TSG IntelBrief: Blacklisting Countries for Terrorism
January 27, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• A draft executive order calling for the temporary suspension of all U.S. visas from seven countries lacks theoretical backing and serves no practical counterterrorism purpose.
• There have been no serious terror plots or attacks inside the U.S. involving nationals from six of the seven countries listed in the draft order.
• From a counterterrorism standpoint, blacklisting countries is likely to ruin any effective local partnerships in place in those countries, and create an indelible stain of mistrust towards the U.S.
• Secure and effective border controls are vital to national security, yet the proposed approach would neither enhance security nor decrease threats.
A leaked draft of a proposed executive order by the Trump administration calls for the suspension of U.S. visa issuance for people from seven countries for at least 30 days, as well as a 120-day suspension of all refugee placements under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). The countries listed in the ban are Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The draft order is consistent with President Trump’s previous statements and policy proposals, including statements he made in a recent interview with ABC News. The policies outlined in the draft, however, are inconsistent with effective counterterrorism practices.
While the U.S. spends enormous sums of money and resources on its global counterterrorism efforts, the bulk of work that is done on the ground is conducted in conjunction with local partners. This is particularly true in places where the counterterrorism challenges are most urgent. In Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, U.S. military and intelligence personnel are working side-by-side with local forces in a variety of counterterrorism missions; the scale of these partnerships vary from the use of embedded combat and intelligence advisors, to the provision of training and equipment, to formal government-to-government liaisons. Regardless of the type of partnership, the success of each mission requires local capabilities and knowledge, and the foundation of these efforts is trust. The news that those paying the highest toll in supporting U.S. counterterrorism efforts would be summarily barred from entering the U.S. could only have destructive effects.
If the draft executive order—reportedly titled ‘Executive Order on Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals’—becomes policy, the job of every U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic liaison officer in the Middle East and elsewhere will become far more difficult. In turn, liaison efforts in places like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt—which are not on the list of banned countries—will also be made more difficult. The Jordanian, Saudi, and Egyptian governments—all of which work with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism—would undoubtedly be outraged by such an order, which is likely to be perceived as targeting the entire region.
Compounding the potential damage is that the proposed action would have little impact on decreasing the threat of terrorism inside the United States. Each of the seven countries listed in the 30-day ban already face extensive visa procedures. Indeed, obtaining a U.S. visa in any of these countries is extremely difficult. Furthermore, no major terror plot or attack in the U.S. since 2001 has involved a perpetrator or plotter from six of the seven countries listed in the ban. Looking at the 9/11 attacks, the Shoe Bomber, the Dirty Bomber, the Fort Hood attack, the Underwear Bomber, the Times Square bomber, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the shootings in San Bernardino, Chattanooga, and Orlando, none of the perpetrators or plotters were from any country on the list. A Somali immigrant wounded ten people in a September 2016 knife attack at a Minnesota mall; the attack was claimed by the so-called Islamic State. On the whole, however, the large Somali-American community in Minneapolis has a good relationship with local law enforcement; a ban forbidding relatives in Somalia from obtaining travel visas runs in direct opposition to the basic tenets of cooperation and strong community partnerships in efforts to counter violent extremism.
The draft executive order is even more misguided in its temporary suspension of refugee entry. Despite political vilification, statistical data does not support the notion that refugees in the U.S. pose a terror threat. Indeed, the vast majority of refugees seeking to come to the U.S. are fleeing the very terrorism they are being smeared with. Despite repeated calls for ‘extreme vetting’, the vetting procedures already in place for admitting refugees into the U.S. are already very comprehensive. The current process for a refugee to be placed in the U.S. under the USRAP takes up to two years. For a terror group attempting to get operatives into the United States, there are few methods more difficult than disguising them as refugees.
To be sure, the U.S. faces constant and credible threats that require secure and effective visa screening and a strong border control system. There have been tremendous improvements in both since 2001. Like any program, the visa screening program should regularly be reevaluated to find areas for improvement. Any such improvements, however, must be made to the the individual vetting and screening process, not wholesale bans on entire national populations.
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