In a recent post I pointed out the serious flaws in the Trump administration’s claim that the seven countries identified in its Executive Order on immigration were selected on the basis of the Obama administration’s analysis. The different context for the Obama administration’s identification of the seven countries rendered those countries a fairly arbitrary choice for the stated purposes of the Executive Order. But I have subsequently been asked what a more logical selection would have been in light of the Trump administration’s goals.
In light of former New York mayor and Trump advisee Rudi Guiliani’s claim that the Executive Order arose from Trump’s desire to find a way to make his campaign trail pitch for a Muslim-ban legal, there are problems with taking the Executive Order’s stated goal at face value. But assuming for the moment that the true intent was indeed to “protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States” there would have been a number of more logical options for Trump to pursue.
As several media outlets have noted, one could have begun with the countries whose nationals have in fact conducted deadly attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11. Such a list would comprise Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan.
More comprehensively however, had the White House actually engaged the interagency process, it would undoubtedly have been directed to the reporting routinely conducted by the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.
The Bureau’s latest report focuses on the “ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed physical areas where terrorists are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit, and operate in relative security.” Their resulting list identifies potential physical safe havens for terrorist activity as Trans-Sahara (Mali), Sulu/Sulawesi seas, the Southern Philippines, Egypt, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia and Venezuela. (The Obama administration relied on this list when it tightened immigration procedures following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Though, as with its use of the seven “countries of concern,” the restrictions simply required the nationals from 38 allied countries (such as France and the United Kingdom), who would otherwise be able to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa, to have to apply for a visa like everyone else if they had recently traveled to one of the safe haven areas.)
Ultimately, even a more rational list would not overcome two of the flawed assumptions that seem integral to the Trump administration’s approach. First, the White House is connecting its immigration restrictions solely to nationality, rather than conduct. The theory behind identifying “countries of concern” or “physical safe havens” is that individuals who have recently traveled to and spent time in these areas are thought to be at greater risk of future terrorist activity. It is an individual’s presence in one of these locales that is significant, not the nationality that they happen to have on their passport. Indeed, there is no reason that a British national, for instance, is less likely to be radicalized while in the Trans-Sahara than a Malian national (including a person born in Mali who left many years ago). Think of it this way: if the Trump Executive Order were truly drawn from the Obama model, it would target Britons and others who had spent time in these places.
Second, and notwithstanding the more general language at the start of the Executive Order, the White House seems focused on the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. As the deadly attack on a mosque in Canada last weekend reminds us, terrorism has many faces. Just as it is folly to think we can identify a future terrorist on the basis of nationality alone, so too is it wrongheaded to imagine we can distinguish future threats solely on the basis of religion.
If the White House is serious about protecting the nation from terrorism, it should start by educating itself on the collective knowledge gathered through multilateral efforts to counter violent extremism in the post 9/11 period. This might at least move Trump and his inner circle of advisers past the simplistic idea that nationality or religion alone can predict future terrorist activity. Well-considered recommendations spanning education, development, governance and conflict already exist even among the highly contested literature on what it takes to prevent terrorist attacks.