Politics & Policy

Weeding Out Terrorist Immigrants Isn’t Enough

An Iraqi soldier holds a captured ISIS sign in Fallujah, June 2016. (Reuters photo: Thaier Al-Sudani)
The cultural dysfunction that leads to radicalization is a more intractable problem.

This morning, the New York Times published a story that will get far less attention than it deserves. It seems that Fallujah, liberated from ISIS last summer, may be “slipping back into turmoil.” Reading the article, one sees all the familiar elements of continued instability. ISIS sleeper cells remained behind, the Iraqi army used one set of jihadists (Shiite militias) to help defeat another set (ISIS fighters), and hovering over it all is a government that can’t seem to keep its promises. The picture is grim:

The Shiite-dominated national government has not yet demonstrated that it can secure and rebuild this shattered Sunni city, soothe sectarian grievances or provide for 250,000 returning residents. Iraqi and American security officials now fear that if the Sunnis of Falluja are given no reason to trust the government, they may once again embrace the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Local officials say Islamic State sleeper cells remain active, and many residents continue to aid the insurgents. Guerrilla attacks have resumed; in one of the most recent episodes, a suicide car bomb on Jan. 28 killed two police officers.

None of this is surprising. Spend much time in Iraq and you’ll quickly understand that outside of a few thriving areas (much of Kurdistan, for example), the culture is deeply dysfunctional. The image of a great and historic nation tormented by a “few extremists” is just fundamentally false. The toxic power of jihadist Islam has been amplified and spread through a tribal Iraqi society that is both extraordinarily violent and wedded to a concept of collective guilt that actually incentivizes attacks on innocents.

The result is a nation where jihadists don’t lack for recruits, a nation where extremists are plentiful and often eager to fight. Even if young men aren’t terribly religious, tribal loyalties will pull them straight into religious militias, and there they’ll remain until feuds are resolved or tribal loyalties shift.

Other nations across the Middle East and Southwest Asia that combine extremist Islam with pre-Islamic tribal cultures are similarly combustible. These societies are primed for violence, and when they are replicated on a smaller scale overseas (say, for example, in Europe), they can bring with them many of the same dysfunctions.

Think of this culture as the soil from which jihad grows. Import the soil, and you will ultimately import jihad. Of course not every refugee or immigrant from a war-torn nation carries with them the soil of conflict. Some are desperate to flee and thoroughly reject the norms that caused so much suffering. Others have proven their devotion to American ideals through sacrificial service. Nor is it right to think of the “Muslim world” as a vast, undifferentiated mass of people, all possessing the same values and tribal mindset. But it is simply wrong to say that American immigration policy is a “success” if it merely weeds out those who have immediate intentions to strike Americans.

We often take on faith the notion that any new immigrant community will ultimately become just like the communities that came before. And, yes, the civilization we’ve built possesses immense powers of assimilation. But those powers are not limitless, and for evidence of that fact we need only look at recent terror attacks from immigrants who were radicalized well after they came to the United States. They didn’t come here ready to kill, and even the best screening system couldn’t have discovered intentions they didn’t possess before they arrived. Some even came as kids and spent years apparently trying to fit in with the dominant American culture.

But jihadist Islam ultimately gained deeper purchase. And why not? The call of jihad combined with the culture of the tribe appeals not just to eternity but also to a civilization that predates the faith itself.

For all the controversy, Donald Trump’s contentious immigration order represents nothing more than the smallest baby-step toward creating a rational entry policy for people migrating from jihadist-conflict zones. The spike in recent plots and attacks demonstrates the last administration’s failures. A 90-day pause is nothing in the sweep of American history (and it’s literally nothing now; the pause is on hold while legal challenges head to the Supreme Court). All the serious work lies ahead.

A prudent government should realize that not all cultures are the same and that entry to the United States is a high privilege, not a fundamental human right. I’ve written this before, but in the current climate it’s worth writing again. When a person seeks to join our community from a nation that is torn to shreds by religious and tribal conflict, the American message should be clear: We’re proud to welcome those immigrants who’ve demonstrated their commitment to American ideals, but the burden of proof is on them. Properly vetting terrorists is only the beginning of the challenge.


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