Homeland Security

Trump’s travel ban would not have prevented an attack like Manchester

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In Thursday’s opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upholding the injunction on President Trump’s travel ban on six Middle Eastern countries, three dissenting judges argued that the majority decision would endanger public safety. But the recent terror attack in Manchester, England, illustrates why the counterterrorism strategy embodied in executive order is fundamentally misguided.  

The ban would not only have failed to prevent the same attack from happening in the U.S., it would make it more difficult for the FBI to investigate it afterward.

The Appropriations Subcommittee hearing earlier that day gave the reason why: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly a critical question: “Is citizenship alone a reliable indicator of a terrorist threat?” Kelly’s unequivocal answer — “No, sir.”

{mosads}The contours of the executive order first promulgated on Jan. 27, and then reissued on March 16, bars nationals of six countries from entering the U.S — including Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.


On first glance, Salem Abedi, the alleged perpetrator of the Manchester attack, might seem like precisely the type of person whom the ban is supposed to screen out: Abedi was originally from Libya and traveled to Syria shortly before the attacks — implicating two of the countries on the list.

The problem is that Abedi was a U.K. national who would not need a visa to enter the U.S., which is why a nationality-based ban wouldn’t have prevented him from carrying out his plot here. Similarly, the 2015 Paris attacks involved eight suspects that were French or Belgian nationals. American citizens carried out the attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando. A Middle East-focused preventative strategy is unlikely to address the real threat, which is increasingly homegrown in Western countries.

In fact, the pattern of terror attacks within the U.S. and EU over the last five years raises serious questions about the ostensible national security purpose of the travel ban. In 2015, the House Task Force on Combating Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel concluded that the biggest threat facing the U.S. is the “unprecedented speed at which Americans are being radicalized by violent Islamist extremists.”

Since 2011, more than 4,500 westerners and over 250 Americans have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join and train with jihadist groups. In response, President Obama signed a bill modifying the visa waiver program to specifically screen for people who had traveled to high-risk countries like Iraq and Syria even if they were nationals of countries that would otherwise not need a visa to enter the U.S.

In promulgating his executive order Trump explicitly rejected this tailored approach in favor of a blanket ban based on nationality — but used the countries listed in Obama’s program for its justification (though, notably, his list does not include Iraq).

Even more important than missing the mark as a matter of policy, the travel ban will have ripple effects on the FBI’s ability to investigate terror plots that are hatched and carried out within the U.S. The British authorities in Manchester are now seeking to uncover the “network” of terrorists of which Abedi was likely a part. A portion of this effort will mean obtaining mostly voluntary information from the ethnic and immigrant communities in which Abedi lived.

As a former FBI agent who often sought similar assistance from immigrant communities for investigations here in the U.S., I can attest to the level of trust that is necessary between these groups and law enforcement for efficient and effective cooperation (something which is already made difficult by the cultural gap created by the fact that 83 percent of FBI agents are white).

Policies like the Trump ban frame the threat as a battle between the U.S. and anyone from a particular country — rather than a particular kind of person. The ban unnecessarily (and inaccurately) pits law enforcement against an entire swath of the American population based merely on their country of origin — including those who would be able and willing to help. And since these individuals aren’t keeping a spreadsheet of the particular mission of every three-letter agency, when aggressive immigration and deportation policies enforced by other government departments are added to the mix, fear alone can prevent people from coming forward to assist the FBI with valuable information.

Forensic psychiatrists have noted that no amount of “extreme vetting” can reliably screen for individuals with a propensity to commit violent acts, as the travel ban purports to do. And even in the few instances where foreigners have committed attacks in the U.S., their alienation from their new home has occurred after their arrival, not before. Abdul Artan, the Somali refugee and Pakistani immigrant who rammed a car into a sidewalk at Ohio State University and stabbed 11 students in November 2016, had expressed his fear of getting shot himself for praying in the open on campus, largely because of president-elect Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims.

Although the executive order has not been implemented, ISIS has praised the travel ban and has used it as a recruiting tool — possibly targeted at disaffected citizens of the West — revealing that the ban not only fails to prevent terrorism, it might actually encourage it.

Asha Rangappa is a former Special Agent in the Counterintelligence Division of the FBI in New York City. She is currently an associate dean at Yale Law School. Follow her on Twitter @DeanAsha.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Asha Rangappa Donald Trump Executive Order 13769 FBI Foreign relations of the United States Iran–United States relations ISIS Islam Libya–United States relations Manchester attack Patrick Leahy Somalia–United States relations Sudan–United States relations Syria–United States relations Travel visa trump travel ban

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