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The likelihood of a serious terrorist attack on the US or its assets abroad has significantly increased with the most recent political developments stateside. In particular, the ongoing controversy about the travel ban for nationals of several Muslim majority countries is an invitation to various predators to go into action.
There are several potential terrorist candidates with a wide range of heritages.
The most obvious ones are Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Both organizations are on the defensive in most of the environments where they are most active. At the same time, they are in competition with one another, vying for leadership of the jihadist movement. For one or the other to launch a successful terrorist attack on the US or its assets somewhere in the world would be a way of saying that they remain threatening and relevant.
Shiite Iran, as opposed to Sunni Al-Qaeda and ISIS, is also a potential aggressor. For the Iranian leadership, the US has been a cardinal enemy from its very first moments. Yet, there are good reasons to believe that now part of the Iranian governmental elite, that part that championed the US-Iran nuclear accord of 2015, wants to move beyond the two countries’ longstanding bilateral antagonism. The other main faction, constituted around the Revolutionary Guards, the protectors of the Iranian revolution and the spearheaders of Iran’s expansionism into Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, is a different matter. Thus far, they have avoided taking on the US at home, but with presidential elections looming in May of this year, this could change.
Another potential predator is Vladimir Putin. At the latest with his speech to the UN in September 2015, the Russian President has championed the idea that terrorism is the greatest threat facing not only his country but also what he, tongue-in-cheek, calls his Western « partners ». According to Putin, all they need to do do to live strategically happily everafter is to rally around a common, grand, anti-terrorist agenda.
Those who think this is a good idea should review former US Foreign Secretary Kerry’s efforts to work out a modus vivendi with Russia over Syria. Moscow has reserved the vast majority of its bombs for the anti-Assad groups supported by Washington and its allies, sparing to a large extent the Islamic State and related factions. Moreover, Putin’s air forces active over Syria privileged the approach that the Russian President had used in the second Chechen war: if it moves, kill it, in the process ending thousands of innocent lives, many of them Russians living in the Chechen capital of Grozny. The American war effort in and over Syria has been anything but perfect but Russia’s has been grotesque in comparison.
Puin’s call for a broad anti-terrorist coalition is a twenty-first century version of Stalin’s anti-Hitler pact. In 1941, a number of Western nations made common cause with the Soviet dictator against Hitler Germany after the two dictators’ bilateral alliance fell apart. Putin has an interest in ensuring that Americans believe that jihadist-inspired terrorism dwarfs any concerns about Russian adventurism in Ukraine and Syria – and potentially elsewhere.
And then, there is the Trump coalition itself. The new US President has been trying to make a case for the fact that the jihadists represent the most important threat facing his country. This provides the essential basis for the Trump detente with Putin. Notwithstanding the obstacles to this relationship that have recently emerged, my sense is that this option is still in Trump’s playbook. If this is so, elements within the Trump camp might conclude a terrorist attack on the US would render this option more credible. I am not suggesting that the new Administration would contrive to produce one but its rhetoric is an open invitation for pro-Trump elements to resort to actions that could put such an agenda in play.
How to do so : attack a mosque, kill some worshippers and wait for a counter-reaction by a radical fringe – of which there is an element in any significant political movement. In my native Quebec, on 29 January, a white supremacist attacked a mosque killing six people, seriously injuring five others. This was an invitation for Muslim jihadists to respond. This has not happened yet and hopefully it never will, but it could.
While terrorism emanating from communities in Muslim countries is an issue that needs to be taken seriously, the idea that it poses an existential threat to the US or the West in general is grossly overplayed. Yes, it can kill people. Yes, it can do so indiscriminately. And yes, this is a fixture that will be with us for a long time to come. But the notion that jihadists have the wherewithal to overrun Western society is nonsense of the highest order.
Of the seven countries whose nationals were subject to the first migrant ban, none has generated a terrorist attack on US residents since 9/11. Note that nationals not subject to the ban were those from countries where the Trump family had significant economic interests and/or larger players like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that are more difficult for Washington to push around. Note as well that of all the terrorist attacks carried out on America since 9/11, a significant majority were carried out by American-born white supremacists à la Steve Bannon, the eminence grise in Trump’s White House and a key player on the US National Security Council.
So by Trumpian logic, it would make sense to expel white Americans from the United States!
A closing thought is that among the most important allies of western countries in the anti-jihadist campaign are the Muslims who have immigrated to the West. In their vast majority, they have done so because they wanted a life for themselves and their families that offered freedoms denied to them in their countries of origin. They often struggle to raise their voices but raise them they will when they feel that they can expect a reasonable hearing.