Sunday, October 9, 2016
Needles in Haystacks
At some of the worst possible moments – as people gather to watch a special event (like a marathon) or crowd into a large building to go to work or a mall to stop – it only takes a single individual (sometimes a few coordinated individuals) to inflict massive pain and death on innocents targeted merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It isn’t always a bomb or a gun. It can be a truck mowing celebrants watching a national holiday fireworks display or a maniac with a knife. It might someday be a bio-toxin or a dirty bomb.
There are 317 million people in this country. And there are lots of folks traveling from overseas every day. Who’s looking at all this and what do they do? “The National Targeting Center, near Washington, was set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and became part of the customs and border agency in 2002. In 2007, it was divided into two parts, one focusing on cargo, the other on passengers. Its operations were stepped up further after the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up an airliner as it prepared to land in Detroit. In recent weeks, the passenger and cargo operations were combined into one office again, officials said.
“Dozens of officers comb through passenger lists for all flights arriving in the United States, which include about 300,000 people each day, as well as cargo manifests — looking, in essence, for the needle in the haystack.
“The center is in charge of identifying people who should be stopped or questioned at the borders. It also writes guidelines for when front-line customs officers should send passengers from certain countries or with unusual travel itineraries for additional questioning, as happened with [recent NYC pressure-cooker bomber suspect, Ahmad Khan] Rahami.
“The center has had its problems. A 2011 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that it had a staff shortage and described a cumbersome data system that made complete checks on incoming passengers difficult and time-consuming.” New York Times, September 23rd. Rahami was questioned, but his explanation of visiting his and his wife’s relatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, needing to wait while a passport for his newly-born son, all made sense to the questioning officers. Still they felt that Rahami’s information should still be sent on to other relevant government agencies including the F.B.I. After an attack, it is easy to look back and find blame. Harder when there are thousands and thousands of possibles.
The sheer volume of information tells you that they cannot catch them all, and what is particularly distressing is the ability of extremist groups – ISIS and al Qaeda being heavily prominent but noting that indigenous hate groups (particularly white racists) have also killed their share as well – to recruit American citizens to become their lethal saboteurs. The Mexican border is almost irrelevant to terrorist suppression; they come through every airport, border crossing… or were simply born here.
“For years after the 2001 attacks, one of the F.B.I.’s primary concerns was trying to catch Americans traveling to Pakistan to join Al Qaeda, in an effort to disrupt recruiting networks. Today, by contrast, the bureau is most intently focused on homegrown violent extremists who may be plotting attacks in the United States. Travel to so-called hot spots no longer stands out as an automatic sign of danger, especially when there is a reasonable explanation.
“‘It is an indicator, but you don’t even need to travel anymore to conduct an attack,’ said Brenda Heck, a former senior F.B.I. counterterrorism agent who retired in 2012. ‘It is less now of an indicator than when I was working there.’
“Still, as an F.B.I. agent, Ms. Heck said she would want to know what Mr. Rahami was doing in Pakistan… ‘On one side of it, he’s likely got family, but we can’t know exactly what he did over there,’ she said. ‘That’s troubling.’” NY Times.
Indeed, Islamic extremists have shifted focus from recruiting “soldiers” to infiltrate the United States or other Western targets to finding confused and vulnerable locals with identity crises that are all-too-easily exploited. “A rich recruiting pool for Al Qaeda and the Islamic State includes what psychologists call ‘in-betweeners,’ young adults whose identities have not yet solidified. Their uncertainty makes them vulnerable, said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego. ‘It allows the individual to attach his identity to something that is larger and inflates his sense of himself,’ he said.
“The uncomfortable in-between status can be especially acute for those with recent immigrant roots. Living in two cultures at once is very enriching for most people but very unsettling for others, said Lorenzo Vidino, the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. For some Muslim immigrants, he said, ‘You have a message at home that’s very conservative, and a completely different message from the society around you when you’re growing up.’” New York Times, September 22nd.
Finding everybody is impossible. But as racial profiling and religious animosity rise within Western societies, too many vulnerables are simply pushed over the edge as the world around them turns rather brutally against them. Every anti-Muslim sentiment, every rejection of the symbols of Islam, tells too many locals that their country has abandoned them, labeled them and cut off their path to a viable career simply based on prejudice. They move from “in-between” to embrace an extreme social structure where they are valued. Those seeming “defenses against migrants,” for example, carried over to citizens who already live in the relevant country, simply make catching the real terrorists, stopping increasingly-successful local terrorist recruitment, that much more difficult.
The Huffington Post (September 15th) summarizes a report from the University of Minnesota, suggesting how our attitudes against Muslims has changed over the past decade: “In 2003, nearly 40 percent of respondents said they believed atheists didn’t agree with their ‘vision of American society.’ Roughly 26 percent said the same about Muslims… Just over 10 years later, attitudes toward atheists haven’t changed significantly. Roughly 42 percent of respondents say atheists don’t share their vision of American society.
“But the share of Americans who say the same about Muslims has risen to 45.5 percent ― a steeper increase than any other group the study inquired about, including immigrants, conservative Christians, African Americans and those in the LGBT community.”
The vituperatives being hurled by right wing candidates, Donald Trump at the top of the heap, have become an Islamist recruiter’s dream. The rhetoric suggests unworkable “answers,” but for those who simply believe what they are told by their “leaders,” the fact that such “conversations” are creating more terrorists and making tracing and tracking them so much more difficult becomes facts they don’t want to hear and won’t believe even when confronted with the evidence (if they even look at the evidence). We simply have to begin to apply common sense and stop helping this diabolical enemy with obviously-ineffective strategies.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we seem to thrive on fomenting vicious circles creating a seeming justification for failed and failing strategies that are literally killing us.