Free movement across borders within the European Union aided the perpetrators of the Brussels and Paris terror attacks, and some experts warn terrorists could take advantage of unchecked travel across borders to carry out attacks in the United States.
While U.S. international travel laws are not as loose as those in Europe, some national security experts are concerned that the current system leaves significant opportunity for terrorists carrying the right passport to enter the U.S. and possibly engage in an attack.
Nearly all the terrorists who carried out in the Paris attacks were E.U. passport holders, giving them the right to travel unimpeded in member countries. The Paris mastermind, Salah Abdeslam, took advantage of the open borders policy to travel across the continent, recruiting for the Islamic State and making preparations for the massacre that would eventually take the lives of 130 people.
The threat in the case of the United States is twofold. First, U.S. visa waiver agreements with certain European countries could allow a terrorist to slip into the country with limited oversight, should they be carrying the right passport. Second, there is a significant risk posed by terrorists who are U.S. nationals.
Border security expert Matt Mayer told The Daily Caller News Foundation the threat of European passport holders entering the U.S. to carry out attacks is legitimate, although he’s not confident a coordinated attack along the lines of Paris or Brussels in the U.S. is a likely possibility.
“It’s possible,” Mayer, a former Department of Homeland Security official now at the American Enterprise Institute, told TheDCNF. “But the disadvantage is that the more people involved, the more likely you are to get caught.”
He believes it’s more likely the U.S. will see attacks inspired rather than directed by the Islamic State. Contrary to the belief of some like presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz, Mayer does not believe it is the porous border with Mexico that will be the preferred terrorist route into the U.S.
Just under 40 countries, nearly all of them European, are party to the visa waiver program (VWP), including Belgium and France, home of many of the Paris and Brussels attackers.
Citizens of the participating countries can travel to the U.S. without a visa for stays of 90 days or less, so long as they meet certain requirements, according to the U.S. State Department website. Applicants must be authorized to travel by a system run by the Department of Homeland Security, and only applicants with a clean visa history who are traveling with approved carriers will be allowed to participate.
Mayer told TheDCNF a homegrown attack would be more likely in the U.S., but noted an attack from terrorists with European passports would be decidedly higher profile and likely more deadly. But the U.S. security apparatus is much more thorough than that of Europe, he added.
The “inspired” terrorists, such as the San Bernardino shooters “go where they blend in,” Mayer said. Those shooters targeted an office where one of them worked, killing 22. But if the Islamic State were to plan an attack using terrorists with European passports, they would likely send a group of five to ten and go for a more high-profile target.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a specialist on terrorist financing at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told TheDCNF the U.S. is likely to see ISIS “call upon” people who are already U.S. nationals, but also agrees that the visa waiver program could be exploited.
“Terrorists don’t actually use fake documents,” Ottolenghi told TheDCNF, because they essentially don’t have to use them. “Many are nationals [who] can essentially travel undetected.”
Ottolenghi said geography is a major reason there have been more high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe than in the U.S. “It is 25 miles from Tunisia to Sicily,” he said, explaining the “extremely porous” nature of the southern European border utilized by terrorists.
But oceans can’t always be relied upon to stop terror, Ottolenghi, noted, saying the U.S. cannot rule out the possibility of terrorists using friendly passports against the U.S. In addition to Europe, he said that there is a threat from terrorists who are Canadian nationals.
There are of course measures which can be taken to address the risks posed by open borders. According to Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and founder of the Soufan Group, if European countries want to keep their borders open, they must also open intelligence sharing and cooperate in confronting terrorism.
“First, EU member states must agree on workable rules for sharing intelligence on their own nationals,” Soufan wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian Thursday. “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with open borders. But the United States has the FBI and other agencies at the federal level to keep tabs on individuals who may pose a threat. By contrast, European privacy laws too often inhibit authorities from sharing key information.”
Upwards of 5,000 Europeans have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS, 30 percent of which Soufan claimed have returned to Europe. “It is next to impossible for a small nation such as Belgium to monitor all its citizens who have returned from battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria – as well as those who may be sympathetic to the narratives of violent extremism,” he wrote.
Reinvestment in human intelligence and tackling neighborhoods that are “hotbeds of terrorism” are also key to blunting the terrorist threat, Soufan wrote. “Instead of ignoring these communities, as [Europe has] done for too many years, governments need to engage with them and help integrate them into their surrounding societies.”
Ottolenghi said the solution to the problem is both an ideological and security challenge.
The same law that created the current VWP system also restricts travelers from certain countries prone to terrorism, including Iraq and Syria, from participating in the program. Ottolenghi said extending these restrictions to more countries would be a good first step, but he emphasized starting with the ideological challenge.
Many political leaders in Europe and the U.S. are engaged in a “war of denial” when it comes to the ideological issue, said Ottolenghi. While certain groups in the security services of western countries recognize the ideological challenge, he believes the political and policy side of many governments do not have the same reality.
“[It is] an ideological adversary we are fighting,” Ottolenghi said. “At the end of the day, you must counter.”
He described Islam as a “big tent,” and that working with moderates in the religion is key in explaining to potential radicals they don’t have to take a violent path.
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