Opinion: How to tackle danger of returning foreign terrorist fighters
Around 30,000 people have traveled from dozens of countries, including the United States and many in Europe, to fight with ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya. As FBI Director James Comey and European Union counterterrorism officials have warned, there is a serious, urgent and increasing threat that many of these fighters will return to their home countries and/or the United States and seek to carry out attacks, especially as ISIS continues to suffer defeats on battlefields in Iraq and Syria.
And, although US Customs and Border Protection has substantially reduced the risk that foreign terrorist fighters could reach the United States, we remain vulnerable for at least three reasons:
First, such fighters are becoming increasingly adept at disguising their travel to and from Iraq, Syria, Libya and surrounding countries. By using various “broken travel” techniques, those who are not on a government watch list substantially reduce their risk of being identified and detained upon their return.
Second, there are thousands of European fighters. European law enforcement and intelligence personnel are struggling to identify, monitor and detain these returning fighters. The European ones can, in turn, travel to the United States without a visa, and we may have difficulty identifying them if they are not on a watch list.
Third, notwithstanding increases in North American perimeter security, Kelly and others have raised concerns that foreign terrorist fighters could travel to Canada or Mexico to enter the United States surreptitiously.
To reduce the threat posed by these returning fighters, the United States should launch the Combating Terrorist Travel Initiative to deploy law enforcement personnel at key overseas transit points, including airports, land border crossings and ferry terminals. Under this initiative, multinational law enforcement teams would: (1) collect information on people traveling along routes known or suspected to be used by foreign terrorist fighters; (2) target and inspect suspicious travelers; and (3) take law enforcement action against those likely to be such fighters.
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By compiling data on people using suspicious travel routes (e.g., Americans crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria), law enforcement officials will be able to determine that a traveler has visited a high-risk location (e.g., Turkey) when his or her travel itinerary upon return may show a low-risk point of origin (e.g., Romania). This is critical for overcoming broken travel and identifying likely returning foreign terrorist fighters. By taking law enforcement action overseas against such likely fighters — those who match a watch list record or arouse heightened suspicion following questioning and inspection — Combating Terrorist Travel Initiative personnel can prevent these fighters from returning to countries where they may carry out attacks.
There is precedent for this forward-deployed law enforcement model. For decades, the United States has deployed immigration officers to overseas airports to work with airlines to identify and prevent the boarding of passengers likely to be denied admission upon arrival, and has deployed personnel overseas to perform “preclearance” of air travelers as well. Since 2002, the United States has deployed law enforcement personnel to 58 overseas seaports in countries such as Jordan, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. These personnel work with host government personnel jointly to identify and inspect high-risk shipments.
For almost 15 years, the United States has resisted the siren songs of scanning 100% of the sea containers shipped to the country and banning maritime shipments from terror-prone regions. Yet maritime trade has been, and is, secure. Let’s hope the new administration similarly rejects xenophobia in favor of taking a page from the maritime security playbook to combat terrorist travel through the use of forward-deployed law enforcement personnel.
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