There are many different ways to look at Team Trump’s executive order on immigration, but from a national security standpoint, the decision to take a short pause to review travel to the United States from seven Middle East/North African countries is a reasonable policy action.
It’s entirely justifiable on security grounds for the incoming administration to call for an examination of current programs, policies, procedures and practices for entering the United States from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen due to ongoing concerns about international terrorism.
These states may have a terrorist group operating within their borders, foreign fighters located there terror training camps, been designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism or pose information sharing/gathering challenges for vetting purposes. Indeed, these seven states have been identified in U.S. legislation as countries of particular national security concern related to terrorism.
Of a critical nature right now is the Islamic State (aka ISIS) which, in my estimation, is in trouble. Quite simply: ISIS is in crisis. The “caliphate” is under real strain in Syria and Iraq as anti-ISIS forces close in on its citadels in Raqqa and Mosul.
Iraqi forces, with U.S. support, have made solid progress against ISIS since the battle for Mosul began last fall. The going is still tough due to Islamic State tactics (e.g., suicide bombers and IEDs), but Iraqi forces have reportedly taken back a large portion of Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS fighters.
There are developments in Syria, too.
While Raqqa is still acting as the Islamic State’s caliphate capital, there are likely tougher days are ahead for ISIS there. Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces, with U.S. help, are moving in on the terrorist town in preparation for a final push against the Islamic State.
But taking Raqqa, or Mosul or both won’t end the ISIS scourge.
Some of its fighters, unfortunately, will survive the fighting and disperse—if they don’t flee during the battles or head out before the battle even begins to fight another day. Their objective will be to continue to resist and survive in the form of an Islamist insurgency in Syria, Iraq--or elsewhere (e.g., Libya).
Their focus may also shift from holding large cities, towns or other territory--as they did in Syria and Iraq--to finding lawless or ungoverned spaces to plan, train and operate for the purposes of not only constructing a caliphate but exporting terror overseas, including into Europe and the United States.
Terrorist foot soldiers or followers could come our way—in a big way.
Indeed, CIA Director, John Brennan, testified in June that ISIS “…is probably exploring a variety of means for infiltrating operatives into the West, including refugee flows, smuggling routes and legitimate methods of travel.”
Europe has already been hammered by terrorists coming in with migrant flows (e.g., France and Germany). While the United States hasn’t been struck by an ISIS operative yet that has come here from abroad, it’s something—along with homegrown terrorism--we need to guard against, especially as the Islamic State splinters and scatters.
We can’t dismiss the other states covered in the executive order, either.
Libya has both ISIS and al Qaeda operating in the chaos there. Iran and Sudan are long-standing State Sponsors of Terrorism. (Syria is on that list as well.) Somalia is the home of al Shabaab, which has called for attacks here. Yemen is the home of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which, before ISIS, was considered the most dangerous terror threat to the United States with its highly capable bomb makers.
While almost all of the more than 90 plots and attacks here after 9/11 have been homegrown, Europe’s recent experience with extremism, and the continuing turmoil and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa, make getting movement into our country right.
Plus, it’s also possible that the security situation in the Middle East and North Africa could get worse—if that’s possible.
This means that we need to ensure that our agencies (e.g., the Department of Homeland Security) are up to speed to meet the current threat as well as a possible surge emanating from future threats such as the collapse of the caliphate and the spread of its foot soldiers and followers far beyond Iraq and Syria.
While this executive order is controversial in some circles, from a national security perspective, this temporary pause only makes sense considering the intense international terrorism challenges we face—and will face.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill