America, today, is facing serious security issues. And though we’ve faced serious security problems in the past, the threats we’re dealing with today are aggravated by external circumstances — and this time, we find ourselves playing "catch-up" in assuring the safety of our nation and its citizens.
The world is in the midst of a refugee crisis the extent of which we have never seen. Islamic extremism and violence have driven people of several nations from their homes, and as the homeless flee, jihadi groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have taken full advantage of the accompanying chaos to launch attacks and generate more confusion and instability.
For America, this arrive at a time when we’re experiencing instability on the eve of new national leadership — we are four months away from any meaningful ‘fix,’ and are governed by an outgoing administration seemingly bent on accomplishing a political agenda rather than making Americans more secure. Additionally, our experience with Islamic extremism didn’t dawn on us until 9/11. America hasn’t had the time to adjust to, or counter, the threat in a meaningful, successful way.
One of our greatest deficiencies in security lies in the fact we have no way of accurately knowing whether people we allow into our country are friend or foe, or whether they harbor deep-seated cultural animosity or outright hatred of Western values. Enhancing this dilemma is the fact many of those who desire admittance to our nation come from countries where 30 percent to 45 percent of their young male population accept violent jihadist actions against those who do not adhere to their religious belief.
Most of the fighting age men hoping for asylum and a legitimate place in America have been exposed to a steady stream of indoctrination into the righteousness of Islamic extremism from the time they were old enough to understand it. It is ludicrous to assume that a significant percentage of this population has not embraced the ideology. These young- to middle-aged men have been inculcated with these values through long-standing cultural and familial teachings to the point it’s become instinctual to them. These thought processes are not easily dissuaded. And we’ve never had to deal with them before.
Unfortunately, most of these countries have no records-keeping infrastructure, rendering moot a streamlined vetting process. We simply do not have a valid system to vet those seeking entry into our country, specifically from nations where Islamic extremism is more the norm than it is the exception.
The notion of ‘extreme vetting’
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump recently called for “extreme vetting” of individuals from countries where Islamic extremism is rampant. However, opponents of any hindrance to mass, unchecked immigration to the United States from these Islamic nations argue that “extreme vetting,” by nature, would necessarily involve a religious test. This argument, of course, is a red herring, since nothing of the sort has been proposed by Trump or any other proponent of ensuring national security by employing enhanced vetting of individuals from nations where Islamist extremism is prevalent.
Rigorous vetting, whether it’s referred to as “extreme,” or simply more “detailed,” is a logical precaution — one with whom few can argue. The question, however, is how do we implement vetting at this level?
We must first accept the fact that we will, for decades to come, be dealing with the threat of Islamic extremism. The “JV” team, as President Obama labeled ISIS, is not going away. In fact, in all likelihood, it will only grow stronger. Consequently, we must realize this battle we are being forced into with Islamic extremism is going to take years to control. It is a religiously based, deity driven struggle by an astonishingly large and steadily increasing number of mostly young Islamic extremists. There is no functional way to destroy completely those who choose to wage Islamic jihad on the West.
We must, therefore, consider regarding establishing a sense of security and safety for our nation in part by appropriately and thoroughly vetting individuals from these regions of the world. From there, we can do the things necessary to control the threat more adeptly. The problem with “establishing a safe, secure environment” in which anyone who has ever served in a threat environment in the military will attest, is that it cannot be done gently.
Properly “vetting” potential VISA recipients, however, is not an adversarial process, though many political opponents would have us believe it’s an infringement on human dignity. In the existing security environment, though, not doing so makes no sense at all. Once we have established the upper hand and gained control over the threat, we can concern ourselves with other’s feelings. But today, we are far from that position.
And our adversary in this struggle understands this. They know people’s heads must be chopped off. They know innocent individuals must die. In fact, most Muslims living in the Middle East understand this. They are, after all, by far the segment of the world population most adversely affected by Islamic extremism. Providing for the security of the nation necessitates a willingness to do difficult things. Thorough vetting of those from these ideological environments seeking entry into the US is rational.
Understanding the person
The question is: how do we do this? We cannot rely on permanent records since they are rarely available. A young man actively involved in jihad in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Syria has an estimated 10 percent chance, or less, of ever having been officially identified as a jihadist. A young man who grew up in a household or community where most occupants adhere to and support the ideology of violence and Islamic extremism is virtually non-identifiable as a supporter of this dogma.
Some of these nations issue national identification cards, but these are rare, and easily, illegally reproduced. There is simply no precise way of knowing who an individual from one of these countries is — and there is less of a clear-cut way of knowing his philosophy; or intent.
The only way to understand who an individual is and what his motivations and potential intent may be is through multiple interviews conducted over a period of time. But the interview process currently utilized to identify individuals with nefarious intent is completely ineffectual. Any interview process that involves fewer than five consecutive interviews spaced over 30-45 days yields nothing but fabrication and inaccuracy and, realistically, the interviewer must assume an intent to deceive from the beginning of the process.
The current process is handled by representatives of The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, (UNHCR). The interviewers tasked with conducting this very basic foundational interview are low-level employees; some volunteers, but rarely possess the necessary skills to identify deception. These interviewers are often unconcerned about potential fraud. Many of them have never spent time in any of the countries from which the refugees are fleeing, therefore have little grasp of their culture.
Unfortunately, the quality of this initial interview lays the foundation for all future decisions about interviewees, and at no point does the remainder of the vetting process improve. This initial interview establishes the basis of knowledge about the applicant, and it is often flawed. It is rarely improved upon throughout the remainder of the vetting process. Home country checks are performed but, because there is no recordkeeping infrastructure in place, this process, too, is moot. Once UNHCR approves a refugee for resettlement based on this minimal vetting effort, American officials assume everything is okay and perform nothing more than determine the needs of the refugee and where they should be settled.
There’s only one instance in which the United States is making a serious effort to properly vet individuals seeking entry into our country and, ironically, it is being used with a group of persons who pose the least danger or the least threat, and have the potential of yielding the most productive dedicated members of our society.
In 2009, the Department of State authorized the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for Afghan nationals who fought with American forces. The process which included — and still includes –- “extreme vetting,” assures applicants for this program — even though they risked their lives to help America and its allies — pose no threat to our nation. Even so, many of these men and women have been turned down because of issues uncovered in their vetting process. The interviews conducted with SIV applicants are carried out by American counterintelligence officials and operators, and are perfect examples of the nature of “extreme vetting” Trump and others have advised. The process is rigorous, but necessary, even for these applicants.
As a member of one such team, co-author Godfrey Garner is well acquainted with the interview and vetting process. The interview process alone takes weeks rather than hours, and involves multiple interviews. This is necessary given that many of the applicants have been coached to respond in particular ways and repeat narratives over a long period which diminishes the chance for anything other than candid responses.
The interviewer’s never interviewing anyone they know and are trained to expect deceit. The expected deception may not be related to extremist’s ideology but, regardless, must be detected. The applicants are questioned about their family going back three generations. Ancestral questions include points dealing with migration, tribal connections — both maternal and paternal – and activities during various occupations such as Russia’s annexation. Families who fled Afghanistan for some reasons in different points in time usually settled in specific areas. Interviewers who are familiar with those areas know what type of education and cultural teachings and indoctrination were most prevalent in these areas.
Thus, an interviewee who indicated his family fled Balk Province at the beginning of the Russian occupation, for instance, would have spent many of his formative years in one of two to three refugee camps in Pakistan’s federally administered Northwest Frontier tribal areas. Interviewers know what ideology was prevalent in specific areas, and know from this information what the interviewee was exposed to as a youth. Answers to questions should correspond to these truths.
Tribal affiliations are also identifiable through repeated interviews, even if the interviewee is trying to avoid this determination. Certain tribes in Afghanistan are much more likely to have been involved in anti-American activity, or to have produced an inordinate number of Taliban fighters.
Pronunciation of certain words can also yield a good deal of data, as well as how an interviewee refers to members of an interviewee’s family or ancestors. Use of “canned” responses is often indicative of deception. Any travel to Iran, for instance, will usually be denied, but if not, the purpose for such will always be for seeking “work.” While this is often true, it is a matter that has to be explored in subsequent interviews.
In addition to increased in-depth interviews conducted by experienced individuals in a manner that enhances our ability to detect deceit, America must introduce a biometrics database of immigrants, especially from refugee communities. Collecting and storing biometric data gathered from those who seek asylum in America is another “hot-button” political issue, but the fact is, biometrics in the form of fingerprints are collected and stored on a daily basis from citizens of this country who seek to obtain drivers licenses or any number of other privileges. DNA samples are collected and stored from Americans who volunteer to serve in our armed forces, and this is a mandatory procedure. Few can successfully or logically argue that a biometrics database of asylum seekers, including fingerprints and iris scans, would be more intrusive than that to which most Americans born in this country must also submit.
Another controversial layer of security for the American people is the process of reviewing the digital footprints of potential VISA recipients. Our security officials have a logical right to vet the public footprint of those wishing to relocate here. Doing this will quickly determine allegiances to various theo-political groups, (Islamist: i.e. Taliban, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Jamaat Islamiya) and serve as a simple, non-intrusive ideological vetting for Islamist ideologies and anti-American, anti-liberal anti-Western mindsets.
America must accept the fact that we are, for a large segment of the Muslim population, the "Great Satan," and will forever be a primary target for extremist Islam. We must also admit and accept that Islamic militants are resourceful and permeated with a sense of patience few American’s can understand. It would be pure folly to assume ISIS recruiters will not try to entice young refugees into committing overt acts of terrorism now that they have gained access to our nation.
Instituting reasonable, detailed, comprehensive vetting procedures for those who seek asylum in America is a simple matter of exercising reasonable caution. We will be targeted again and again until ISIS and militant Islam no longer exists, or is victorious.
The only questions are, where and when?
Contributing Writer Dr.Godfrey Garner is a veteran special operations counterintelligence officer who retired from US Special Forces in 2006. He served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. His work there most recently was as a counter-corruption analyst. Garner is author of, Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, and, The Balance of Exodus. Also read Garner and Stephen C. McCraney’s recent exclusive report, New Research Project Aims to Identify Those ‘At-Risk’ to Succumbing to the Message of Islamic Extremism and Recruitment.
M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D. is founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and co-Founder of the Muslim Reform Movement. He is host of the Blaze Radio Network podcast, Reform This!, and author of, A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith. Appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Jasser served on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2012-2016. Jasser is a former US Navy Lieutenant Commander serving 11 years as a naval medical officer.