With fewer than thirty days remaining until the Iowa caucuses — and the cancer of the Islamic State and other jihadists metastasizing across the globe in attacks like we’ve seen in Paris and San Bernardino — I am become increasingly concerned about the possibility of an attack by the Islamic State on the campaign trail.
What if ISIS operatives or loyalists (or jihadists affiliated with other terror groups) try to assassinate one or more of the presidential candidates, try to kidnap one or more of them, and/or try to bomb, strafe or otherwise attack a campaign event filled with hundreds or thousands of people?
A terrorist attack against a presidential contender or his/her campaign event would be huge news, reverberating across the nation and around the globe. It would also be chilling to the political process because it could scare people away from attending campaign events as the caucuses and primaries are getting closer.
Most of the presidential candidates — both Democrats and Republicans — are vulnerable because they are so accessible to the public. While local police may provide crowd and traffic control at larger campaign events in certain circumstances, historically they haven’t actually been tasked primarily with protecting the candidates and their families and staffs, or with preventing a terror attack.
Only a handful of the candidates currently have Secret Service protection. Hillary Clinton does as a former First Lady. Donald Trump does as a frontrunner who is drawing specific credible threats. Dr. Ben Carson also has federal protection due to credible threats made against him. (I’m not sure about former Gov. Jeb Bush).
While I was writing my new thriller, The First Hostage, I spent a lot of time thinking about why and how ISIS might try to assassinate or kidnap the President of the United States and other world leaders, and use such attacks to humiliate the American people and recruit more foreign fighters to their apocalyptic cause. Such threats are central to the plot of The Third Target as well as The First Hostage.
At the same time, however, I couldn’t help but think of the tragic assassination of Sen. Bobby Kennedy, the Democrat presidential candidate, during the 1968 campaign. Kennedy was shot by a Palestinian extremist, Sirhan Sirhan, during a campaign visit at a California hotel.
Who’s to say such a tragedy couldn’t happen again in this campaign cycle?
FBI officials say they are currently running more than 900 investigations into suspected ISIS terrorists operating inside the U.S.
In fact, there are active cases in all fifty states at present.
Over the past two years the FBI has arrested at least 66 people in the U.S. on suspicion of ISIS terror activities. If this weren’t troubling enough, at least 250 Americans are believed to have gone to fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
What will happen when those who aren’t killed on the battlefield return to the U.S. with their American passports? What if they aren’t detected and stopped by federal authorities in time? Will they target candidates and campaign events?
These are not normal times, or normal threats. The Secret Service is stretched quite thin right now. I’m not confident they have the manpower to cover all eleven Republican presidential candidates, plus each of the Democrat candidates. But the Secret Service should be working extra closely with the FBI and other federal, state and local law enforcement leaders to develop specific new guidelines on how best to keep the American campaign trail safe. Congressional leaders who oversee Homeland Security should insist that every safeguard is put into place in the next few months in the gap of time until the nominees are determined and comprehensive Secret Service protection is afforded to both nominees.
“My view is that the candidates should use campaign funds to hire federal accredited security personnel,” one highly-experienced national security expert told me. “The Department of Justice should provide a general set of Rules of Engagement for these security personnel. The Feds should ensure that all relevant intelligence is going to the security personnel of every candidate and every local law enforcement jurisdiction that candidates appear in. When the field narrows, and we have no more than six to eight total candidates, then it may be feasible to use a combination of Secret Service and Federal Marshals to protect them. This is going to be expensive, but it’s a reasonable action given the seriousness of the threat.”
Let’s pray that none of these worst-case scenarios come to pass. But let’s press our leaders to insist that every precaution is taken, as well. The stakes are very high.
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