On the Border

In the span of less than a week the first group of U.S. National Guardsmen were dispatched to help patrol the Mexican border, and Canadian authorities arrested 17 Muslim men accused of plotting bombings in major Canadian cities and training militants. Both are reminders that a high priority for U.S. homeland security must be to prevent terrorists from entering the country. But they are also reminders that we may not be focused on the right problems when it comes to our borders.

To be sure, the single-most important thing that the Department of Homeland Security can do to reduce the likelihood of another terrorist attack is keep terrorists out of the country. But keeping terrorists out of the United States does not necessarily mean adding more border guards or using the National Guard to crackdown on illegal immigration. In fact, it would be a Herculean task to seal the U.S. borders – the U.S.-Mexican border is over 1,900 miles, and the U.S.-Canadian border is over 3,100 miles on land and over 2,300 miles across water (more than 9,000 U.S. border patrol agents work along the U.S.-Mexican border, yet more than 200,000 illegal immigrants still manage to cross the border each year). And it would be a mistake to equate border security to stem the tide of illegal immigration with homeland security to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.

Indeed, all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers entered the United States via known points of legal entry, as millions of visitors to the United States do annually. The same is true for al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam, the millennium bomber who was stopped by a U.S. Customs agent in Port Angeles, Wash., after crossing on a ferry from British Columbia, Canada. So much of homeland security means making sure systems and procedures are put in place so that known or suspected terrorists can be stopped at the border by the appropriate authorities. The most crucial aspect is ensuring that information from the appropriate agencies (e.g., CIA, FBI, Interpol) about known or suspected terrorists is made directly available in real time to those people responsible for checking passports, visas, and other immigration information.

The US-VISIT (Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) program is supposed to screen foreign visitors as they enter the United States to make sure that they are not would-be terrorists. At its unveiling at Hatfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at the beginning of January 2004, then Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge proclaimed that US-VISIT was "part of a comprehensive program to ensure that our borders remain open to visitors but closed to terrorists." One would think that means comparing passengers’ names to a database of known and suspected al-Qaeda operatives, as well as persons with suspected ties to al-Qaeda. But according to Ridge, "While processing more than 20,000 travelers … US-VISIT has matched 21 hits on the FBI Criminal Watch List, including potential entrants with previous convictions for statutory rape, dangerous drugs, aggravated felonies, and several cases of visa fraud." So the few people snared are exactly who you would expect to catch: criminals, not terrorists. Indeed, how many terrorists’ fingerprints does the FBI have in its Criminal Watch List? It’s probably a good guess that Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda operatives are not included. But in a world where keywords can be typed into Google with a nearly instantaneous response, being able to cross-check a person’s name, passport number, and photo against U.S. and foreign terrorist databases should not be an insurmountable problem.

But focusing solely on border security – especially in response to the arrest of suspected Islamic terrorists in Canada – misses a larger and more important issue: radicalization of Muslims and homegrown terrorists. For Canada – with a Muslim population estimated at as many as 600,000 (about 2 percent of the total population) – and other societies that have relatively large Muslim immigrant populations – such as in France (over 4 million), Germany (over 3 million), and the United Kingdom (over 1 million) – it means realizing that these groups may be vulnerable to radicalization, which is the first step toward becoming a terrorist. As such, how Muslims are assimilated into society may be the single-most important issue for those countries. For example, Muslims in the United States seem to be more integrated into mainstream American society, whereas European Muslim communities are generally enclaves – more apart than a part of their adopted countries. Yet none of the Sept. 11 hijackers were recruited from the Muslim-American community. And since 9/11, there has not been – thankfully – another al-Qaeda terrorist attack, and virtually none of the terrorist plots that have been unearthed have American Muslim origins. In contrast, we know that the Hamburg Cell became the field marshals of the Sept. 11 attacks, many of those thought to be involved in the Madrid March 11 attacks were European Muslim immigrants, the London tube bombings were conducted by English-born Muslims, and many of the 17 alleged terrorists arrested in Canada are Canadian citizens.

Finally, we cannot ignore the role of U.S. policies in contributing to Muslim radicalization. This requires understanding that the growing tide of anti-American Muslim hatred – which is the basis for the radical Islamists to draw Muslims to their ranks – is fueled more by what we do, i.e., U.S. policies, than who we are. In other words – as the 9/11 Commission concluded and numerous polls conducted throughout the Islamic world show – they do not hate us for our freedoms, way of life, culture, accomplishments, or values. Yet while the 9/11 Commission understood that point, they ultimately did not prescribe any real change from the course U.S. foreign policy has charted since the end of the Cold War. According to the 9/11 Commission:

"American foreign policy is part of the message. America’s policy choices have consequences. Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim World. That does not mean U.S. choices have been wrong. It means those choices must be integrated with America’s message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim world."

But if we are unable to admit that some of our policy choices are wrong, how can we hope to correct them? Such refusal results from not wanting to be accused of blaming America for 9/11, which is understandable, and certainly nothing justifies those terrorist attacks. But with more than one billion Muslims in the world, we cannot continue to ignore addressing the underlying reasons why so many of them have a growing hatred of the United States. Ultimately, without blaming America, we must be willing to look in the mirror to examine and understand how our own policies – both foreign and domestic – may affect the dynamics and evolution of the Muslim terrorist threat. The task, then, is to avoid the famous quote by Walt Kelly’s comic strip character Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.