The counterterrorism debate has shifted markedly in recent years in response to a spate of high-profile shootings in the United States and other Western countries, many of which were perpetrated by white supremacists. Protecting Americans from homegrown hate groups has become a priority for many candidates. The growing number of mass shootings has led some to fault the country’s comparatively loose gun laws, which allow the possession of military-style weapons. Other candidates say that social media platforms, where incendiary content abounds, are partly to blame.
The view from the White House is quite different. President Donald J. Trump has routinely linked the terrorism threat to immigration and mental illness, and has argued that banning people from certain countries, deporting undocumented residents, and decreasing overall refugee numbers will protect America from criminals and terrorists.
Meanwhile, U.S. counterterrorism operations abroad have taken on new forms nearly two decades after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Under President Barack Obama, the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State led to the return of U.S. troops to Iraq and new missions in Syria in the midst of civil war there. At the same time, drone warfare has spread rapidly in places such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The ability to strike suspected terrorists from the air, often in places where the United States is not officially at war, has driven controversy over the limits of presidential war powers, the targeting of American citizens, and the civilian death toll.
The Democratic field has largely called for an end to “forever wars,” arguing that U.S. troop deployments have been wasteful and counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. Many candidates also criticize Trump’s push to withdraw forces from various theaters as lacking a plan and leaving a vacuum that terrorist groups could once again fill.