Does limiting refugees deter terrorism?

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Internally displaced refugees from al-Bab town gather to receive food aid in Ekhtreen town, northern Aleppo countryside, Syria January 21, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RTSWP32

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ANTONIO MORA: President Trump’s executive order to limit refugees, immigrants and visitors to the United States aims to reduce the possibility of terrorist attacks here at home. But will it be effective?

We get two views. Daniel Benjamin was ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department during the Obama administration. He’s now at Dartmouth College. And Reuel Marc Gerecht is a former CIA case officer. He’s now a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

It is very good to have you both with us.

Dan, I want to start with you.

We believe the order calls for the suspension of entry to the U.S. of people from seven mostly Muslim countries. Do you think that will fulfill the order’s intent of protecting Americans from terrorism?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, Former State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism: No, I don’t think it will do anything to make us safer.

Since 9/11, there hasn’t been a single case of a terrorist coming in from outside the country to carry out an attack. And so it’s really hard to believe that this executive order is going to improve on the very, very good job that our immigration system does right now.

That system has been improved dramatically since 9/11. Applicants for visas or to immigrate here are screened many times against many databases with all kinds of information that might tell us something about them, and I don’t think that this is going to in any way help. And, if anything, it will send the wrong signal and might undermine our security by further disturbing Muslim communities here at home about their feeling and increase their feeling of isolation and embattlement.

ANTONIO MORA: To Dan’s point, most of terrorism in the United States has been homegrown. But, of course, 9/11 was carried out by people from foreign countries. Do you think going after these seven countries makes much sense?

REUEL MARC GERECHT, Senior Fellow, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: Well, we have to wait to see the details of it, but I’m skeptical.

I think they need to know what the Bush and the Obama administrations have done wrong. And, as Dan said, I think the process has gotten pretty rigorous. Now, if they can find some area of improvement, go ahead and show us, but I…

ANTONIO MORA: Well, they are calling for tighter visa screening around the world and saying that countries who don’t help will end up being penalized and won’t get visas. That would create a tremendous…

(CROSSTALK)

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Yes, but if you want to look, the area where at least scares counterterrorist officers the most has always been European Muslims coming to the United States.

Now, they may end the visa waiver program for all Europeans, but I guarantee you, I — I once upon a time did a lot of visa interviews and other interviews. And I am skeptical how this mechanically works, that somehow the officers are going to penetrate into this situation more than they have already done, that they’re going to be somehow more rigorous than they have already been.

ANTONIO MORA: But, on the other hand, Dan, the female attacker in San Bernardino had come in and, very quickly, after her name was known, it was pretty obvious that she had extremist ties. So, can tighter immigration screening help?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: So, look, there is always room for innovation in human-designed systems.

And one area that’s of great concern, but that will be extremely expensive to do a better job on, is social media. So, you are correct that she is, in some ways, the one outlier in this period. But, you know, we should improve where we can, as long as it’s cost-effective.

But we should also keep in mind, though, that more than a third of the crimes, terrorist-related crimes that are being carried out by Muslims in this country are being carried out by converts, and that, really, the largest amount of radicalization is going on within our borders.

So, I think we need to spend a lot more money on, you know, increasing our connectivity with those communities, so that we can give them the tools to identify people who are radicalizing and give them off-ramps, keep them from going the distance and taking to violence.

ANTONIO MORA: But it has been somewhat different in Europe, where a lot of the European terrorism has been homegrown. You have got Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Reuel.

So, is it just that maybe we’re a few steps removed from that and we need to start taking action now to avoid seeing what’s happening there?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: That’s a good question.

The Europeans are in a completely different situation, because they have had giant refugee waves, where there essentially was no processing, there was no security procedures set up, no interviews, essentially nothing. They just came over.

So, in that type of situation, of course, a group like the Islamic State or al-Qaida could implant people into those waves and use them. Now, the American system is much more laborious, much more time-consuming. There’s a reason why there hasn’t been a sleeper cell in any of the refugee programs in the United States, because it just — you’re not guaranteed.

Why would you deploy a young holy warrior into a system that could take years and probably he might not even get status?

ANTONIO MORA: Right.

And this order, we believe, also calls for the suspension of all refugees from Syria indefinitely and for a suspension of refugees from any country for the next four months. Given what Reuel just said, Dan, do you agree? Is there any point to that?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: No, actually, I find this deeply disturbing.

It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. What’s going on in Syria is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. And we are punishing those who are suffering most in this circumstance, in this condition.

We vet refugees from Syria for a period of 18 to 24 months before they’re allowed to come to the United States. And, you know, if you will permit me, I think we know more about them by the time they get here than we know about the president’s finances.

(LAUGHTER)

DANIEL BENJAMIN: And, you know, it’s really a remarkable fact that we are punishing these people. We should be taking in more of them. There hasn’t been a single case of terrorist activity on the part of a Syrian refugee.

(CROSSTALK)

ANTONIO MORA: And, of course, one of the criticisms of all this is that this smacks of anti-Muslim bigotry. And there is a provision in what we believe will be the order that says that, once the refugee suspension is lifted, that priority will be given to people who are members of religious minorities in countries who are persecuted in those countries.

That does seem to be something that is aimed at protecting Christians.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I suspect that’s the intent.

I mean, I don’t have a problem with the United States giving, you know, an open door to people who are being persecuted abroad. And if that happens to be Christians, then, fine, let the Christians come in. I really don’t have a problem with that.

You know, I do think they need to think this through a bit more, and I think they also need to pay particular attention to what they do with the Europeans, because the real truth is, we don’t talk about it. When it comes to counterterrorism, the Europeans are not freeloaders, all right?

The British and the French in particular are the vanguard of America’s protection. It is their security services, which are now overwhelmed by the refugee issues, that have done the lion’s share of protecting U.S. shores.

So, whatever we do, we should coordinate that pretty closely with the Europeans and we should try not to do things that are going to make the Europeans really upset.

ANTONIO MORA: All right, we will see how this plays out.

Reuel Marc Gerecht and Daniel Benjamin, very good to have both your insights. Thanks.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Hi, Dan.

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