Last week, President Donald Trump announced that the United States now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and will soon move its embassy to that city from Tel Aviv. This stance has been implicite US policy since Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, and Israel has long had control of the city, and kept most of its government facilities there. But because Palestinians claim Eastern Jerusalem as their capital, and Arabs and Muslims the world over generally view the status of the city as a touchstone issue, most countries do not recognize the full city as Israel’s capital. Likewise, the last three American presidential administrations have quietly delayed moving the embassy there.
Trump’s proclamation didn’t change anything on the ground. That same day, in fact, he quietly signed a memo delaying official action on the embassy for at least six months, and probably longer. But his abstract recognition of Israeli control of the city and brash statement of intent read as a clear signal that the administration may not respect the Palestinian quest for sovereignty. And as anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the region might have predicted, it sparked a wave of protests across the world resulting in many injuries and at least four reported deaths in Palestine.
Observers also predicted that the decision would trigger a surge of terrorist violence, and there is already evidence of an attendant surge of anti-Semitism. Commentators have been quick to allude to four recent incidents as at least possibly related to Trump’s move: the firebombing of a synagogue in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Saturday and a Jewish cemetery in Malmo Monday; the stabbing of an Israeli guard in Jerusalem by a Palestinian on Sunday; and the (botched) bombing of a Manhattan subway terminal by a Bangladeshi immigrant on Monday. There’s no clear proof any of these attacks were retaliations. In the Manhattan incident, while an Islamic State propaganda outlet claimed the Jerusalem decision motivated him and the suspect reportedly admitted to being IS-influenced, it appeared he started making his bomb at least two weeks ago. Even so, tensions and fears remain high.
To gauge how seriously we should be concerned about elevated terrorist threats in the wake of Trump’s decision, VICE spoke to Thomas Sanderson, an expert on terrorism and terrorist threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with almost two decades of experience. Here’s what we talked about.
VICE: When you first heard Trump was going to make this announcement, what did you see as the most immediate outcome?
Thomas Sanderson: That it would make ironclad assertions by violent extremists that the United States has no real interest in supporting statehood for the Palestinians—and it would send a broader signal that the United States was indeed an adversary to Muslims and Arabs. That’s an inescapable conclusion on the part of many people, not just extremist groups, who see any remnants of impartiality by the US on the subject of the Palestinian territories as having evaporated with that decision.
What did you expect to see in the short-term when it came to terrorist rhetoric or violence?
I expected higher levels of violence, to be frank. That may yet come. But we have simply sharpened an arrow in the quiver of violent extremists. That arrow was already there, though.
I think there was already a lack of faith in America as a negotiator on the fate of Palestine throughout the region, though. So how potent is sharpening this arrow for terrorist groups, really?
It doesn’t make a difference with those already dedicated to the goals of a group like al Qaeda or [the Islamic State]. What it does is pull more people who were positioned closer to the middle in their disposition toward the United States. Those people who were still at play in an effort to convince them… that we are a force for good. [The extremists] are able to say, “See, those of you who were holding out on if the United States really is this evil power, here’s your proof.”
But America has been signaling its intention to move the embassy and recognize Jerusalem since at least 1995. How does that factor into the extent to which extremist groups can use Trump’s move to mobilize new followers?
Do those people in the middle ground know it is a stated policy that has been delayed? And [in 1995], we were making clear progress towards the two state solution such that the suggestion of moving the embassy to Jerusalem would not be as inflammatory. Now, the declaration is in the absence of any real effort by the US to reach the solution that was being discussed in 1995.
So far, at least, we haven't seen a wave of terrorist violence many expected or alluded to. Why is that?
I don’t know. I was surprised. But the fact that it hasn’t happened in the first week doesn’t mean that it’s not going to… This is a gift to many organizations. The fact that it has not been taken advantage of certainly suggests that something is coming, because how could you not take advantage of an opportunity like this if you are the type who would want to?
How long do you think security forces and intelligence units in the region and in the US should or will be on high alert for terrorist actions because of this? What’s the half-life?
In the region, security forces will be on alert, and should be on alert, for months on end. You can act very quickly if you want, a low-level attack. But for something that makes a statement that a militant would find to be commensurate with the offense of announcing an embassy move, that would call for a greater planning period than three or four days.
What would such an individual or organization consider a commensurate response?
In the minds of militants, a commensurate response would be something on a scale that most are not capable of performing: bombing an embassy, for example. Attacking an embassy in light of the US embassy planning to move to Jerusalem would be powerfully symbolic. It would result in fatalities among Americans. It would be a signal to the host nation that “your partnership with the US is lethal.” But it is hard to do because of security precautions our embassies have taken. So it may push them to attack US tourists, US businesses, that are softer and easier to hit.
There has been some chatter that this move could negatively impact US counterterror cooperation with Arab and Muslim allies in the region who opposed this move.
The reality is these countries will now find it more difficult to be supportive of counterterrorism efforts in the absence of an impartial US disposition toward Muslims in Jerusalem.
Have you seen signs of these nations drawing away from cooperation because of this already?
A decision like that would have to be taken with great care, because the US provides a great deal of intelligence of great value. Immediately pulling out of a relationship like that would bring any Muslim or Arab nation problems. That doesn’t mean we can do something like this willy-nilly because they have to partner with us anyway. You have to recognize, it’s now much harder for countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or North African states to provide us with intelligence or cooperate with us overtly in counterterrorism . Driving that cooperation into the shadows so a government does not suffer politically is not good. It complicates relationships.
What will you be keeping an eye on now that could portend further terror risk increases?
The pace at which America moves forward with this decision… We’re not able to move the embassy tomorrow. If we did, it would be incredibly inflammatory.
I think the president made the declaration for short-term political gain, knowing the long-term execution of this policy would be so far down the road that the cost of making the declaration would not be too sharp at this point. There is a cost to it, the further tarnishing of the US reputation. But Trump knows that’s many years off, and could be reversed by the next president.
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