Despite claiming to be tougher on terrorism than his predecessors, Donald Trump is cutting funds allocated to counterterrorism programs, and is yet to design a coherent and comprehensive policy.
“[F]or our part, America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked—and will apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment” said President Trump in May on his first trip abroad to Saudi Arabia. It seems like the time of adjustment has arrived.
According to a document leaked to the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in November, the Trump administration is planning to cut $568 million from various counterterrorism programs. The document was sent from the Office of Management and Budget to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and contained White House guidances on the proposed 2019 budget.
The cut shouldn’t come as a surprise. The president has long been calling for more burden sharing with allied states when it comes to fighting terrorism, outlined in the administration’s draft counterterrorism strategy seen by Reuters in May. The draft suggested that the US should avoid expensive military interventions. However, it failed to present alternative options, such as “promoting human rights, development, good governance and other ‘soft power’ tools,” measures that could effectively contribute to reducing the threat from radicalization and terrorism. The abandonment of costly military operations, the lack of new ‘soft’ policies, the freezing of funds for organisations countering violent extremism (CVE), together with the proposed cuts to US development and foreign assistance – a move that would also potentially eliminate a set of non-military tools in the hands of the government – all indicate that counterterrorism isn’t a top priority for the Trump administration.
Where will the money be taken from?
According to Foreign Policy, which acquired the leaked document, multiple counterterrorism programs (all under the DHS’s competency) will be affected by the proposed budget cuts:
- $11 million will be taken from the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office;
- the Federal Air Marshals’ budget will lose $27 million;
- and the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams will be entirely eliminated.
Why are these programs important? The mission of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), according to its website, is to “Prevent nuclear terrorism by continuously improving capabilities to deter, detect, respond to, and attribute attacks, in coordination with domestic and international partners.” The DNDO also oversees the newly created Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office that focuses on keeping weapons of mass destruction and their components out of the hands of terrorist groups and rogue nations.
The Federal Air Marshals are under the Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security. They are armed law enforcement officers who protect commercial flights from criminal violence and terrorism. Arguably, there has been neither hijacking of passenger flights in the US nor terrorist attacks in the air in recent years. However, Federal Air Marshals also contribute to proactively fighting terrorism on land by taking part in investigations and cooperating with other agencies tasked with the same mission.
Similarly to the Federal Air Marshals, the VIPR teams are also tasked with ensuring transportation security. Their teams incorporate a number of Federal Air Marshals, but also contain surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosives detection canine teams. They work on rail and mass transit systems, such as subways, ports, bus stations and truck rest areas. Taking into consideration that most of the recent attacks were carried out in public places, often with the use of transportation systems, abolishing VIPR teams seems like a questionable choice.
Looking at the list of domestic terrorist attacks that have claimed the lives of US citizens in the past year, the nature of the threat is clear. On 11 December, a pipe bomb was detonated in the Manhattan subway, injuring four people, luckily killing no one. Also in New York on 31 October, a man plowed a pickup truck down a crowded bike path, killing eight people and injuring 11. In June, in the Bishop International Airport incident near Flint, Michigan, a man shouting “Allah Akbar” stabbed a police officer in the neck. In August, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a car was used again to drive into a crowd protesting a white nationalist rally, killing one. Earlier this year, in January at the Fort Lauderdale Airport in Florida, a shooting resulted in 5 people killed, 6 injured and 12,000 evacuated from the airport.
This list is not comprehensive, but it shows that today’s terrorists are perpetrators who are not members of a broader terrorist network, radicalize alone and often carry out attacks with limited or no support. Their limited means only allow them to target unarmed civilians on the streets, subways or other crowded places. It is questionable how Trump plans to fight terrorism, if on one hand there is no funding for the aforementioned ‘soft power’ programs that are aimed at groups vulnerable to radicalization. While, on the other hand, there is less money for programs that are meant to keep public places safe. As mentioned before, military operations are off the table too. This leaves us with a counterterrorism strategy fairly similar to that of Barack Obama: a minimal footprint strategy consisting of special-forces operations and drone strikes targeting high-level suspects in hotspots abroad. Despite Trump insisting he will be a lot tougher when it comes to terrorism than his predecessor was, so far it looks like he is yet to develop a coherent strategy that corroborates his intentions. Once that is done, adequate funding will also be needed to enable the implementation of measures that will protect the US from terrorists. However, whether continuing Obama’s strategy will solve the US’s terrorism problem is another question that remains to be answered.
Cover Picture: tribune to the victims of 9/11 in New York, 2007, © Matthias Rhomberg / flickr