Were he alive today, Awlaki would be delighted at the divisions plaguing America. As Americans struggle to recover from the most divisive election campaign in living memory, political, economic, ethnic, and geographic polarization are all at record levels. Islamophobia is on the rise, with scant condemnation from politicians. Americans cannot even agree on what to call our main enemy, with endless rounds of debates over the use of terms like “radical” and “Islamic.”
Meanwhile, extremism has infected American society: Between 2008 and 2016, domestic hate groups were responsible for nearly twice as many attacks and plots within the United States as Islamists, according to a study by a group of investigative journalists. The carnage in Charlottesville, in which a far-right fanatic adopted the sort of vehicle attack pioneered by Islamic State supporters, is a grim reminder that purely domestic terrorism can be just as dangerous as attacks inspired by foreign groups.
Let me be clear: America’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies continue to do a fine job of countering terrorism. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our political leaders, on either side of the aisle. Indeed, Congress is so divided on the issue that it has failed even to update the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, despite the fact that our enemy has evolved almost beyond recognition over the past 15 years. If another 9/11 were to happen today, there exists a serious danger that American politicians would be too busy affixing blame to this or that ethnic group, or arguing over the role played by immigration, to take measured action to deal with the threat.
Internationally, too, the United States has squandered the goodwill occasioned by 9/11. The invasion of Iraq and the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere angered many Muslims of all political persuasions and played directly into extremist narratives about an American “war on Islam.” But instead of learning from those mistakes, the United States persists in compounding them. President Trump’s state visit to Saudi Arabia to attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in May—at a time when millions of Muslim children are growing up as refugees: disaffected, poorly educated, and acutely vulnerable to extremist propaganda—would have been a good moment to reach out to ordinary Muslims worldwide with a message of understanding.
Instead, the administration chose to highlight the Kingdom’s “massive investment in America” and the additional $110 billion it was poised to spend on U.S. weapons. This message, no doubt inadvertently, chimed with Osama bin Laden’s oft-repeated claim that the United States was bent on “stealing” the wealth of the Muslim world—a claim that al-Qaeda repeated word-for-word in a statement released during the president’s visit.