A leading terrorism expert says 9/11-style attacks are less likely today, but smaller plots are far more likely – and that makes diligent screening of refugees or any other immigrant vital for the strength of U.S. national security.
As the nation marks 14 years since the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and in Pennsylvania and three years since the deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the likelihood of another grand assault on America’s homeland is far more remote.
“In terms of radical Islamic terrorism, we’re certainly [better] prepared because of all the lessons learned since 9/11. So I’d say we’re safer from a 9/11-style attack that’s more sophisticated and, therefore, more easy to intercept,” said Ryan Mauro, a professor of homeland security and a national security analyst at the Clarion Project.
But Mauro cautioned that the diminished threat of a major attack doesn’t not mean Americans are safer.
“We are less safe, I think, from what’s sometimes falsely called a ‘lone-wolf’ attack,” he said. “I say falsely because they are usually working and communicating with somebody. Those smaller attacks are a reason for why we are less safe because of developments overseas, because of the appeal of ISIS, because of the trends that we’re seeing overseas and here in the U.S., where there are an increasing number of terror arrests and terror plots.”
In fact, Mauro said the U.S. appears to be losing ground in the battle to stop the spread of radicalization.
“What you see is a multiple times over increase in the number of Salafist terrorists, which is the al-Qaida brand, around the world (and in the) number of attacks around the world,” Mauro said.
He said the trend here in the U.S. is also very chilling.
“Terrorism expert Patrick Poole did a compilation of the different terror-related cases,” Mauro said. “What he found was that in the first six months of this year it was double that of the past two years combined. The appeal of ISIS, because of their perceived appeal overseas, really caused a spike in radicalization here at home.”
Rooting out very small plots is much harder for authorities to do, so Mauro advocates screening people coming into the country both for ideology and intent.
“You need to screen those that are coming into the United States, not focus solely on the violent illegal act, the person about to set off the bomb,” he said. “What we need to have is an ideological strategy where we embrace those who stand against the Islamist ideology, Islamists meaning those Muslims that take their faith and they turn it into a political doctrine combining mosque and state, calling for the destruction of Israel.”
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Mauro would also aggressively apply that approach to any refugees the United States considers accepting from the human tide flowing into Turkey, Greece and eastern Europe.
“We need to have a massively well-funded process to vet these individuals on an ideological basis – not [only] ties to a terrorist group but what they actually believe – and let in as many of those that pass that test as possible,” said Mauro, who noted that statistics show a certain percentage of the refugees probably sympathizes with the ones forcing them to flee their homes.
“There was a poll done in November 2014 of 900 refugees in the countries surrounding Syria,” he said. “This is important so that you understand what we’re dealing with. Four percent of those Syrian refugees said in those interviews that they had positive feelings toward ISIS. Another nine percent said they are somewhat positive. According to the poll, you’re looking at about 13 percent, at least, of Syrian refugees that have sympathies toward ISIS.”
Anyone seeking to damage the United States could try to slip through the interrogation process, but Mauro said effective screening can still spot the vast majority of radicals, starting with those actually connected to terrorist groups.
“If they are so radical, to the point where they decide they’re going to infiltrate the system and lie to get in here, there’s probably going to be some information at that point about their ties to that group,” Mauro said.
He said those persuadable toward radicalism are tougher to see, but there are still clues to follow.
“You deal with radicals who haven’t chosen a group or actually reached out to a group, and what do you do about them? That’s when you look at their social media account. You go through an interviewing process, and you ask them questions about their ideological beliefs, and you can do that with Muslims and non-Muslims,” Mauro said.
“I think there’s nothing wrong with, when you’re letting someone into this country, asking them what their opinion is of jihad and democracy,” he added.
Until those answers can be verified, Mauro said America can send aid to other countries where the refugees are located.
“If you’re providing them with medical aid, things that can’t go to the cause of terrorism, then that’s something I could support,” he said. “But before we allow people into this country, there has to be an ideological vetting process.”