Trump is right about the virtues of waiting for information before declaring a seemingly violent event a terrorist attack—not least because some such events prove to be accidents or “ordinary” crimes, and invoking terrorists in such instances risks exaggerating their power. In the case of the Barcelona attack, it could be that the president had access to classified intelligence the general public did not, and saw fit to share the information on Twitter. We in the media typically rely on official confirmation of motives behind attacks to attribute them to an individual or group. Trump’s public statements on attacks could serve as a confirmation of motive.
Trump, in fact, is among the first world leaders to chime in whenever there’s a terrorist attack—well before the authorities in those countries have labeled the attack as terrorism. But he has sometimes called them terrorism even when they were not—as in the case of a fatal incident in a Philippines resort that authorities called a robbery—or when they simply didn’t happen, as when he seemed to make up a terrorist attack in Sweden in February.
Trump has also used attacks as an opportunity to criticize local responses, as he did when he misquoted Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London as having said there was “no reason to be alarmed” after a June attack that killed eight people; Khan had actually been telling Londoners not to be alarmed by the increased police presence. Trump has also used attacks to criticize France’s immigration policies and Germany’s refugee policy, and to make political predictions, as he did following an April attack in Paris, which he tweeted “will have a big effect on presidential election!” It did not. (And as I’ve reported previously, it’s not clear it ever does.)
Although terrorism remains an important challenge for many countries around the world, attributing successes to terrorist groups—when there’s little evidence for it—can be counterproductive. For instance, al-Qaeda has been considerably weakened since the U.S. began the war on terrorism after the attacks of September 11, 2001, with most of its top leaders dead or dispersed. ISIS, which took over as the most prominent global jihadist enemy after al-Qaeda, is facing that same fate. It has lost much of the ground it controls in Iraq and Syria, and is now confined to areas around Syria’s Raqqa, its de facto capital, as reports keep emerging of the deaths of its leaders. The group no doubt continues to inspire people to carry out attacks across Europe and elsewhere, but its online reach may at this time be greater than its ability to plan and execute an operation overseas.
The caution Trump claims characterized his response to Charlottesville thus seems not to apply when it comes to attacks carried out by Islamists. It may well be that Trump sees Islamic terrorism as a greater threat than white-supremacist groups in the U.S. In fact, he has said it’s the biggest threat to Western civilization. As Foreign Policy noted in June, the Department of Homeland Security has stripped funding from groups that fight neo-Nazi violence, in what the magazine called “another indication the Trump administration is turning away from its efforts to combat far-right violence, and refocusing the [countering violent extremism] program to focus more on Islamic extremism.” A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office, however, notes that in the 15 years between September 11, 2001 and the end of 2016, fatal attacks by far-right extremists outnumbered those by their jihadist counterparts, though the jihadist attacks killed more people.