President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning entry for those coming from 7 Middle Eastern Countries and implementing a religious test for refugees has triggered a firestorm over America’s values and priorities. Those arguing against the executive order with purely ideological positions could find, as has been seen in the past, that ideology fails in the face of perceived existential threats. Rather than addressing this action emotionally, we must consider this ban from the angles of practical security and long-term strategy and ask two questions: Will this ban secure us in the short term, and will this ban improve our long-term prospects against international jihadist organizations?
In December of 2016 the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published “Then and Now: Comparing the Flow of Foreign Fighters to AQI and the Islamic State”. In this report were statistics on the hometowns of groups traveling together to join the Islamic State during a 47-month period from 2011-2014. Topping the list is Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, with 45 incidents of multiple fighters arriving to join the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is not on President Trump’s ban. Next on the list, with 13 incidents, is Buraydah, also in Saudi Arabia. Next is Istanbul. Turkey is not on President Trump’s ban. In fact, to reach a country listed in the travel ban one has to pass two Chinese cities, Hotan and Aksu, before finding Benghazi in ninth place.
“Then and Now” also compares sources of recruitment by percentage of recruits willing to become suicide bombers vs fighters. The country at the top of the list ranking home countries by percentage of Islamic State recruits willing to self-detonate is Pakistan. Pakistan is not on President Trump’s ban. Also apparent when looking at the ranking is the fact that 120 Islamic State recruits who stated they would be willing to become suicide bombers came from Saudi Arabia. Again, Saudi Arabia is not on the ban. President Trump’s ban is nowhere near comprehensive enough to to do much more than create an illusion of safety from the threat of terrorists posing as travelers or asylum-seekers.
This then begs the question as to how much of a threat terrorists posing as travelers or asylum seekers are. According to New America’s in-depth report “Terrorism in America After 9/11” out of the 94 Americans killed by jihadists on American soil only 12 were killed by jihadists born outside America. (The 2015 San Bernardino attack was perpetrated by Syed Rizwan Farook, born and radicalized in America, in partnership with his Pakistan-born wife, so is attributed to an American-born actor.) Of the 94 killed since 9/11, not one attacker (including Farouk’s wife) came from a country listed on President Trump’s ban. The existing vetting system, which President Trump says is to be reexamined during the travel ban, has proven to be highly successful in preventing violent extremists to enter America. One death is always too many, but if we consider 12 dead at the hands of foreign-born terrorists over 15+ years worthy of this rash action, then this country should take equally rash action to remedy other preventable causes of death that killed exponentially more Americans in the same time period.
Rather than securing America in the short-term, the ban will assist the long-term strategy of our opponents. Radical propaganda will carry more weight and Muslims worldwide will be more easily convinced that the Western order has no place for them. This will increase the motivation for lone-wolf attacks, which since 9/11 has clearly been the form of terrorism that poses the most real threat to Americans. Policies that alienate the Muslim community, at home and abroad, make Muslims in America a target for radicalization and put all Americans more at risk.
Without achieving a short-term improvement in security while assisting our opponents in their long-term strategy, this ban has the potential to be one of the worst strategic decisions in our nation’s history. It is worth considering, however, how far this country would have to follow this line of thinking to achieve safety from terrorist attacks. Here is where our values as a nation must be allowed back into the conversation. If America was to use exclusion of Muslims as a tactic in securing itself from Radical Islam, the only way to counter the effect it would have on lone-wolf radicalization would be to take the unacceptable action of ejecting an entire religious ideology from our borders. If this is the line of thinking this nation accepts at this stage in a 15+ year-long war, are we on the verge of surrendering our core principles of tolerance and freedom for an illusion?