By David Thornton
The unpleasant truth about terrorists is that it is too late to keep them out. They are already here.
The Manchester bomber was reported to be Salman Abedi, 22. According to The Telegraph, Abedi was born in Manchester to parents who immigrated from Libya. He was a British citizen who was educated locally in British schools and had only become radicalized recently.
The problem is the same in the United States. Many of the terrorist attacks carried out against Americans over the past few years were committed by American citizens. One of the first instances of homegrown terrorism was the 2009 Fort Hood massacre in which Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, a native of Virginia, murdered 13 people and wounded 32 others. Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernadino terrorists, was a natural born US citizen. His wife was a Pakistani national who had entered the country legally. Omar Mateen, the terrorist who attacked Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, was born in California. Many other terrorist attacks were also carried out by self-radicalized Muslims who were native-born US citizens.
A common denominator in many attacks is that the terrorist was the son of immigrant parents, but this is not true in all cases. For example, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who shot up a army recruiting office in Little Rock in 2009, was born Carlos Bledsoe to a family of Tennessee Baptists. Likewise, Zale Thompson, who attacked NYPD officers with a hatchet in 2014, was a convert to Islam.
Building a border wall or enforcing a travel ban will not protect Americans from terrorists who are also Americans. In the age of the internet, sermons of radical clerics like Anwar al-Awlaki and terrorist propaganda from groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are easily accessible online. Potential terrorists can become indoctrinated and plan attacks from the comfort of their own homes without training or direction from group leaders in the Middle East.
If citizenship is an “unreliable” indicator of terrorism, as a Department of Homeland Security reportsaid last February, how can authorities identify and stop terrorists without simply waiting for them to strike? Security forces have several good options at their disposal to find and stop terrorists before they have a chance to kill.
First, jihadi websites provide a means for radical preachers and recruiters to cross borders easily. They should be monitored and/or shut down. Terrorist websites that attempt to incite terrorism or show propaganda videos of terrorist killings should be fair game for cyberattacks to take them offline. When jihadi websites are up and running, valuable intelligence might be gained if counterterrorism officials can determine who they are talking to. When prospective terrorists in the United States can be identified, they can be singled out for additional scrutiny.
There are valid civil liberty concerns about government surveillance, but constitutional freedoms don’t apply to foreign nationals broadcasting messages from outside the United States. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech don’t include the right to incite violence.
It is also necessary to develop a network of friendly Muslims to report radicals who use American mosques as recruiting centers. Some radical mosques have been hotbeds of terrorism in both Europe and the United States. For example, Fort Hood terrorist, Nidal Hasan had attended the same mosque in Falls Church, Va. as two of the September 11 hijackers. The imam was Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born al Qaeda spokesman, who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Religious freedom should be respected, but a balance needs to be struck between tolerance for Muslims and disregarding dangerous and violent teachings.
Rather than a travel ban, authorities should closely monitor people who travel to terrorist hotspots. For example, the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers, traveled to Dagestan, a Russian republic riddled with Islamic terrorism, but the FBI and counterterror agents never pieced together the available information to identify the men as a threat. Dagestan, formerly called Chechnya, is not on the list of countries subject to the travel ban. As American citizens, the Tsarnaevs would not have been prevented from reentering the US even if it had been.
An additional method for preventing terrorism is the use of sting operations. FBI stings, in which agents play the role of terror group handlers for prospective terrorists, have led to numerous arrests in recent years. The targets of the stings are often homegrown, lone wolf radicals whose posts on social media have caused concern. Some critics argue that the stings are entrapment, but the tactic is an important one for rooting out radicals who might otherwise be invisible until too late.
Finally, the immigration system should be reformed to tackle the problem of people who enter the country legally and then overstay their visa. Far more illegal immigrants overstay their visas than cross the Mexican border. According to the Department of Homeland Security, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the US stay illegally and there is currently no effective system to track and deport them. No one knows how many might be radicals.
The face of Islamic terrorism has changed since September 11. Attacks by foreign operatives who infiltrate into a country to carry out hijackings or bombings is increasingly rare due to heightened security at airports and borders. The next step is to address the threat of US citizens who have joined the radicals. Finding and stopping homegrown radicals is difficult, but it isn’t impossible.