US long-term surveillance of Sunni Muslim immigrants is an ineffective plan

US long-term surveillance of Sunni Muslim immigrants is an ineffective plan
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Apparently, the Trump administration intends to subject legal immigrants from some Muslim majority countries to expanded and continual vetting because this administration believes that Sunni Muslims from abroad represent the primary threat facing the United States. The problem is that their underlying belief is wrong.

Operationally, this is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the administration’s plan does not take into account the specific nature of the current threat facing the nation. By strictly focusing on individuals from Muslim-majority countries the attention will not be focused on those individuals who are actually responsible for the vast majority of attacks in the United States.

Second, race-based and religious profiling has proven to be ineffective as a means of identifying specific individuals involved in illegal activity because attention is focused on those not involved in illegal activity.


Third, vetting individuals against federal intelligence and law enforcement holdings will be ineffective in identifying those of most concern to law enforcement — homegrown mass casualty attackers. That’s because reports of relevant suspicious behaviors are reported to local authorities. This means that they will not be included in federal systems used as part of the vetting process.

Finally, Muslim-Americans and others will believe that they are being unfairly targeted and will be less likely to report information to local law enforcement authorities and it is this reporting that stops attacks.

Over the past three years, the United States has experienced an increase in mass casualty attacks. Some of these attacks were carried out by individuals inspired by the ideology of groups like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al Qaeda. The overwhelming majority, however was conducted by individuals who were motivated by white supremacist or anti-government ideological beliefs or non-ideological grievances.

Extensive analysis conducted over the past several years reveals much about these attackers. There is no ethnic or religious profile, people from of all ethnicities and religious beliefs commit mass murder. However, we do know that almost all of them were either born in the United States or lived here for many years.
In almost every case these attackers were disaffected individuals, who were seeking to connect with some ideological cause or grievance that provided them a sense of self-worth and social connection. They were excessive consumers of violent content accessed via social media and other Internet platforms.

They connected with their particular cause or grievance weeks or months before their attack. They self-connected with the extremist cause, operating independent of any terrorist or extremist group. This is important because they did not engage in those behaviors traditionally associated with terrorist. So they did not come to the attention or raise the concerns of counter-terrorism authorities.

However, while these attackers did not behave like traditional terrorists, they were noticed and caused concern with family members, co-workers and associates.

While I am a strong advocate for aggressive, domestic enforcement efforts intended prevent attacks, I believe that these efforts should focus on actual threat.

We should increase the resources allocated for transportation security as well as state and local government efforts to counter the threat posed by homegrown mass casualty attacks — regardless of their motive.

I also believe that those traveling to the United States should be extensively vetted. Over the past five years, Customs and Border Protection has put in place a robust and highly effective system for vetting those traveling to the United States.

As a result, those traveling to the United States are vetted against the broadest array of classified and unclassified information than at any time in our history. Improving this capability is a worthy cause.

However, using our border control authorities and vetting capabilities to monitor those here legally and who are not involved in illegal activity is constitutionally questionable and operationally inefficient. Justifying this monitoring by mischaracterizing the threat facing the United States is simply dishonest.

John Cohen is the former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis and counterterrorism coordinator at the US Department of Homeland Security. He is currently a professor at Rutgers University where he has been studying mass casualty attacks in the United States and Europe.