Articles

Jun 05, 2017

Trump’s travel ban is useless. Terrorists mostly come from our own back yard. Washington Post

Trump’s travel ban is useless. Terrorists mostly come from our own back yard.
Banning visitors from foreign countries wouldn’t have stopped the majority of jihadist terror attacks since 9/11.

By Peter Bergen June 5 at 6:00 AM
Peter Bergen is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists”, a CNN National Security Analyst and Vice President at New America.

Terrorist events often involve perpetrators who are second-generation citizens of their countries. (Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse)
Shortly after the news broke Saturday evening about a possible terrorist attack in London, President Trump tweeted: “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!”

A good deal of the judicial opposition to the Trump administration’s proposed temporary ban of citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States has focused on the constitutionality of banning adherents of a particular religion. It makes sense, given Trump’s many public statements during the campaign about barring Muslims from coming to the States.

Less attention has focused on the question of whether the travel ban would do what it is intended to do, which is purportedly to make us safer. The reality is that it probably wouldn’t do much to protect Americans and Europeans from the kind of terrorism we mostly witness now.

In a large majority of recent terrorist attacks in the West, the attackers have been native-born citizens rather than recent immigrants or refugees.

The identities of the London attackers have not yet been released, but it’s not unreasonable to assume they probably are British citizens — after all, almost all the perpetrators of serious attacks in the United Kingdom over the past decade or so have been British citizens.

Three of the four suicide attackers recruited by al-Qaeda who carried out the most lethal terrorist attack in British history, killing 52 commuters on the London transportation system on July 7, 2005, were British citizens. So, too, was the suicide bomber who carried out an attack in Manchester two weeks ago that killed 22 people attending an Ariana Grande concert. Indeed, the terrorist was born in Manchester. And the terrorist who carried out an attack in March on London’s Westminster Bridge that killed four was also a British citizen born in the very English county of Kent.

The same pattern holds true in the United States. According to research by New America, a D.C.-based think tank, of the 13 perpetrators of lethal jihadist terrorist attacks in the States since 9/11 (which produced a combined total fatality count of 94 people), all of the terrorists were American citizens or legal permanent residents. Of the 406 cases of jihadist terrorism (nonlethal and otherwise) in the States since Sept. 11, 2001, tracked by New America, more than 80 percent of the cases involved U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

None of the lethal terrorists were refugees, nor were any of them from any of the six countries the Trump administration would like to suspend travel from, nor were their families from any of those countries, and only one was a relatively recent immigrant (from Pakistan, which is not on the travel ban list). Instead, many of these attackers were radicalized, at least in part, by materials they read on the Internet, or through communications with other jihadist militants on the Internet.

The travel ban would, of course, be of no use whatsoever in blocking the Internet.

Consider the emblematic case of Nidal Hasan, a U.S. army major born in Arlington, Va., who emailed the notorious U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki more than a dozen times seeking religious sanction for an attack on his fellow soldiers. Hasan went on to kill 13 at Fort Hood, Tex., in 2009.

Another native-born American, Omar Mateen, killed 49 at a gay nightclub in Orlando last year, the most lethal terrorist attack in the States since 9/11. The son of Afghan immigrants, Mateen was born in the Queens borough of New York and is not dissimilar in that regard to Trump himself — who was also born in Queens and is the son of a Scottish immigrant.

Before he died in a CIA drone strike in 2011, Awlaki declared, “Jihad is as American as apple pie.” That seemingly absurd statement has a grain of truth: It is overwhelmingly American citizens and legal residents often radicalized by the Internet who are the perpetrators of jihadist terrorism crimes in the States.

So if the travel ban won’t accomplish much of anything, what might?

On Sunday, British Prime Minister Theresa May took a swipe at social media companies declaring, “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the Internet — and the big companies that provide internet-based services — provide. We need to work with allied, democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism.”

That is easier said than done. All key social media companies are based in the United States, and the First Amendment allows for much hateful but protected free speech. And when it comes to terrorism, the line between what is admissible on a social media platform and what is not are much fuzzier than in cases such as child pornography, which is both illegal and easy to recognize.

Take the ambiguous case of the American cleric Awlaki, who gave countless rather anodyne lectures about Islam that are available on YouTube, but also gave a far smaller number of lectures calling for jihadist violence that clearly violate the ‘Terms of Use’ of most social media companies. Should all of Awlaki’s lectures be taken down, or just some of them? And if you did so, how long would it take before many of those lectures were quickly restored?

This is not to imply that inaction by social media companies that host jihadist material is somehow fair enough. In fact, social media companies such as Twitter have taken down hundreds of thousands of pro-ISIS accounts, and Facebook has hired thousands of employees to help the company with “takedowns.” But purging jihadist material entirely from the Internet is a pipe dream. There is just too much of it.

This problem is compounded because ISIS has moved a great deal of it social media to Telegram, an encrypted platform that is based in Germany, and is therefore beyond the reach of British or American laws.

Trump is unlikely to be granted his travel ban, given the number of courts that have ruled against it, but in the event that it is enacted, he will find that it is far from the magic bullet he believes it to be.

Instead, the best approach to deal with the scourge of jihadist terrorism is to enlist rather than alienate Muslim communities, because it is often peers and family members who are best positioned to notice radicalization or attack planning. Indeed, Muslims already are leading anti-radicalization efforts in their own communities, and we should support these ongoing efforts.

But not even that is a panacea. Members of the Muslim community warned authorities about the radicalization of the Manchester terrorist Salman Abedi years ago, and his father was so concerned about his son’s state of mind that he had confiscated his passport before the Manchester bombing.

None of this, of course, was sufficient to deter Abedi from his deadly attack.

Peter Bergen is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists”, a CNN National Security Analyst and Vice President at New America. Follow @peterbergencnn

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