Fleeing Refugees or Foreign Fighters?
Published February 3, 2017
Many thought it was an empty campaign promise used to broil the deeply entrenched Islamophobia in the hearts and minds of white Americans. Although protecting America from terrorist attacks is and will remain a priority, the aptly titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” strengthens psychological associations with “evil nations” and indirectly encourages xenophobia instead of appropriately addressing the spread of violent extremism. Ordering an indefinite halt to the Syrian refugee program and a 90-day ban on all visa holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen (to be reassessed after 60 days should those countries subscribe to an obscure list of responsibilities), Trump referenced that fateful September day, saying: “Perhaps in no instance was that more apparent than the attacks of September 11, 2001, when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 Americans.” Other than a drastic oversimplification of the series of intelligence failures that resulted in the September 11 attacks, all 19 of the terrorists responsible came from countries which were not listed in the ban: 15 from Saudi Arabia, 2 from the United Arab Emirates, 1 from Egypt and 1 from Lebanon.
In an apparent attempt to scapegoat the Obama administration for “selecting” those seven countries, the order cited the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. In late 2015, a Massachusetts senator tacked on this bill as a rider to a large spending bill that specifically mentions Iran Iraq, Sudan and Syria. This piece of legislation, however, did not bar immigrant or non-immigrant visa holders from entrance into the United States; it merely altered the way citizens and recent visitors of those countries applied for visas or were admitted via the visa waiver program. In early 2016, the Department of Homeland Security added Libya, Somalia and Yemen to the list of countries. Unsurprisingly, policy tends to be most effective when crafted by experienced politicians and public figures who are familiar with the issue. On the contrary, in this circumstance, Trump did not consult with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, Customs and Border Protection among others. About 1,000 foreign service members signed a circulating dissent cable their frustration with policy and citing several problems with the direction of the order. These include the order’s adverse effects on existing tense relations with the specified nations, the order’s role as a source of anti-American sentiment, its impact on the life and health of individuals who travel to America for medical purposes, and its influence on the tourism industry of the U.S. economy.
Iran was the first identified nation to come forward and condemn the ban, vowing to respond with “proportionate legal, consular and political consequences.” These remain unspecified, but many commentators have a hunch that Iran tested a ballistic missile system in response. Numerous Iranian-Americans, of which there are estimates ranging from 450,000 to over one million living in the U.S., claim the ban is punishing the citizens of a country for the deeds of its government. The executive order states that “the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation,” but ironically many of those immigrants who come the United States tend to come looking to escape from exactly that kind of oppression. The Iraqi government has passed a reciprocal piece of legislation, banning Americans in a similar manner. This response has also posed a question of national security for the Department of Defense, who has been working together with the Iraqi military in a months-long siege of the Iraqi city of Mosul, a major stronghold of the Islamic State. From an economic perspective, General Electric, which has contracts in sectors ranging from energy to aircraft engines in excess of a billion dollars, risks losing major deals in the coming months in the instance of prolonged diplomatic tensions.
One of this biggest issues that has become more serious in recent years is the foreign terrorist fighter. Starting with the Soviet-Afghanistan War in the 1980s, we have seen mass migrations of individuals looking to join wars and fight on the pretense of ideology. Over the past year, the concept of the foreign fighter has resurfaced with vigor, particularly with the rise of the Islamic State. Individuals from countries, such as America, France, and Turkey, are radicalized on the internet, travel to a country where a war is taking place, and when the conflict ends, the go back to their home country as an impending threat. Incidentally, all the terrorists in the Paris 2015 attacks were Belgian or French nationals. The Islamic State terrorist attacks carried out in Turkey were perpetrated by Turkish citizens. And cited in the foreign service members’ cable of dissent: “The overwhelming majority of attacks have been committed by native-born or naturalized U.S. citizens, individuals who have been living in the United States for decades, if not since birth.”