WASHINGTON ― On Dec. 19, 2016, after a failed asylum-seeker inspired by the Islamic State drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and injuring 56 others, former President Barack Obama offered condolences and condemnations.
Through a spokesman, he sent “thoughts and prayers” to the German people. The next day, he called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and pledged counterterrorism and law enforcement assistance. After that, publicly, he largely moved on.
On Saturday, five and a half months later, another ISIS-inspired attack took place, this time in London, when a van drove into pedestrians on London Bridge and the perpetrators then jumped out and stabbed people at nearby restaurants. Seven people were killed and 48 injured.
In the aftermath, President Donald Trump offered a wholly different approach than his predecessor. He accused London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan of downplaying the threat, using an out-of-context snippet of Khan’s remarks. In a series of four tweets, he used the London tragedy to tout his executive order banning travel from some predominantly Muslim countries, whic
That Trump responded this way wasn’t a surprise. After the attack in Germany, he had declared that “Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad.” And while German police were still piecing together clues about the attack, he called for “these terrorists” to “be eradicated from the face of the earth.”
What troubled counterterrorism experts is that Trump’s approach as president hasn’t evolved. The patented alarmist response to terrorism attacks that he deployed in the election may have had political benefits to his campaign. But these experts view them as largely counterproductive to the goal of limiting the effectiveness of terrorist attacks.
“Terrorism only works if people are terrified,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent. “And it seems like Trump’s comments, above all, seek to terrify.”
There is no full consensus on the proper response to a terrorist attack. Obama himself was stoic in the face of terror attacks and reportedly reminded his staff that more Americans die from falling in a bathtub than from terrorists. That approach, though rooted in facts, risked breeding a sense of complacency and appeared insensitive to the American populace’s fear, some of his advisers worried.
But Trump has over-corrected, experts say. Richard Clarke, who served as the top counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush administration, said that the Trump administration’s responses to incidents like those in London give off the distinct impression that they are “anti-Islam.” And that, Clarke added, “may mean some American Muslims may be reluctant to talk to federal officials, including the FBI. Were that to happen, it could mean that important tips would not be given to counter/terrorist authorities.”
By heightening fears and cracking down on civil liberties, Trump also runs the risk of damaging the pool of information that law enforcement receives from prospective informants. A “see something, say something” approach only works if a steady stream containing some credible information is being relayed, Watts noted. If you’re “constantly fomenting conspiracies,” you frighten the public into “overreporting,” he added.
Trump hasn’t shown an interest in or understanding of this nuance. Instead, he often seems eager to rush to judgment, labeling unfolding events as terrorism before law enforcement officers have the chance to identify the perpetrator. Speaking from the Rose Garden last week, Trump said he wanted to address the “terrorist attack in Manila.” Police in the Philippines said the attack was a robbery at a casino carried out by a gambling addict and did not appear to have been orchestrated by a terrorist group. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack, but evidence has not yet emerged tying the group to the rampage, which left 37 dead.
What worries experts the most, however, is that Trump’s approach gives terrorists the type of media attention they can use. Counterterrorism experts interviewed for this piece noted that ISIS leaders often pay close attention to domestic U.S. news. And Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for Obama on national security matters, said that his former boss explicitly sought to draw attention away from terrorist incidents for this reason.
“What annoyed Obama is that the stated objective of terrorism is to terrorize a population and get them to change their ways,” said Vietor. “Sometimes we play to their benefit. Trump seems to relish that. He seems to think it proves him right.”
Ironically, experts say world leaders should more closely emulate the reaction of London’s mayor that Trump criticized. Khan condemned the terrorist attackers, praised police and emergency responders for helping to minimize casualties, and urged Londoners to go about their normal activities while remaining calm and vigilant. When Khan told citizens there was “no reason to be alarmed” by increased police presence throughout the city, he wasn’t downplaying the threat as Trump alleged. He was letting the frightened public know what to expect so they didn’t draw incorrect conclusions.
After a terror attack, world leaders should be objective, to the point, and focus on letting the public know when they are safe and when they are in danger, Watts said. “[Trump] does the opposite ― he creates confusion, he blurs lines, he makes people more fearful when they don’t necessarily need to be.”