Many American soldiers and their coalition allies in Iraq and Afghanistan know the law of unintended consequences. It is quite simple. Despite their best endeavours, every time they thought they had developed a way of defeating Muslim extremism, it would in some way mutate and present an even greater threat. Trying to defeat Muslim extremism is not, it appears, that easy. It is what is known in decision-making circles as a “wicked” problem — one which does not have a neat and simple solution.
On the surface, President Trump’s decision to close, albeit temporarily, immigration from a select group of states around the world where Muslim extremists in one form or another are known to operate, makes a lot of sense. In his campaign, he was unequivocal. He made it very clear he wanted to shake-up the current immigration system into the United States. After all, how would he look if a major attack in America were to take place and it was subsequently proven the individuals involved could have been prevented from getting into the country.
It has happened before. The elder Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan (who was to die in the aftermath of the attack when run over by his brother), is one example. He was the one who planted the first device detonated at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 killing 3 and injured a 264. Before conducting the attack, he spent an estimated six months in his native Dagestan and had come to the attention of the FSB – the modern-day equivalent of the Soviet-era KGB.
FSB notified United States authorities of their suspicions that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had not in fact been on holiday in the country of his birth, but rather had in fact been actively courting contacts with extremism groups active in the area with connections to Al Qaeda.
According to open source reporting, when he returned to the United States his passport, which he had only gained just before he travelled, did not match up against the No-Fly list. He thus was allowed back into the US despite FSB’S reservations as to his potential to turn to terrorism.
One rumour associated with this story is that the spelling of his name in the Russian Cyrillic was entered into the No-Fly list with the wrong spelling. When Tsarnaev produced his passport in the English language variant of the spelling, no match was found. According to the rumour, one letter in the name was incorrectly spelt. Given the much-publicized size of the No-Fly list — with some suggestions it has over 7,000 names — such a mistake is entirely plausible and understandable; and has happened before.
If one person who has travelled overseas is capable of returning and conducting acts of violence like the Boston bombing, it seems entirely plausible other people willing to follow the same pathway are there waiting. With American Somali’s having travelled to their native country to joint Al Qaeda, it seems entirely reasonable for the President to list that country and temporarily halt people from the country from being allowed into the United States.
It is not as if Somalia is a great story when it comes to their current security situation. Only a few days ago, a hotel in the capital Mogadishu was attacked by a car bomb and at least 15 people were killed in what was obviously an attack conducted by Al Shabaab, which operates under the Al Qaeda banner. This is simply the latest in a string of attacks which have seen the security situation in Somalia worsen over the last four months.
The same situation applies in Libya, another country named on the President’s list of seven nations travellers are temporarily halted from entering the US. Only recently, Islamic State fighters were trying to consolidate a position in the coastal city of Sirte. Having been chased away, they have now moved into the deeper areas of the Sahel close to the border with Niger, Algeria and Mali — all countries that have come to know the impact of Islamist terrorism.
Because Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi has been calling for overseas fighters to assemble in Libya rather than travel to Syria and Iraq, it’s reasonable the US very careful vet people travelling from Libya who, arguably, could pose a serious threat. Similarly, the same argument applies to people travelling from Syria and Iraq, especially when the Islamic State is known to have acquired some 30,000 legitimate Syrian passports that can be used to create false identities.
Any President concerned about the protection and welfare of Americans would have to take action given the imminent and on-going dispersal of Islamic State fighters from Mosul and locations in Syria. European security officials estimate at least 1,750 Islamic State fighters have returned to Western Europe.
With many already having hatched plans to attack, German intelligence officials are exceptionally frightened about the situation and have made their concerns public. They believe the incident involving the jihad truck attack in Berlin was just the start of what could be a difficult period. Stopping such attacks once the people have made it into places like Germany is hugely difficult. How can you stop someone attacking when you don’t even know who is in your country?
While the logic behind President Trump’s decision making is clear, there may be unintended consequences. With the American immigration system now bolstered by an even greater barrier to travel to the US, it’s possible latent Muslim extremists in the United States may decide they have to take acts of terrorism into their own hands without outside direction.
This would create an additional political fire storm. It would be labelled by many in the media — who can hardly be said to enjoy a smooth relationship with the Trump administration — to claim an attack would be the first major set-back for the new President.
The attack in Orlando on June 12, 2016 showed what a single terrorist can achieve. Within hours, Al Qaeda was posting advice on how Omar Mateen could have killed more people if he had just made a few changes to his attack. We are now living in an age where terrorist groups are learning about how to change and adapt their tactics in real time.
Today, once radicalized, jihadists in the United States can carry out attacks almost at will.
But, others also seeking to humiliate the President, or to create an even greater reaction, may also determine to become involved in acts of terrorism. How that plays out is uncertain, but it could spark a backlash from those already agitated by the potential for terrorismin the United States.
Other groups seeking to impose their political ideology through violence may also decide to conduct attacks against the Trump administration. Terrorism is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States, such as the activities of leftist groups like the Weather Underground in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Conversely, right-wing groups may also use such a situation to carry out their own anti-government reprisals. What started out as an earnest attempt to control terrorism suddenly appears to have acted as a catalyst encouraging its development.
In today’s complex and byzantine political world, such is the nature of the beast. Dammed if you do act, dammed if you don’t act. In such situations, what is required is dynamic leadership that sets a course and sticks to it, irrespective of the political winds that inevitably buffet it.
In President Trump, the American people have such a leader. Right or wrong, he sees the need to act, and to do so decisively. While such a course of action may be hard to explain given that attacks do not occur that might otherwise have happened, it is as President Roosevelt once opined: “Better to make a bad decision than to take no decision at all.”
Dr. Dave Sloggett is a contributing writer and an authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behavior in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems ofinsurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror.