Throughout the US Presidential election a lot of time and effort was paid to the issue of national security. Several recent major attacks had occurred both within the US (San Bernardino and Orlando) as well as in the West at large (Brussels, Nice and Istanbul) to ensure that terrorism was a dominant theme. One of the candidates, now President, Donald Trump, vowed to stop Muslim immigration to the US until the country could figure out ‘just what the hell is going on’.
Within the first two weeks of his presidency Mr. Trump has acted on those sentiments with a 90-day ban of citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from entering the US. This action by presidential decree has been challenged in the courts already and has been subject to mass opposition in the US and around the world. The slight changes made (for example, Iraq was dropped) do not alter the assessments made here.
It is worth asking two questions about this move: 1) Is it necessary to keep the US safe? and 2) Will it keep the US safe from terrorists? These queries will be answered in the paragraphs to follow.
If recent experiences and comments from frontline agencies are any indication, the answer to the first question is clearly no. Intelligence, law enforcement, immigration and border agencies are more than able to screen refugees and immigrants for potential threats. Furthermore, in the case of refugees, those fleeing their homelands for a better life are subject to months, if not years, of vetting by the United Nations and the destination countries’ authorities. For example in my home nation, Canada, the heads of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assured Canadians months ago when the government sought to bring tens of thousands of Syrians to Canada, mechanisms are in place to do a good job at screening those seeking to come to the West. US officials have offered similar statements. Even the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), the body responsible for keeping Canada’s borders secure, wrote in a report last year that Syrian refugees represented ‘relatively low security threat’ and that only five of the 40,000 Syrians accepted by Canada had been referred for deportation hearings (all for criminal activity and none for terrorism).
More importantly, immigrants and refugees do not carry out the majority of terrorist attacks in the US (in fact, only one single refugee has been involved in such action, a knife attack on a mall in Minnesota). The vast majority of terrorists behind attacks in the US (Boston, Minneapolis, Arkansas, etc.) are homegrown, radicalised individuals. Even if some were born elsewhere, they radicalised to violence within the US. A ban on citizens of the seven nations, had it been implemented after 9/11, would have made next to no difference in the threat level to the US.
Secondly, will the action make the US safer? With a narrow exception that potential terrorists from those nations will not be able to enter the US (although there is an alarming lack of evidence pointing to this possibility), the answer is clearly no. We can identify at least three reasons why this is so.
- Counter-terrorism and the related countering violent extremism rely crucially on neighbourhood and local collaboration and cooperation. The immigration ban will feed feelings of alienation and anger as many Muslims will interpret the executive order as a ban on Muslims, the Trump Administration’s denials notwithstanding. Alienation and anger will discourage US Muslims from working with the administration, either as sources or contacts or in CVE programmes. This could prove very important as the FBI reportedly gets 40% of its tips on extremist activity from US Muslim communities.
- Terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) have long claimed that the West, including the US, is inherently anti-Islamic. This move is already being used to underscore that belief. Pro IS bloggers have called President Trump a “wonderful enemy” and the “best caller to Islam”. According to IS, Muslims in the West are not welcome in their countries and cannot practice their faith freely. Hence, they should leave for a “true” Islamic country (i.e. join IS’s Caliphate).
- The ban has led to protests, legal challenges and widespread anger around the world, and not only in Muslim communities. It is possible, although not certain, that this move will contribute to radicalisation to violence, on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Some Muslims may view the ban as a justification for the use of violence against the US, while some non-Muslims may view it as a justification for ‘open season’ on Islam. It is important to emphasise that there is no simple formula for radicalisation. Nevertheless, this issue does lead, and has led, to social tension and away from inclusion and harmony.
In the end, it is difficult to see positive outcomes of the immigration ban. The multiple negatives clearly outweigh the very few pluses and the new US administration would be well advised to reconsider this divisive measure.