Even before Donald Trump became president-elect, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for his name to be scrubbed from Istanbul’s Trump Towers. Erdogan pinned his plea to Trump’s Islamophobia, saying that the candidate “has no tolerance for Muslims in America.”
Now that Trump is weeks from assuming the presidency, cities that host his many branded properties have an additional concern to consider: the potential terrorism threat brought by his name.
“Donald Trump is a controversial, colorful and very high-profile personality,” said Charles Regini, a former FBI agent who heads global response for the Unity Resources Group. “This type of high-profile behavior has the tendency of drawing the attention of potential attackers and further increases the risk of attacks to properties with his name distinctly displayed.”
Or, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it: “If [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] were killed, or [al-Qaeda leader] Ayman al-Zawahiri, you can try to strike the president or strike in the United States. Or you can strike a Trump hotel.”
Trump’s position and rhetoric have made him a star of Islamic militant propaganda: Groups know him as brand and firebrand. Video of him and remarks by him have been used by the Islamic State and al-Shabab. Typically, they highlight Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
In the past, members of these groups were deterred from carrying out terrorist attacks in the United States because of our geographic distance from their centers of power. It is hard for foreign Islamic militants to reach the United States, especially by land. Europe is much closer to Islamic State strongholds. And if you set foot in one European country, you have access to two dozen others, no passport checks needed.
Trump, though, “creates another whole range of potential targets,” said Victor Asal, a professor and co-director of the Project on Violent Conflict at the State University of New York at Albany. Attacking a U.S. embassy or military base is challenging, “but we can attack a Trump hotel.”
Hotels, airports and tourist hubs are already popular targets for Islamic militants. Those sites lack the security of diplomatic posts and cater to mostly transient civilians. This practically ensures that extremists will hit an international clientele, spreading destruction among as many nations as possible. In June 2015, a gunman killed 38 people representing six nationalities at a beach resort in Tunisia. An attack at Tunisia’s Bardo Museum that March killed 22 people from 10 nations.
“If you kill Americans, you’re going to get attention. And if you blow up a nice hotel in a foreign country, you’re likely to kill Americans,” Asal said. With a Trump target, terrorists get to say, “‘We’re also attacking President Trump.’”
The Trump Organization does not have any projects in countries now at war. And the group recently scuttled several deals (including a licensing arrangement in Azerbaijan) in an effort to quiet critics. “Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my busineses (sic) before January 20th so that I can focus full time on the presidency,” Trump wrote in a tweet around the time the deals were abandoned.
But that will not be nearly enough to keep properties bearing his name safe. A handful of Trump buildings, such as the Istanbul towers, lie close to ongoing unrest. Turkey has emerged as a key Islamic State entry point to Syria and has suffered a series of brutal attacks, both from Islamic militants and in its long-standing conflict with the Kurdish PKK. The confluence of factors makes Turkey one of the Trump brand’s riskiest locations. The Trump Century Tower in Manila also lies close to the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf militant group, although experts say that group is less active in the capital than other parts of the Philippines.
There have been long-standing security measures around diplomatic targets. But folding the president’s privately held properties into such plans poses obvious conflicts of interest, as would security protection undertaken on their behalf by foreign governments. It could cost the U.S. government billions of dollars.
Most likely, Trump-branded private properties will continue to handle security on their own. These properties might start taking precautions to prevent a mass-casualty attack by putting in security checkpoints and escape plans for guests. According to Gartenstein-Ross, many Western hotels in areas such as North Africa already do this. They’ve become “compound-like,” limiting terrorists’ ability to carry out strikes. “There’s a limit to how much you want to securitize your property, but they’ve had more of a target painted on them with Trump’s election,” he said. “Thinking through things [like] that can save lives.”
Properties in the United States are not immune to attacks either, whether from sympathizers of foreign terrorist organizations or by domestic terrorist groups, although protecting them is less likely to cause international conflicts of interest. (Not all Trump-labelled sites are owned by Trump or managed by the Trump Organization, but that may not matter. “If I’m a terrorist, what do I care?” Asal said. “I just blew up a Trump hotel.”) Protecting the Trump Tower in New York, from where Trump has been coordinating the presidential transition and where his wife, Melania, and their son Barron are expected to remain, is costing the city millions of dollars a week.
Where the president-elect lucked out security-wise, however, was in abandoning plans for Trump Tower Europe. (His name remains on a handful of golf courses and hotels in Britain, but those are buffered by the relative safety provided by the English Channel.) The real estate tycoon eyed Germany for what would have been Europe’s tallest building 16 years ago. Mock-ups show the “Millennium Tower” looming over Frankfurt’s skyline. But it never materialized. Had it been built, Europe’s influx of returning foreign fighters and other would-be Islamic militants could have made such a tower a prime target. Instead, that honor falls to his first buildings in Europe: Trump Towers Istanbul.