It’s hard to see through the thick fog of reckless tweeting and nonstop media outrage, but the good news is out there. The Trump administration is already making several fundamental, positive changes in the war against jihadists, of which its revised travel ban is arguably the least important. Consider these news items:
American forces have launched 40 strikes in the last week against al-Qaeda forces in Yemen. Under the Obama administration, our operational peak in Yemen was 41 strikes in an entire year.
Yesterday, Iraqi forces recaptured a key bridge in Mosul, as they continue to advance deeper into the last remaining ISIS-held areas. This progress comes on the heels of long-awaited and long-overdue changes in the rules of engagement governing American forces in Iraq, which placed American troops closer to the action and streamlined requests for American firepower.
At the same time, after Trump scrapped the Obama administration’s go-slow approach to taking Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, the Pentagon appears set to recommend a plan that will call for significant American military participation, including special forces, artillery, and attack helicopters.
Finally, the revised travel ban is intelligently targeted, excludes our ally Iraq, and preserves the reasonable virtues of the first ban while eliminating the confusion that led to its arbitrary, cruel, and obviously incompetent implementation. In the wake of news that up to 300 refugees are reportedly under investigation for terror ties, it’s prudent to pause refugee entry for a few months to review our vetting processes. There is no reason for the Trump administration to simply trust that the Obama administration struck the right balance between security and compassion.
To understand the collective importance of these measures, it’s vital to understand the basics of how the terror threat actually manifests itself. All the recent talk of “lone wolves” in many ways exaggerates the threat of the individual while minimizing the importance of terrorist organizations.
There are a few terrorists who are truly self-radicalizing, but dig deeper into any given terror attack and the chances are you’ll find not just warning signs in the form of obvious inspiration from ISIS or other terror attacks, but also actual communication with terrorists abroad. In a brilliant piece of reporting last month, the New York Times’s Rukmini Callimachus detailed ISIS’s direction and enabling of terror attacks abroad from Syria, including attempted attacks on the United States.
In other words, while there might be some tiny number of terrorists who need no inspiration for terror beyond their own readings of the Koran and the Hadith (along with deep rage or a sense of grievance springing from contemporary events), for terrorism to be a significant threat, it needs not just a willing or potentially willing population but also a concrete source of inspiration and direction.
The Trump administration’s strategy attacks the threat from both ends — limiting (for now) the growth of the potentially willing population through immigration restrictions and more-careful vetting while more aggressively attacking and destroying the source of inspiration and direction.
This is the opposite of the strategy that prevailed during much of the Obama administration, which responded to the explosive increase in jihadist violence and jihadist territorial gains in part by opening our borders to more refugees and other immigrants from terror-wracked countries. The result was more terror, more terror plots, a larger population of potential terrorists at home, and safe havens abroad that jihadists could use to plot and/or inspire more attacks.
While any given terror attack is unpredictable, certain trends are clear. When you grant terrorists safe havens, and when they have a population to recruit from, terror plots happen. It’s that simple. It’s not enough for America to simply close its borders. As recent attacks have shown, there are already a number of Americans and legal immigrants who are vulnerable to ISIS or al-Qaeda recruitment. The safe havens have to fall. The recruiters and enablers have to be killed or captured, and those that aren’t have to be forced onto the run, so they’re more focused on living another day than on recruiting another terrorist.
If the Trump administration can implement its travel ban, beef up vetting appropriately, and continue to pair that defensive strategy with increased and targeted aggression against al-Qaeda and ISIS, it will go a long way toward quelling the jihadist terror threat and restoring American credibility after years of retreat.
But how many Americans are remotely aware of these positive developments? How many know of the importance and intelligence of the administration’s strategic shift? Yes, I know that message discipline is “conventional politics,” but sometimes conventional politics is useful. The administration has a good story to tell and a sound strategy to sell. Why doesn’t Trump tweet about that?