that address those conflicts. Admittedly, that is not easy.”

Much easier, clearly, is issuing an executive order with political appeal and a title that seems to smack of common sense. But as the Trump administration is finding out, such pronouncements from a U.S. president have many consequences, not all of them intended, anticipated or desired.

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