Attacks spotlight Trump's tough tone on terror

Story highlights

  • Trump moved quickly -- and didn't wait for all the facts to emerge
  • Approach worked to his political advantage on the campaign trail
  • But could inject an unpredictable element into global politics when he is president

(CNN)Donald Trump doesn't do nuance when it comes to terror attacks.

The global challenges he will face when he takes the oath of office in exactly one month came into greater focus Monday when terror shook Turkey, Germany and Switzerland. Trump's response to the day of carnage made clear his combative instincts on terrorism have not been tempered just because the election is over.
Trump moved quickly and didn't wait for all the facts to emerge. He set a tone of uncompromising toughness and clarity, in which emotion and attitude take priority over subtly and details. That approach worked to his political advantage on the campaign trail, but could inject an unpredictable element into global politics when he is president.
    Soon after the attacks, which included the assassination of Moscow's ambassador to Turkey, a truck crushing revelers at a Christmas market in Berlin and a mosque shooting in Zurich, Trump responded on Twitter.
    "Today there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany — and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking!" Trump wrote.
    In a statement about the murder of Russian envoy Andrei Karlov, the President-elect blamed a "radical Islamic terrorist" before all details about the identity of the killer and his motivation were known.
    Trump quickly attributed the killing in Berlin to ISIS and promised a global purge against terrorist networks, playing up the idea of a conflict of civilizations between Islam and the West.
    "ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad," Trump said in another statement.

    Difference from Obama

    His reaction to a day of searing images from across the Atlantic stressed just how different his reprisals to sudden global crises will be from the more tempered attitude of President Barack Obama. And in a wider sense, the attacks, preceded by other terrorist incidents in Jordan and Yemen in recent days, underline the restive, complex world of terror threats, unrest and geopolitical tensions awaiting Trump.
    The tone and content of Trump's responses to a horrific day were familiar from his campaign trail rhetoric, which tapped into a sense among many voters that the US response to terrorism is plagued by weakness, political correctness and understates the scale of the threat.
    And his determination to reexamine the way America combats terrorism around the globe can be justified by the fact that Washington has been at war for a decade-and-a-half and jihadism still rages and poses a threat.
    But Trump's approach also raises the question of whether the more emotionally satisfying response that he prefers is appropriate -- or even the best political strategy -- when it comes from a man who will soon be president.
    For example, his tweet conflated the three attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany into a single explosion of radical Islamic terrorism.
    But it is still unclear whether the off duty police officer who killed the Russian ambassador was linked to an extremist group, or was primarily motivated by a personal grievance over the Russian-backed siege on the Syrian city of Aleppo at a time of great dislocation and uncertainty in Turkish politics.
    Similarly, Trump's statement got him out far ahead of the German authorities responding to the crisis — a factor that could irritate a US ally. Still, the ISIS-affiliated Amaq media outlet cited a source Tuesday saying the Berlin strike was carried out by a "soldier of the Islamic State."
    And the attack in Switzerland hardly fits the mold of the other two since it targeted a mosque.


    The complexities of each case, and the subtle differences between them highlight the risk of Trump's broad brush approach. His decision to put himself at the center of events even before he moves into the Oval Office also appears to contradict the convention that America only has one president at a time.
    It's not the first time he has made himself the story on a major national security issue during the transition or raised questions about his use of social media as a diplomatic tool. Trump's tweets on China and decision to accept a call from the Taiwanese president have set the stage for a contentious opening to his relations with the huge Asian power.
    Yet there are no apologies from the Trump team, suggesting a fundamental foreign policy shift is likely under the next president, who called for various forms of restrictions on Muslims and refugees entering the US and a Cold War-style mobilization against terrorism on the campaign trail.
    On "Fox and Friends" Tuesday, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer promised a "swift and fierce" response to terror attacks like those in Europe.
    "Mr. Trump has made it very, very clear, he understands the threat that radical Islamic terrorism poses to our nation, and frankly to our friends and neighbors around the globe," Spicer said.
    "We have to be able to call it what it is and then root it out by the bottom," Spicer said, implicitly criticizing the Obama administration's response to terrorism, exemplified by more nuanced statements on Monday.
    Obama has frequently been criticized -- not just by Republicans -- for his sometimes cerebral initial response to attacks like the rampage in Paris that killed at least 130 people last year. Critics worried that his determination not to hand extremists a propaganda coup has not taken into account the fear stoked by such attacks among Americans.
    Republicans also accuse Obama of being slow to respond to a new wave of terrorism, sometimes orchestrated -- but more often inspired -- by ISIS using home grown radicalized Muslims.

    Shift of tone

    But Trump's looming shift of tone could bring its own problems.
    "When (Trump) tweets before you get the Germans acknowledging what is happening in their own country -- I hope he is willing to accept foreign leaders when we get an event in the United States intervening to say what they think has happened here before he determines the facts," said Philip Mudd, a CNN counter-terrorism analyst who formerly worked at the FBI and CIA. "I think foreign officials are going to bristle at this."
    Paul Cruickshank, also a CNN terrorism analyst, said Tuesday on "New Day" that any US President's initial response was crucial after an attack -- and that Trump's outspoken instincts, which made him beloved among his supporters, could backfire.
    "If you going have a President-elect or a President making calls and getting them wrong, that is going to damage the credibility of the United States internationally," Cruickshank said.
    There are also deeper reasons why Trump's blunt approach could store up problems for his own nascent administration.
    For one thing, he is already committing himself to a sweeping change -- and a potentially widened global war on terrorism. It remains unclear in practical terms how any global military assault that Trump appears to envision could eradicate every one of the lone perpetrators who appear to have carried out the attacks in Germany and Turkey.
    And Trump's emotive language -- evidenced by his statement on the Berlin attack in which he made distinctions between Christians and Muslims -- also stifles the consistent US policy in the 15 years since the September 11 attacks of avoiding the notion that America is at war with Islam.
    Radical Islamic groups hope to goad the US and its allies into such a rhetorical construct to gain legitimacy and spur recruitment.
    "Being tough is fine. George W. Bush was tough, but he had a different view about how to deal with American Muslims and the issues of Islam," Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East expert for Democratic and Republican presidents, said on "New Day." "There is a risk in creating the notion that this is somehow a civilizational war, that this is a war between the forces of Christianity, and Judaism and the West against Islam."
    He went on: "In large part, a civilizational war simply cannot be won. The reality is there probably isn't a comprehensive solution to this. We have to fight it smartly, and we have to be smart ourselves and not scare ourselves to death."