Trump’s Travel Ban Misses the True Threat: Homegrown Terrorism
Muslim-majority countries aren't the problem. It's the American face of ISIS we need to worry about.
The Trump administration should consider the facts about terrorism before claiming that the president’s executive order on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries will protect Americans from terrorists. One would assume that the administration did a thorough analysis of the threat and built a policy to mitigate it. That, of course, did not happen. The order was put together hastily with little to no input from executive branch experts.
So, what does the threat look like? One way to answer that question — but certainly not the only way — is to look at those who have been indicted by the Department of Justice for Islamic State-related crimes over the past several years. Luckily, a study released Thursday by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), one of the nation’s leading private research centers on international terrorism, does just that.
The study, The American Face of ISIS, looks in detail at 104 individuals who the U.S. Department of Justice indicted for Islamic State-related crimes between March 2014 and August 2016, and at eight individuals who died (and who otherwise would have been indicted) either perpetrating a domestic attack on behalf of the Islamic State or fighting for the Islamic State in Syria. This is one of the most comprehensive non-government studies of such individuals ever done.
The study found striking patterns. As a group, the individuals look more like average Americans than people might think. The common perception of a terrorist as a young, single, unemployed, disenfranchised male is wrong. The average age of the 112 individuals is 27, with almost a third over 30. Over 40 percent were in a relationship, with a third being married. Nearly two-thirds went to college. Three quarters had jobs or were in school. All of this is quite similar to the United States population as a whole.
The other common perception of terrorists is that they come to the United States from abroad. This idea is simply out of date. One of the key findings of the study is that the vast majority of the 112 individuals are U.S. citizens. Nearly two-thirds were born in the United States, and nearly 20 percent were naturalized citizens. This is in sharp contrast to individuals who had been indicted for al Qaeda-related offenses between 1997 and 2011; only 55 percent of those were U.S. citizens.
Only three were refugees — two from Bosnia and one from Iraq. The latter came to the United States as a refugee in 2009 and was radicalized sometime thereafter.
The policy point here is obvious. Clamping down on the travel and immigration of Muslims in general and of people from Muslim-majority countries in particular would have had a minimal impact on limiting the reach of the Islamic State in the United States. Protecting the country’s borders is important, but the United States has done that with great success since 9/11 — including security enhancements as a result of the rise of the Islamic State. The primary threat is now at home. This is an example wherein facts and fact-based analysis should be an important antidote to emotional-based responses.
The study also shows that Islamic State propaganda videos played a central role in the radicalization of those indicted. CPOST was able to gather data on the propaganda consumption patterns of the vast majority of the 112 individuals, and of those, nearly 85 percent had exposure to propaganda videos. Most of the videos were produced by the Islamic State, but the study showed that the lectures of American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011, are important sources of motivation as well.
The CPOST researchers found that propaganda consumption has quickened the pace of radicalization and encouraged people to act on their growing belief in the Islamic State cause. For some, the violence depicted in the videos — including executions — were the attraction, while others were attracted by videos showing the Islamic State helping the innocent people of the caliphate. Other research done by CPOST suggests that Islamic State videos showing that one can achieve hero status by joining the cause play a significant role as well.
These findings suggest that the United States should focus more on Islamic State propaganda — through efforts such as removing Islamic State media officials from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, shutting down Islamic State websites as fast as they pop up, and working further to counter the Islamic State narrative. This needs to be a key focus of U.S. counterterrorism policy.
Sadly, the Trump travel ban is counterproductive in this regard. No matter what the administration says, the executive order will be perceived as a ban on Muslims. This will undoubtedly become a key poster child for Islamic State recruitment, as it plays directly into the extremist narrative that the West, in particular the United States, is at war with Islam and is trying to destroy the religion.
Good policy is made with good process. And part of good process includes ensuring that fact-based analysis drives the discussion. That’s what CPOST’s study brings to the table. We can only hope the Trump administration will pay attention.
Disclosure: Michael Morell serves pro-bono on the CPOST advisory board.
Photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/Getty Images