Consider these facts. One of the Paris bombers was posing as a refugee with his passport, and so, racing against time, Congress took up legislation to increase FBI monitoring of refugees fleeing the war in Syria and Iraq that would come to the U.S., of which 10,000 are expected.
And, then, after the San Bernadino attacks where one of the killers was a Pakastani here on a fiancée visa, Congress responded with legislation to require additional screening in the visa waiver program — which waives visa requirements in 38 Western countries — for anybody who has recently visited Syria, Iraq, or other terrorist havens identified by the Department of Homeland Security in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department. Certain reports have indicated that these will also include Iran and Sudan.
Would these pieces of legislation have actually helped to stop the attacks?
The San Bernadino killer did not get here on the visa waiver program, and the pair were not said to have traveled to Syria or Iraq. And the Paris attackers, while one was posing as a refugee, the others were either born in or were French nationals born to immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, and elsewhere throughout the wider region. They all slipped through the cracks, and in the process have exposed massive intelligence failures by Western agencies who seemingly now lack sufficient capacity to identify the current crop of bad guys.
The visa waiver restrictions in the House bill would only affect participants in the visa waiver program — Andorra, France, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Australia, Germany, Lithuania, Singapore, Austria, Greece, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Belgium, Hungary, Monaco, Slovenia, Brunei, Iceland, Netherlands, South Korea, Czech Republic, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Japan, Portugal, Switzerland, Finland, Latvia, Republic of Malta, Taiwan, Chile, and the United Kingdom — who happened to travel to the aforementioned terror states.
Meaning, the legislation will not affect the tens of thousands of visas issued every year from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In 2014, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. accepted 1,984 visas from Syria, 2,181 from Iraq, 3,858 from Jordan, 2,008 from Lebanon, 578 from Saudi Arabia, 7,049 from Iran, 13,917 from Pakistan and so forth.
Now, one common denominator is that some of the attackers in Paris had traveled to Syria. On the other hand, the only recent travel mentioned for the San Bernadino killers was to Saudi Arabia.
The verdict therefore is the legislation would not have prevented the San Bernadino killer from getting her fiancée visa.
See the problem? Congress is playing a game of whack-a-mole with travel restrictions, attempting to address a real problem but actually accomplishing very little. It is chaos — well-intentioned chaos perhaps, but chaos nonetheless — and it won’t stop the next round of attacks in its current form.
Even a pause in all travel from the wider region, as Americans for Limited Government called for last month, would only have stopped some but not all of the killers had it been in place prior to the attacks. Same problem with Donald Trump’s even wider call for a travel ban on all non-citizen Muslim travel, as neither addresses the home-grown killers in our midst.
Still, all of the proposals to varying degrees of efficacy share one thing in common: They all contemplate some range of travel restrictions to and from majority Muslim countries where the terrorists are known to come from.
But each proposal is not being treated with the same lens by today’s political and media culture. If the travel restrictions proposed contemplate those coming out of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, or specifically, their nationalities, or where they traveled to, it draws zero ire. Those proposals are allowed to be considered by today’s thought police.
You mention the fact that every single one of the killers was Muslim, as Trump did, and propose making religion the identifier for a travel restriction as opposed to nationality — even though the other proposals contemplate restrictions that would admittedly restrict Muslim travel from the region — and you’re labeled a bigot or a demagogue.
That was Trump’s thought crime. He identified Islam instead of playing the politically correct game of simply calling for regional travel restrictions for some countries in the world of Islam. Had he called for certain nation-based restrictions, even broad ones such those issued by Franklin Roosevelt in World War II against Germans, Italians, and Japanese, the thought police would have had to allow it.
Focus on the religion, and it became a crime.
Now that we’ve outlined the rules of not only discourse, but which travel restrictions might be acceptable by today’s culture, let’s consider how the killers likely view their own nationhood. Were they French nationals, in the case of the Paris attackers? Were they American citizens or Pakastani immigrants, in the case of the San Bernadino killers?
None of the above.
Islam, for all intents and purposes, is as much a nationality, culture, and even a geographic region as it is a religion. Ummah in Arabic means “nation,” and depending on the interpretation, could refer to the whole Islamic nation or community. The caliphate, both in history and its modern iteration sought by Islamic State, is an example of attempts to bring a single government or rule to the entire Ummah, that is, all Muslims in the world.
That is simplifying a bit for the purposes of brevity — for more on Islamic State’s interpretation of the Ummah we recommend this Abu Dhabi-based Trends Research & Advisory paper on the topic, “ISIS Rhetoric for the Creation of the Ummah,” — but the Ummah is a critical concept for Western countries to comprehend in considering who the enemy is and how they identify themselves. It won’t be written on their passports.
The nationality and nations traveled to identifiers currently used by Congress, and even the wider regional identifier sought by Americans for Limited Government last month, to do with travel restrictions admittedly ignore completely this central tenant, which is a transcendent concept of nation and of a people that crosses borders.
Very simply, this is the dilemma facing every intelligence agency in the West.
Those radicalized by Islamic State will not recognize the legitimacy of secular governments anywhere, since their goal is hegemony of the Ummah. Looking at their passports to check which countries they traveled to will matter a lot less than identifying a belief in this goal. In that context, the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino were attempts to expand the Ummah to other nations outside the world of Islam or at least to hurt those nations.
In other words, you do not need to be from or have traveled to Syria, Iraq, or other terror havens to believe in the hegemony of the Ummah, but you do need to be a Muslim.
Considering the radical ideology involved rests on a belief in this sort of transcendent nationhood, asking which country they are from won’t matter. Meaning, the discussion of Islam prompted by Trump is actually the right one to have. Until intelligence agencies can get a handle on who the extremists are, broad travel restrictions may be the only way to keep any new killers from traveling to the U.S., and even then, we have to accept that many of them may already be here.