The likelihood of a serious terrorist attack on the United States 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 for various protagonists to go into action.
There are several potential terrorist candidates with a wide variety 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 terrorist attack on the U.S. or its assets somewhere in the world would be a way of saying that it remains relevant and threatening.
Shiite Iran, as opposed to Sunni al-Qaeda and ISIS, is also a potential aggressor. For the Iranian leadership, the U.S. has been a cardinal enemy from its very first days, when it opposed the overthrow of the Shah. It was in 1979 that Teheran took hostage several Americans serving at their embassy in the city. Fifty-two of them were held for 444 days. This and the failed mission to free them may have proved decisive in ensuring that Jimmy Carter would be a one-term president.
Since then, there have been several skirmishes between American and Iranian vessels in the waters off of Iran, as well as a few attacks on U.S. diplomatic representations. Traditionally, however, Iran has shied away from taking on targets on U.S. soil. This could change now as Iran moves into electoral mode. The fact that it was included in the travel ban proposed by the Trump administration creates political space for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to appeal to Iranians who traditionally have had no issues with the U.S. to rethink their stance.
Another potential actor is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At the latest, with his speech to the United Nations 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”, and that all they need to do to live happily ever after strategically is to rally around a common, grand, anti-terrorist agenda.
Those who think that this is a good idea should review former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to work out a modus vivendi with Russia in Syria. Moscow 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 he had used in the second Chechen war (1999-2009): if it moves, kill it, in the process ending hundreds of 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.
Putin’s call for a broad anti-terrorist coalition is a 21st Century version of Joseph Stalin’s anti-Hitler pact during the Second World War. In 1941, a number of Western nations made common cause with the Soviet dictator after failing to unite to oppose Hitler’s fascism. 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 U.S. president has been trying to make a case for the fact that jihadists represent the most important threat facing his country. This provides the essential basis for the Trump detente with Putin, as yet tentative but perhaps soon to be concretized, notwithstanding the challenges it currently faces. The Trump camp needs a terrorist attack to render this agenda 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? It is complicated, but still simpler than rocket science: 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 2017, a white supremacist attacked a mosque, killing six people and seriously injuring five others. This was an invitation for Muslim radicals to respond; it has not happened yet and hopefully it never will, but it very easily 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 U.S. or the West in general is grossly overplayed. Yes, it can kill people. Yes, it can do so indiscriminately. And yes, it 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 many countries whose nationals are subject to the migrant ban, none has generated a terrorist attack on U.S. residents since 9/11. Note that nationals not subject to the ban are those from countries where the Trump family has significant economic interests. Note as well, that of all the terrorist attacks carried out on America since 9/11, a significant majority were undertaken by American-born white supremacists à la Steve Bannon, the eminence grise in Trump’s White House and now a key player on the U.S. National Security Council. So, by Trumpian logic, it would make sense to expel white Americans from the United States!
A closing thought is that the most important allies of western countries in the anti-jihadist campaign are Muslims who have immigrated to the West. In their vast majority, they have done so because they want a life for themselves and their families that offers the freedoms denied 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.