Are we safer today than we were 15 days ago?

For the past 10 years, I have studied terrorism and counterterrorism. More recently, I have focused intently on understanding the rise and threat posed by the Islamic State. I have examined thousands upon thousands of propaganda pictures, documents, and videos. I have engaged with many individuals from around the world who are far more expert than myself in this complicated subject.

As I considered the recent executive order related to protecting our country from terrorism, the experiences and engagements I have been fortunate enough to be a part of have been on my mind. In short, all of these things have taught me the following:

I can’t tell you not to worry, that no terrorists or terrorist groups have ever taken advantage of our immigration system or will not do so in the future. It has happened before, it may be happening now, and it will likely happen again.

But, as any student of public policy will tell you, policies are rarely designed to achieve absolutes. Those that are so designed tend to fail. A good policy, therefore, it not about what it might ideally accomplish, but rather about what the trade-off is between it can feasibly hope to accomplish and what must be given up in return for such accomplishments. And here is where the executive order falls flat.

It will not end the abuse of our immigration system by terrorists and terrorist groups. How can it? The countries specified in the order don’t cover countries where the majority of terrorists who have entered the US have come from.[1]

It will not undercut the narrative posed by terrorists regarding the fact that the West is at war with Islam. What is more, it stands to make the issue worse by playing into the hands of terrorist groups that want to negatively portray the US’s stance towards Muslims around the world.[2] The fact that the order does not specifically mention Muslims (a straw man defense raised by some) is irrelevant in the minds of those who want to take advantage of this.

It will not eliminate the threat of terrorist attacks on our homeland, nor reduce the likelihood of radicalization of individuals already here (citizens and non-citizens alike).

The executive order overlooks the fact that terrorists are smart, strategic actors. They will not give up in their efforts to enter the United States, using falsified stories and documents of increasing quality. While every reasonable effort should be made to increase the difficulty groups face in doing so, blocking individuals is unlikely to actually accomplish this.

The executive order overlooks the fact that over 40,000 fighters from more than 120 countries that have come to fight for a wide variety of groups in the Syrian conflict, including several thousand from Europe.[3] The problem of violent jihadists is not limited to the small number of majority-Muslim countries listed in the executive order. Given the Administration’s signals that its initial actions may be just the beginning, perhaps France and Germany should worry as well.

The executive order overlooks the fact that many men and women from majority-Muslim countries have come to the United States, often at great personal sacrifice, and done more to protect us than the average American citizen will ever do in their lifetime. They have served with distinction in the intelligence and defense communities, as well as in state and local law enforcement agencies.[4] It has been my distinct privilege to meet and associate with a very small number of these men and women.

The executive order overlooks the fact that turning away doctors, interpreters, scientists, and families seeking a better life is not without cost.[5] These individuals have already and would have continued to save American and other lives through their efforts. Though some may see their cases individually reviewed and exceptions granted, most will not be able to wait out the bureaucratic nightmare that the order will inevitable produce.

The executive order, by carving an exception for religious minorities in these majority-Muslim countries, overlooks the fact that most of those who suffer religious persecution, death by beheading, drowning, and unspeakable other methods are Muslim men, women, and children who refuse to believe in the narrow religious interpretation of a violent jihadist group.[6]

To be clear, terrorist groups and individuals pose a significant danger to our country and I would expect the United States government to take action to mitigate the risks posed to its citizens through responsible policies. However, those policies must be proportion to the harm posed, vetted through rigorous interagency dialogue, and maintain the American ideals that I believe our country stands for.

 

Footnotes

[1] Did the order deal with the problem? Consider these articles as you ponder that question: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/01/27/511861645/trumps-immigration-freeze-omits-those-linked-to-deadly-attacks-in-u-s. & http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/attacks-white-house-terror-list-involve-restricted-countries/story?id=45326216. Of course, deadly attacks is only one metric: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/cf244d096e084e7a943b45168deafc5f/ap-fact-check-no-arrests-7-nations-travel-ban-nope.

[2] To be clear, I am not contending that the executive order itself will appear in public propaganda. That may be one sign that it has played into the hands of jihadists, but certainly it is not the only sign. Most recruitment takes place on a very personal, one-to-one level. It also takes place in the mind of a perspective recruit. How will this order be perceived in the small conversations and the radicalizing mind of a future jihadist? I can’t say for sure, but I have a hard time believing it will be a deterrent to the anti-US worldview that is so prominent in the propaganda of ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and other jihadist groups. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2017/feb/07/seth-moulton/mostly-false-claim-isis-already-using-trumps-execu/

[3] The number of fighters and diverse nature of their origins is staggering. These numbers come from a 2016 State Department press conference: https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/06/258013.htm

[4] Most of these individuals will never tell their story, both for security reasons and because they are some of the most humble public servants I have met. Here is an example of one such story: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/03/us/muslims-us-military.html

[5] Consider following stories on this point: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/06/health/trump-travel-ban-doctors.html; http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-veterans-muslims-20170129-story.html

[6] Several good notes here. Check out the CTC’s report on the devastating toll of al-Qa’ida’s violence against Muslims (https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/deadly-vanguards-a-study-of-al-qaidas-violence-against-muslims). For more recent thoughts on this issue, see http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30883058 and https://www.fas.org/irp/threat/nctc2011.pdf.

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1 Response to Are we safer today than we were 15 days ago?

  1. Cody Harmer says:

    Thank you for this very beautiful insight , I think everyone should read it , I think the conversation needs to be continued beyond this article , and we must ask , are we any safer than we were 18 years ago ? 5 years ? 30 years ? Have we really made any headway in our war on terror ? I say not really , we have been lulled into a false sense that we’re somehow being protected because we haven’t had a catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil since 2001, although we have taken some significant blows , I think we need to be just as adept at fighting terrorist as they are at instilling terror in the hearts of the good people of this world , what is the solution ? I say if we do what we’ve always done , we’ll get what we always got ! Let’s figure this out ! Work together and make some real progress ! Sorry for the rant , I look forward to reading more from you , thank you for sharing it

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