Accessibility links

Breaking News

Once a rallying cry, 'radical Islamic terrorism' fades from Trump rhetoric

FILE - Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Temple University in Philadelphia, June 22, 2024.
FILE - Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Temple University in Philadelphia, June 22, 2024.

In 2016, Donald Trump's presidential campaign echoed with a frequent vow to crush "radical Islamic terrorism."

Fast forward to today, as he seeks a second chance in the White House, Trump rarely mentions the phrase, his erstwhile rhetoric about Islamist terrorism eclipsed by a focus on immigration, crime and other domestic issues.

The shift came into sharp relief on Sunday when a coordinated terrorist assault on a police station, churches and synagogues in southern Russia left at least 20 people dead. What might once have prompted a flurry of tweets went unmentioned on Trump's Truth Social platform.

Why the silence on what was once a rallying cry? Experts suggest two factors: diminished public concern about terrorism and a possible strategic play for the Muslim American vote.

Brian Levin, an extremism expert who has closely followed Trump's rhetoric, said the former president — "more of an opportunist than an ideologue" — is zeroing in on issues that resonate with voters.

"Eight years ago, when the threat of foreign-inspired extremism polled among the top concerns of voters, Trump successfully invoked terror attacks … to drum up support," Levin said. "Today, however, Trump has to pivot somewhat to domestic issues relating to the economy, democracy, crime and the border as well as the record of an incumbent he hopes to unseat."

Defending his record in office, including his handling of southern border immigration, President Joe Biden has made protecting democracy a centerpiece of his campaign, casting Trump as a grave threat to the country.

But Biden's staunch support of Israel during its military campaign in Gaza has angered many Muslim voters, opening a rare opportunity for Trump, according to experts.

Gabriel Rubin, a justice studies professor at Montclair State University, said Trump may be eyeing the Muslim vote in key battleground states with large Muslim populations that could determine the outcome of the November election.

"He has an avenue not to mention ['radical Islamic terrorism'] too much," Rubin, who has written about Trump's past rhetoric about Muslims and terrorism, told VOA in an interview. "I think he can win some of these Midwestern states if he plays his cards right."

To be sure, the threat of international terrorism hasn't vanished. In the months since the outbreak of conflict in Gaza, U.S. officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, have been sounding the alarm about an increased potential for terrorist attacks.

But while the warnings seem to have raised the public's worries about terrorism, "overall concern about the issue still doesn't match the higher levels of concern it garnered" in 2015 and 2016, according to an April Gallup report.

Trump's 2016 campaign rhetoric — from claiming "Muslims hate us" to calling for a "complete and total" shutdown of Muslims entering the country — did not happen in a bubble.

Though on the run, the Islamic State (IS) still controlled large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and advocated attacking the West. Adding to Americans' angst about terrorism were a spate of IS-inspired terror attacks across Europe and the United States.

In the 12 months leading up to the November election, Trump tweeted 164 times about Islamic State, "radical Islam" and terrorism — nearly twice as much as he did about border security and immigration, according to one estimate.

Trump's vitriolic comments on Muslims and Islam, welcomed by his supporters, unnerved many in the Muslim community, drawing charges of Islamophobia against him, which he and his allies reject.

VOA reached out to the Trump campaign for comment but did not receive a response. The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House, June 18, 2024.
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House, June 18, 2024.

Biden's stance on terrorism, particularly Islamist terrorism, also has evolved over the years.

While he is not known to have used the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism," in the past he was more willing to employ similar language while taking a tough stance on terrorism.

In 2014, as vice president under President Barack Obama, he criticized Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for supporting jihadi groups in Syria and "the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts to the world." He later apologized for the comment.

Since becoming president in 2021, Biden has focused on terrorism more broadly without singling out any one region or religion, moving away from the rhetoric of the "War on Terror" of the 2000s.

On the day he entered the White House, he repealed the Trump administration's "Muslim ban," calling it "a stain on our national conscience."

In the wake of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, moreover, his administration placed a greater emphasis on domestic terrorism as a significant threat to homeland security. In 2021, it launched the first-ever national strategy for countering domestic terrorism.

After the October 7 Hamas attack, Biden condemned the attack as "pure, unadulterated evil" while putting a distance between the perpetrators and the broader Muslim community.

"You know, I know many of you in the Muslim American community or the Arab American community, the Palestinian American community, and so many others are outraged and hurting, saying to yourselves, ‘Here we go again,’ with Islamophobia and distrust we saw after 9/11," Biden said on October 10.

Trump is not known for moderating his rhetoric, even while in office. But after his second year in the White House, the volume of his rhetoric about Muslims and terrorism fell dramatically as he shifted his focus to a new area: border security and illegal immigration.

That trend has continued into the current campaign. A VOA examination of his most recent social media posts and campaign statements found fewer than 20 references since the start of his reelection campaign, including only one mention of "radical Islamic terrorists."

That came last July when he announced that he'd reinstate a travel ban on several Muslim countries that he imposed during his first term in office and which Biden later repealed.

"We don't want people coming into our country that hate us. We want people that love us," he told a rally, citing anti-police riots in France sparked by the killing of a French Moroccan teenager.

Trump supporters dismiss his rhetoric about Muslims and terrorism as just that — rhetoric.

"Let's forget about what this guy says. Let's look at what he does," a Muslim Republican activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another activist questioned whether Trump has ever said he hates Muslims, adding that more Muslims will likely vote for the former president than did in 2016.

But if there is one thing both Trump supporters and detractors agree on, it is that Trump will likely follow through on his vow to bring back the "Muslim ban."

"The legal structure that allowed the Muslim ban to be implemented in the first place is still on the books so we have to start planning as if a new Muslim ban will come into existence," said Corey Saylor, research and advocacy director for the Council on American Islamic Relations.