On Oct. 27, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the leader of the Islamic State, or ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been shot and killed in what was perceived as a remarkable United States victory in the war against terrorism. Meanwhile, a mass shooting in Greenville, Texas, killed at least two people and injured 14. According to the website Gun Violence Archive, 32,093 lives had been taken in 345 shooting incidents in the U.S. this year as of Oct. 27. The irony could not have been more poignant.
In recent years, ISIS replaced al-Qaeda as the new standard-bearer championing the global crusade of Islam, and Baghdadi was its the highest commander and spiritual leader.
What the U.S. has pulled off is by no means a small feat. But it should not be exaggerated, either. First, Baghdadi’s death needs to be verified. As early as 2017, there was a rumor that Baghdadi had died in a battle in Mosul. Second, ISIS has grown more decentralized with a networked presence across borders, which means the death of Baghdadi, if confirmed, would not put a stop to its cross-border movements, still less its demise. Third, the whole world is on the brink of a renewed round of cross-border crusade, and the momentum will not be reversed with or without Baghdadi. It is impossible for the U.S. to remain intact if the rest of the world is plagued by terrorism.
Since the 9/11 incident, domestic anti-terrorism deployment has intensified to a degree unseen before, greatly undercutting the capacity of overseas terrorists to wreak havoc. But homegrown terrorism has become a grave threat. Bruce Hoffman and other experts pointed out in 2010 that the number of American citizens joining extreme and violent organizations after 9/11 had gone up and that those Americans were playing a more prominent role in terrorist activities. The George Washington University and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism released a joint study finding that since 2014 the majority of terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe were launched by their own citizens.
At the heart of Trump’s anti-terrorism policy is “America First”, which guides him to recklessly withdraw troops from the battlefield as part of an effort to retrench and shrink resources dedicated to counterterrorism. In the early days of his presidency, Trump made attempts to ban Muslims from certain countries from entering the U.S., among other radical measures. In addition, he made some outright radical remarks against Congressman Elijah Cummings, an African-American Democrat, as well as against four Democratic congresswomen from minority groups. The New York Times portrayed Trump’s behavior as bringing undisguised racism back to the White House, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that officially condemned his language as racist.
Trump’s behavior is a stark departure from the fine political tradition in the U.S., and it constituted a serious erosion of the diverse social fabric that underpins tolerance. What’s worse, it invokes or reinvigorates racism and other hatreds that divide society. On the surface, Trump brags about his achievements in leading the counterterrorism effort even as racial animosity, anti-Semitism and gun violence are rising. The AJC (formerly American Jewish Committee) released a survey showing that 88 percent of Jewish-Americans view anti-Semitism as an issue, and 84 percent of respondents perceived rising anti-Semitism in the U.S.
In a nutshell, the killing of Baghdadi may well be harnessed as political leverage for Trump in the 2020 election, but it does not conceal the fact that racism and terrorist activities are on the rise. The anti-terrorism policy, as such, may only end up eroding the modest progress made so far, and even push the U.S. into an unprecedented security predicament.