How to tackle the danger of returning foreign terrorist fighters

Published 1:49 PM EST, Tue January 10, 2017

Story highlights

Brian Goebel: Muslim community is bulwark against attacks by radicalized Muslims

Trump team should drop ideas of Muslim immigrant ban and Muslim registry, he says

Editor’s Note: Brian C. Goebel is a distinguished fellow at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. The views expressed are his own.

CNN —  

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated that preventing terrorist attacks is one of his top national security priorities. In pursuit of this goal, retired Gen. John Kelly, the nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and other members of the national security team will have to decide whether to pursue two anti-terror proposals floated during the campaign – imposing a ban on Muslim immigrants and registering Muslim residents.

The team would be wise to discard these proposals. Not only are these policies divisive and inconsistent with our national character, but they would be subject to numerous legal challenges. The new administration would spend more time defending its proposals than countering the threat posed by fanatical Islamic terror. And these policies, if attempted, would anyway prove to be ineffective and counterproductive.

Brian C. Goebel
Brian C. Goebel

Even if we could identify Muslims and prevent them from immigrating, this would be a 21st-century Maginot Line. Muslims can travel to the United States for business or tourism, often without a visa. The immigration ban would thus inexorably lead to an attempted Muslim travel ban, which would be even more impracticable and counterproductive. It would weaken our economy and feed the terrorist narrative that the United States is at war with Islam.

The idea of a Muslim registry suffers from these same defects and one other significant flaw: A key bulwark against terrorist attacks by radicalized Muslims is the Muslim community itself. But rather than incentivize cooperation among Muslims and law enforcement, the proposed registry would antagonize our government’s most important allies.

To its credit, the incoming team has thus far focused on eradicating ISIS. Although we cannot defeat the ideology behind ISIS and al Qaeda with military force, reducing the number of ISIS fighters is a worthy national security objective. However, an increased military campaign against ISIS will exacerbate one of our most pressing national security challenges – identifying and interdicting returning foreign terrorist fighters.

Around 30,000 people have traveled from dozens of countries, including the United States and many in Europe, to fight with ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya. As FBI Director James Comey and European Union counterterrorism officials have warned, there is a serious, urgent and increasing threat that many of these fighters will return to their home countries and/or the United States and seek to carry out attacks, especially as ISIS continues to suffer defeats on battlefields in Iraq and Syria.

And, although US Customs and Border Protection has substantially reduced the risk that foreign terrorist fighters could reach the United States, we remain vulnerable for at least three reasons:

First, such fighters are becoming increasingly adept at disguising their travel to and from Iraq, Syria, Libya and surrounding countries. By using various “broken travel” techniques, those who are not on a government watch list substantially reduce their risk of being identified and detained upon their return.

Second, there are thousands of European fighters. European law enforcement and intelligence personnel are struggling to identify, monitor and detain these returning fighters. The European ones can, in turn, travel to the United States without a visa, and we may have difficulty identifying them if they are not on a watch list.

Third, notwithstanding increases in North American perimeter security, Kelly and others have raised concerns that foreign terrorist fighters could travel to Canada or Mexico to enter the United States surreptitiously.

To reduce the threat posed by these returning fighters, the United States should launch the Combating Terrorist Travel Initiative to deploy law enforcement personnel at key overseas transit points, including airports, land border crossings and ferry terminals. Under this initiative, multinational law enforcement teams would: (1) collect information on people traveling along routes known or suspected to be used by foreign terrorist fighters; (2) target and inspect suspicious travelers; and (3) take law enforcement action against those likely to be such fighters.

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By compiling data on people using suspicious travel routes (e.g., Americans crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria), law enforcement officials will be able to determine that a traveler has visited a high-risk location (e.g., Turkey) when his or her travel itinerary upon return may show a low-risk point of origin (e.g., Romania). This is critical for overcoming broken travel and identifying likely returning foreign terrorist fighters. By taking law enforcement action overseas against such likely fighters – those who match a watch list record or arouse heightened suspicion following questioning and inspection – Combating Terrorist Travel Initiative personnel can prevent these fighters from returning to countries where they may carry out attacks.

There is precedent for this forward-deployed law enforcement model. For decades, the United States has deployed immigration officers to overseas airports to work with airlines to identify and prevent the boarding of passengers likely to be denied admission upon arrival, and has deployed personnel overseas to perform “preclearance” of air travelers as well. Since 2002, the United States has deployed law enforcement personnel to 58 overseas seaports in countries such as Jordan, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. These personnel work with host government personnel jointly to identify and inspect high-risk shipments.

For almost 15 years, the United States has resisted the siren songs of scanning 100% of the sea containers shipped to the country and banning maritime shipments from terror-prone regions. Yet maritime trade has been, and is, secure. Let’s hope the new administration similarly rejects xenophobia in favor of taking a page from the maritime security playbook to combat terrorist travel through the use of forward-deployed law enforcement personnel.