Sometimes when you’re trying to get a fix on what your nation’s policies and practices are on a particular subject it’s helpful to do a quick-and-dirty survey of what’s going on elsewhere in the world, and how other countries are confronting that subject. This thought has been with me lately in regard to terrorism.
President Obama caught Americans by surprise when, unscripted at the G-7 meeting in Germany, he admitted we have no complete strategy for confronting the Islamic State terrorist group, which has not only made great geographic strides in taking over swaths of Syria and Iraq, but has also inspired a number of attacks in the United States and several other countries.
The White House seemed caught off guard at the rapid backlash the president’s remarks caused and quickly tried to walk it back on his behalf, saying he was referring to the Pentagon’s struggle to develop a comprehensive plan. That’s a hard one to swallow. The Defense Department has multiple strategic plans — backups upon backups — for virtually anything you can conceive, probably even how to supply the requisite number of porta-potties for troops in field camp conditions. Maybe blaming this strategic shortcoming on the Pentagon was the president’s way of whacking Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for his own unscripted remarks recently, saying the Iraqi Army has no will to fight ISIS.
But mostly I’ve been considering how our domestic authorities are dealing with terrorism here in “the homeland” as we have taken to calling our country in this post-9/11 era. What I mostly see is this: a beleagured FBI scrambling to keep up with the increasing number of Islamists, including al Qaeda and ISIS supporters, many of them immigrants or naturalized citizens, who are heeding slick videos and social media calls to join the jihad. The FBI walks a dangerous and potentially deadly tightrope between keeping track of these individuals, and letting them get justclose enough to doing something horrible to be able to prove their malicious intent and charge them criminally so as to get them off the street.
I’m told that tracking a single individual 24/7 takes up to 30 agents. As shocking as this may be to many, it doesn’t seem overly high, given the need for three shifts to maintain close physical surveillance and concurrently track the subject’s telephonic and online activities. But with the large number of terrorists and sympathizers abroad in the land, there just aren’t enough FBI agents nationwide to do that for everyone, and there never will be. And though they have force multipliers in their Joint Terrorism Task Forces, those resources are also finite.
Sometimes agents lose track of these individuals, but get lucky, such as happened in Garland, Texas, where disaster was narrowly averted because of attentive local cops. Sometimes they aren’t so lucky and we end up with murder and mayhem such as happened at the Boston Marathon. It seems to me to be a flip of the coin — and perhaps it’s beginning to seem that way to the FBI too. Else why would the head of a fiercely proud (some might say hubristic) federal agency come out publicly and practically beg for state and local police to help them do their job? But even with state and local help, they are still binding themselves to the same risky strategy: watch and wait, watch and wait, then swoop in to make criminal arrests, hopefully just before mayhem breaks out, and meantime pray that someone hasn’t dropped off the radar (or completely flown below it) long enough to strike, like the Tsarnaev brothers did in Boston.
A recent case in Canada suggests our northern neighbors may have found their way out of this strategic and tactical cul-de-sac. The price of the wake-up call has been high, though, coming after a number of terrorism incidents, including vicious car attacks on soldiers and then an assault on their Parliament (in which another soldier guarding their national war memorial was also murdered), both incidents happening in October of last year.
The case signalling a new approach relates to one Muhammad Ansari, a 30-year-old Pakistani landed immigrant (Canada’s equivalent of a green card holder) who began to amass a serious stockpile of weaponry two years ago. A weak attempt to prosecute Ansari on weapons violations resulted in his surrender of the weapons and conditional release from the criminal case. Canadian law enforcement then apparently dithered and nothing was done although he remained “on the radar” — that is, until the country found itself, as we have in the past, shocked and confronted with the reality that there are people in their midst whom they have sheltered, but who wish them ill.
The October attacks seem to have forced a recognition of the importance of integrating all Canadian agencies into counterterrorism efforts. The result? Lo and behold, Ansari was taken into custody on October 27 and charged with being deportable as a threat to national security. What is more, according to the Globe and Mail newspaper, the government has established a series of Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs), such as the one in Ontario that arrested Ansari on the immigration violations, which include Canadian Border Services Agency members.
The resolve — and the speed — of the Canadian government in Ansari’s case has been remarkable. Just a few days ago, it was reported that he will be deported within the month. Proceedings from arrest to a final appellate adjudication by Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board took a bit longer than four months.
Nor is Ansari’s case the only one moving through Canada’s immigration and appellate review bureaucracy with due speed. Jahanzeb Malik, another Pakistani, who was charged with plotting to blow up American diplomatic facilities in Canada, has also been ordered deported on national security grounds.
Our Canadian friends seem to have learned the important lesson that deportation can be a viable alternative in cases involving terror and national security. Is it a perfect solution? No. But it’s far preferable to a perpetual game of playing chicken with would-be jihadists, trying to catch them just at the cusp of the act, but before anyone really gets hurt.
It is ironic that since the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, whose mission is obviously to protect the homeland, we Americans seem to have forgotten the important lesson about the nexus between safe communities and using the deportation laws to remove foreign threats. In fact, the willingness, ability, and even historical and institutional knowledge needed for our immigration agencies to undertake such cases seems to have atrophied under the Obama administration. This worries me greatly. I keep thinking about that ratio of 30 agents (or police officers) to one suspect and contemplating what that means for innocent citizens throughout our land if even a few of those suspects who are foreign-born fall off the radar for any length of time at all. Wouldn’t it be better, safer, and a more efficient use of resources to get serious and get them out of the United States?