Memo|National Security   10 Minute Read

Public Opinion for the Top Counterterrorism Issues

Published March 24, 2016

Updated On September 30, 2016

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This memo lays out the top counterterrorism questions that elected leaders and candidates will likely have to answer and accompanies each question with public opinion data pertinent to it. This is meant to serve as a one-stop source for understanding the public’s stance on the most pressing national security questions, providing elected leaders and candidates with the information they need to effectively address constituent concerns on counterterrorism. For some questions there’s ample public opinion polling, while for others there is little or none. But, in all cases where public opinion polling is available, the most recent poll is utilized.

#1: Strategy to Defeat ISIS

Q: ISIS has built up its forces and gained ground in Iraq and Syria since 2014. What is the best strategy to defeat ISIS?

  • Voters are strongly in favor of banning gun sales to people on the no-fly list. For example, 76% of respondents to a USA Today poll fielded June 26-29 support the ban, while just 14% oppose it.
  • A CNN/ORC poll fielded April 28-May 1, 2016, found that 48% favor and 48% oppose sending “ground troops into combat operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”
  • Gallup conducted a poll from December 11-12, 2015, that asked respondents to rate the “effectiveness of actions to combat terrorism.” Their top two choices (both seen by 79% as effective) were overhauling the visa waiver program and increasing U.S. airstrikes.

#2: U.S. Ground Troops Against ISIS

Q: ISIS continues to hold significant areas of Iraq and Syria, and it’s clear that airstrikes alone are not making enough of an impact to destroy them. Should the U.S. send in ground troops to dismantle and defeat ISIS?

#3: Homegrown Terrorists

Q: Recent domestic terrorist attacks, like in Orlando, New York, and New Jersey, have caused alarm about the threat ISIS can play in influencing homegrown terrorists. What should be done to prevent future terrorist attacks in the United States?

  • A Pew poll conducted August 23 to September 2, 2016, found that 40% believe the ability of terrorists to launch an attack on the U.S. is greater now than it was on 9/11. This is the highest percentage since 9/11.
  • A Washington Post/ABC News poll from June 20-23, 2016, asked “How concerned are you about so-called 'lone-wolf' terrorist attacks in which individuals in this country decide to take terrorist action on their own?” 86% said they were concerned, with 53% saying “very concerned.”
    • This poll also found that less than a third of respondents (31%) believe the government is doing a “great deal” or “good amount” to prevent these attacks.
  • Voters are strongly in favor of banning gun sales to people on the no-fly list. For example, 76% of respondents to a USA Today poll fielded June 26-29, 2016 support the ban, while just 14% oppose it.

#4: No-Fly Zone

Q: Some experts have suggested a no-fly zone over Syria would advance U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS. Do you believe the U.S. should enforce a no-fly zone?

  • There’s very little polling on this, but a Rasmussen poll from October 6-7, 2015, found that only 31% believe a no-fly zone would decrease the level of violence in Syria.

#5: Syria

Q: The ongoing Syrian civil war and the arrival of various militia groups and proxy fighters has allowed the region to deteriorate even further into chaos. How can we stabilize Syria? Should Bashar al-Assad leave power?

  • A Gallup poll from February 3-7, 2016, found 58% believe the conflict in Syria is a “critical threat” to the vital interests of the United States.
  • However, the same poll found that Americans are divided on increasing U.S. military involvement, with 34% saying more involvement is needed, 29% saying the current level of involvement is about right, and 30% saying we should be less involved.
  • A CNN/ORC poll fielded April 28-May 1, 2016, found that 48% favor and 48% oppose sending “ground troops into combat operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”

#6: AUMF

Q: The President has called on Congress to pass a new Authorization for the Use Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS. But Congress has stalled on this front, and the President has continued to rely on the authority provided by previous authorizations. Should Congress pass a new AUMF to address ISIS?

  • A CBS News poll from February 13-17, 2015, found 66% favor passing an AUMF, with just 26% opposed. This is in line with all public polls on the passage of an AUMF.

#7: Iraq

Q: After the Obama Administration withdrew troops from Iraq, the country spiraled into sectarian violence. Iraq was unable to defend its cities against ISIS and is still struggling to take back territory. What should the United States do to stabilize Iraq?

  • A CNN/ORC poll fielded April 28-May 1, 2016, found that 48% favor and 48% oppose sending “ground troops into combat operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”

#8: Arming Moderate Forces Against ISIS

Q: There are many forces fighting against ISIS, like the Kurdish Peshmerga and moderate opposition groups, who can be the driving force behind ISIS’s defeat. Why isn’t the U.S. doing more to arm these groups against ISIS?

  • Public opinion on arming moderate forces to fight ISIS has varied over time and across polls. When the U.S. initially became involved in Syria, some polls showed support for arming opposition groups, but voters have soured on the idea as the conflict has gone on. An Economist/YouGov poll from May 2015 found that just 24% believe the U.S. should have “provided Syrian rebels with more aid sooner,” whereas a plurality, 44%, believed “The U.S. should not have gotten involved at all.” However, 55% of respondents to a Gallup poll from December 11-12 2015, believed providing more “U.S. training and equipment to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting the Islamic state” would be effective.
  • More recently, a CNN/ORC poll fielded April 28-May 1, 2016, found 57% believe the U.S. military response to ISIS has been “not aggressive enough.” That’s an 11 point reduction from a December 1, 2015, CNN/ORC poll.

#9: Immigration

Q: The terrorist attacks in Paris ignited fears in the U.S. that ISIS could use refugees and other immigrants to carry out attacks here. Should we stop allowing refugees to enter the U.S?

  • The public is decidedly pro-immigrant. A CBS/New York Times poll from September 9-13, 2016, asked what should be done about illegal immigrants, and 60% said they should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship.
  • Similarly, a Washington Post/ABC poll from September 5-8, 2016, found that 64% believe immigrants strengthen American society. And, 63% oppose building a wall across the border with Mexico. 

#10: Visa Waiver Program

Q: The Visa Waiver program allows terrorists in Europe to easily travel to the United States without a visa. What is being done to address this gap in security?

  • Overhauling the Visa Waiver program is extremely popular with the public. Of 11 options to combat terrorism presented to respondents in a Gallup poll from December 11-12, 2016, overhauling the Visa Waiver program was the top choice (along with increasing U.S. airstrikes), with 79% saying it would be very or somewhat effective at combating terrorism.

#11: ISIS in Libya

Q: ISIS has spread to Libya, with estimates of 6,500 fighters there. Do you support U.S. action against ISIS in Libya? If so, in what form?

  • There is no publicly available polling that directly asks this question. However, a Monmouth University poll fielded September 22-25, 2016, found that 53% believe homegrown terrorists pose a bigger threat than do terrorists who infiltrate the country. Just 34% believe the latter are the greater threat.

#12: Terrorists and Guns

Q: Do you support changing our gun laws to prohibit anyone on a terrorist watch-list from purchasing or receiving a firearm?

  • The public overwhelmingly supports this. Most recently, a CNN/ORC poll fielded June 16-19, 2016, found that 90% support preventing people on the terrorism no-fly list from buying guns.

#13: Al Qaeda

Q: The Administration claims we’ve nearly defeated al Qaeda, but the organization maintains a strong presence in Yemen, has an affiliate amid the civil war in Syria, and may have inspired the recent New York City bomber. Is al Qaeda still a threat against the United States?

  • There’s no direct polling on this question, but terrorism remains among the top concerns of voters. A Washington Post/ABC poll fielded September 5-8 asked voters what “is the single most important issue in your choice for President?” 35% said the economy and jobs, while “terrorism and national security” came in second at 19%, besting corruption in government (16%), immigration (8%), and law and order (6%).

#14: Afghanistan

Q: The White House recently announced that 8,400 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan instead of decreasing to 5,500. Should the U.S. withdraw troops from Afghanistan?

  • A slim majority supports leaving troops in Afghanistan. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll from October 15-18, 2015, 50% of respondents support the President’s plan in Afghanistan, while 39% oppose this plan.

#15: Drones

Q: There are reports that the Obama Administration has been using drones to eliminate terrorist targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia for several years. Do you support the continued use of targeted drone strikes to kill terrorists?

  • The public has consistently supported the use of drones to kill terrorists. The most recent poll asking this question was conducted by Pew from May 12-18, 2015. The Pew poll found that 58% of Americans support “U.S. drone strikes to target extremists.” Support is bipartisan, with majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all supporting drone strikes.

#16: Defense Budget

Q: Cuts in the defense budget made by the Obama Administration have made the U.S. vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Budget cuts have gutted the military and put our nation in harm’s way. Do you support cutting the defense budget?

  • The public is generally ill-informed about the size of the defense budget, but a University of Maryland poll fielded from December 20, 2015, to February 1, 2016, provided background information on the budget to place it in context and found that respondents supported modest cuts to the defense budget because “there is so much waste and corruption in the defense budget.” A majority of respondents in the poll proposed modest cuts to each of the Services, but did not agree to cuts to the Marine Corps, Special Operations Forces, the next generation bomber, or nuclear submarines.
  • Gallup asks respondents every year in February how much the U.S. is spending on national security. The 2016 survey, fielded February 3-7, found that 37% believe we spend too little, 27% believe we spend the right amount and 32% believe we spend too much. The 37% who believe we spend too little is the highest mark since 2001.

#17: Torture

Q: Donald Trump has said he’d encourage the use of water-boarding and other harsh interrogation methods against terror suspects. Do you support torture?

  • Surprisingly, a Reuters/IPSOS poll from March 22-28, 2016, found that 63% believe “torture against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism activities” can be justified.

#18: Benghazi

Q: Administration critics claim the White House and Secretary Clinton misled the public about the Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador. Do you think there was a cover-up?

  • The most recent polling related to this is from the right-leaning Rasmussen report, which fielded a survey from June 28-29, 2016, and found that 49% believe Secretary Clinton lied to the victim’s families about the attacks.
  • Prior to Secretary Clinton’s day-long testimony on Benghazi last October, public interest in Benghazi had fallen off appreciably, with 56% saying they were not following the story closely. Following her eleven hour testimony public satisfaction with her response increased three points—though still only at 30%, compared to 38% who remained not satisfied with her response—and 40% of respondents believed the Benghazi committee was “unfair and too partisan,” compared to just 27% who thought it was “fair and impartial,” according to a Wall Street Journal poll fielded just after her testimony.

#19: Clinton Intervening in Libya

Q: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocated for intervention in Libya and now it’s a mess. U.S. intervention in Libya has led to chaos, infighting among different groups, and now there are over 6,500 ISIS fighters based there. Is Secretary Clinton to blame for the chaos in Libya now?

  • There is no publicly available polling that directly asks this question.

#20: Iranian Sponsored Terrorism

Q: Iran recently received a $100 billion windfall when it received sanctions relief under the nuclear agreement. Won’t Iran use these unfrozen assets to finance terrorist proxies and promote regional instability?

  • A Morning Consult poll fielded August 18-20, 2016, asked “As you may know, the United States and other countries have announced a deal to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran agreeing not to manufacture nuclear weapons. Do you support or oppose this agreement?” 49% of Americans support the agreement, 36% oppose. 41% of independents support the agreement, 38% are opposed, and a sizeable 21% are unsure. This was a large reversal from a year ago, when Morning Consult found that 56% of Americans opposed the agreement, and just 27% supported it.
  • The Morning Consult poll also asked, “As you may know, the United States agreed to pay $400 million dollars to Iran in the nuclear deal negotiated in 2015. The State Department has said that they made the previously negotiated payment to Iran, but only after Iran released several American prisoners. Based on what you know, do you support or oppose the United States making the payment to Iran only after securing the release of American prisoners?” Support and opposition were tied at 41%. 37% of independents support the payment, 40% are opposed, and 23% are unsure.

#21: Closing Guantanamo

Q: The Administration has sent to Congress its plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. There are many concerns over where these detainees should be transferred to, their potential return to terrorist activities, and whether they should be transferred to U.S. prison facilities. Should the U.S. close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp?

  • The public has consistently been opposed to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Most recently, a CNN/ORC poll fielded from February 24-27, 2016, found that 56% believed the facility should continue running while 40% believed it should be closed.

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