Bringing COIN to the Airport: On the Effectiveness of the “Muslim Ban”
On 27 January 2017, President Donald J. Trump signed an Executive Order (“the Order”) titled, “PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES.”[i] The order suspends entry into the United States for 90 days for nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia.[ii] Furthermore, it bans refugees from entering for 120 days,[iii] although there are potentially individual exceptions including “a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.”[iv]
Since the Order is intended to protect the U.S., this essay explores the Order’s effectiveness. Although this author is an attorney, this essay is not a legal analysis, but a functional analysis based on a thought experiment and a hundred years of insurgency and counterinsurgency literature. This essay ends by advocating for a pragmatic alternative.
Mo Atta v. Mo Farah
The Order is explicitly motivated by 9/11, stating that the flaws of the previous U.S. approach to visas was no “more apparent than (in) the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”[v] As this audience knows all too well, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, but the “tactical leader” of the 9/11 plot, Mohamed Atta, was Egyptian.[vi] Since neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia is on the list of the seven countries banned under the Order, Mohamed Atta would still be admitted to the United States.
Mo Farah was born in Somalia, but moved to the United Kingdom when he was eight years old. Twenty years later, in 2012, he won two Olympic gold medals in London for the United Kingdom. He won two more Olympic gold medals for the U.K in Brazil in 2016. Between competitions, Farah trains in Portland, Oregon, under the auspices of Nike. In a 2015 survey, Farah was named the seventh most inspiring Briton, which ranked him between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.[vii] On New Year’s Day 2017, he was made a Knight of the Realm. Since Sir Mo was born in Somalia and is a dual-citizen of Somalia and the U.K., he would likely fall under Section 3(c) of the Order, and be denied entry in the United States.[viii]
Based on the comparison above of Mo Atta and Mo Farah, it appears that the Order fails to prevent the 9/11 hijackers from entering the U.S. More generally, foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.[ix] The Order does not cover the home of Mohamed Atta (Egypt), the home of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers (Saudi Arabia), where Osama bin Laden planned the 9/11 attack (Afghanistan), or where the U.S. government killed bin Laden (Pakistan). This particular ban is unhelpful in ensuring American security.
The Order as Counterinsurgency
In order to find an approach that will work in defending the U.S. against those that do intend to do harm, it is worthwhile to draw polices based on previous experiences in fighting this sort of violence. The Islamic State, due to its ability to inspire individual acts of mayhem in its name, has de facto global reach, including into the U.S. itself. Thus, it is appropriate to base effective homeland defense policies from counterinsurgency lessons drawn from insurgent and counterinsurgent writings. The attitude of Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who wrote the Small-Unit Leaders’ Guide to Counterinsurgency in 2006, indicates that the administration would be open to a counterinsurgency framework for homeland defense.
To be effective, insurgencies need to disappear into the larger population. In the well-known words of Chairman Mao, the relationship between the people and the insurgents “may be likened to water and the latter to the fish who inhabit it.”[x] In this sense, anti-insurgent measures drawn against the population as a make it easier for insurgents to disappear into the population on the whole.
It follows from Mao’s maxim that effective counterinsurgency needs to separate insurgents from the population as a whole. As T.E. Lawrence, who was an integral part of an Arab insurgency against the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago wrote, "Without the friendship of the tribes, the Turks would own only the ground on which their soldiers stood."[xi]
In this century Western counterinsurgents have attempted to apply Lawrence’s lesson by befriending leaders of the population on the whole. David Kilcullen summarized COIN as, “a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population."[xii] Similarly, then-General James Mattis instructed U.S. Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan that since, "For an insurgency to flourish, a majority of the population must either support or remain indifferent to insurgent ideals and practices,"[xiii] it followed that “the overriding objective is the support of the populace in order to marginalize the insurgents."[xiv] As part of ensuring the support of the populace, Indian General Vinayak Patankar, who was responsible for COIN in Kashmir in the early 2000’s explained, “We will try and make sure the people are inconvenienced to the least."[xv]
Experts and practitioners agree that effective COIN separates insurgents from the population on the whole. As Mattis wrote, “The people are not the enemy, but our enemy hides amongst them."[xvi] To bring the enemy out of hiding, the implementers of COIN policy need to respect the population on the whole.
To gain the support of the population, effective COIN requires a base of trust from the population. As General Mattis wrote, "Commanders must follow through on any commitments made and, conversely, must avoid making any commitment that cannot be kept. The key is to avoid creating unattainable expectations and subsequent disappointment."[xvii] In a rare bit of excitement in an otherwise sober manual, Mattis returns to this point, “WHATEVER YOU SAY YOU WILL DO, YOU MUST DO.”[xviii] Given that the green card and refugee admission processes take years, failure to keep promises to those who have completed the long process to gain entry into the U.S. is ineffective COIN.
Translators form a key subset of people for whom trust must be inviolate. As Mattis wrote, "Translators are an invaluable asset...Take care of them; they are more than just mouthpieces, they are direct ties to understanding the local populace and force multipliers. They are generally committed and highly responsive when made a part of the team and treated with respect."[xix]
The Order fails to follow the lessons of COIN distilled above. To extend Mao’s analogy, the Order, by essentially treating all people of the same seven nations as identical, fails to distinguish between the fish and the water. This is no way to build the requisite trust of the majority of the population, especially with the “invaluable” translators who have actively assisted U.S. forces.
Moreover, although the Order itself does not say “Islam” or “Muslim” verbatim, its intent is clear. In 2015, Candidate Trump called for a “complete and total shutdown on Muslims entering the United States.”[xx] In drafting the Order, presidential advisor Rudy Giuliani stated, “the president tasked him with creating a "Muslim ban" that could work legally."[xxi] There are over a billion Muslims worldwide, and a broad ban makes the water in which insurgents could hide into an ocean. As would be expected from a group of over a billion people, the worldwide Muslim community is diverse. Over 50 years ago, Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of Al Qaeda and ISIS, wrote, “a Muslim has no nationality except his belief.”[xxii] The Order appears to accord with Qutb’s extremist worldview, which makes it more difficult to make the inroads into the population needed for effective COIN. People who do not trust the U.S. will not provide it with intelligence.[xxiii]
Additionally, the Order breaks bonds of trust, especially with translators who helped save American lives, which cannot easily be repaired. The first person reportedly stopped under the Order was Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi who had served as a translator with the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division.[xxiv] Darweesh, who was credited with saving several U.S. soldiers’ lives, and who the New York Daily News described as “heroic,” was detained for 18 hours at JFK Airport. Darweesh, for assisting the U.S. military, was twice targeted by terrorists in Iraq. By not protecting those, such as Hameed Darweesh, who helped keep U.S. troops safe, the Order breaks promises to critical allies. Darweesh’s ultimate release does not undo the negative publicity stemming from the widespread interpretation that his detainment was an anti-Muslim measure.
When the Order, in a draft form, was mentioned to Mattis in mid-2016, he unsurprisingly was sharply critical of it.[xxv] Mattis noted that the mere proposal was “causing us great damage right now” in the Middle East. Mattis’s 2016 conclusion was consistent with a hundred years of COIN that has taught us that the battle is won by convincing the population to agree with us instead of the insurgents.
Towards a COIN-Informed Approach
The Order would be ineffective in preventing a repeat of 9/11, and its overbroad reach goes against the hard-learned lessons of COIN. However, the Order is well intentioned in wanting to prevent further attacks against the United States. Whether referred to as “Radical Islamic Terrorists” in the language of President Trump, or “Salafascists” in the words of Lebanese refugee Nassim Nicholas Taleb, or “Global Jihadists” as described by Iranian-American academic Reza Aslan, there are people whose beliefs and acts are inconsistent with U.S. safety and these people should not be allowed into the U.S. They are our enemies, and should be treated as such. Since our enemies do not wear uniforms, or come from any particular country, they cannot be stopped from using purely geographic criteria.
An effective approach needs to separate the fish (our enemies) from the water (the population).
An alternative way to fight these enemies is to apply the lessons of COIN on a global scale. This is not simply a matter of killing our enemies; indeed, as General Flynn wrote, "merely killing insurgents usually serves to multiply enemies rather than subtract them… The Soviets experienced this reality in the 1980s, when despite killing hundreds of thousands of Afghans, they faced a larger insurgency near the end of the war than they did at the beginning."[xxvi] Indiscriminate targeting, whether with bombs, drones, or bans, is counterproductive because, once again, it harms our goal to “persuade the population.”[xxvii]
In COIN, “killing the enemy is easy. Finding him is often nearly impossible. Intelligence and operations are complementary."[xxviii] Thus, a better alternative needs to rely on better intelligence. In building better intelligence, it is worth reiterating General Flynn’s point, "local people who are far better than outsiders at spotting insurgents and their bombs and providing indications and warnings “left of boom” (before IEDs blow up)."[xxix]
In this global environment, effective security needs to be open to local sources worldwide. For Mo Atta, as early as 1998, friends reported that he, “had changed a great deal, had grown a beard, and had "obviously adopted fundamentalism.""[xxx] In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate a bomb stashed in his underwear in December 2009, his own father reported his “radicalization" to the local U.S. Embassy.[xxxi] It is important to observe that Abdulmutallab’s home embassy was Nigeria, thus he too would have been unaffected by the Order. In Abdulmutallab’s case, “The young man's name was added to the half-million entries in a computer database in McLean and largely forgotten."[xxxii]
An effective approach to homeland security needs to integrate human intelligence regarding radicalization with an understanding that the best sources of information are the people who know our enemies best. Large-scale geographic-based measures such as the Order are counterproductive since effective COIN requires the trust of the population on the whole. In the words of General Patankar of Kashmiri experience, “sensors are no substitute for human intelligence."[xxxiii]
As seen with Abdulmutallab, it is not simply a matter of gathering information and placing it into a database serving effectively as a memory hole. General Flynn’s 2010 paper on the challenges of intelligence in Afghan COIN operations was intentionally titled “making intelligence relevant.” Similarly, an effective homeland security strategy needs to utilize relevant intelligence to forbid our enemies from entering the United States. The Order, in failing to link security and intelligence, does not make the United States safer.
A pragmatic alternative to the Order must, in line with COIN principles, be explicitly focused on targeting only the enemies of the United States. This alternative needs to be able to build the trust of those who can provide relevant intelligence about our enemies.
[i] Full Text of Trump’s Executive Order on 7-Nation Ban, Refugee Suspension, CNN, Jan. 28, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/28/politics/text-of-trump-executive-order-nation-ban-refugees/index.html.
[ii] Id., Section 3(c).
[iii] Id., Section 5(a).
[iv] Id., Section 5(e).
[v] Id., Section 1.
[vi] Thomas H. Kean et. al, The 9/11 Commission Report Jul. 2004, p. 434.
[vii] Boudicca Fox-Leonard, 7 royals in list of 50 greatest Britons but England’s best footballer snubbed, UK News (mirror Sept. 23, 2015), http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/50-greatest-britons-revealed-wills-6495706.
[viii] Cindy Boren, “Daddy may not be able to come home:” Runner Mo Farah reacts to Trump’s ban, Washington Post (Jan. 29, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/01/29/donald-trump-seems-to-have-made-me-an-alien-runner-mo-farah-is-banned/?utm_term=.5ae02908f948.
[ix] Alex Nowrasteh, Little national security benefit to trump’s executive order on immigration (Cato Institute Jan. 25, 2017), https://www.cato.org/blog/little-national-security-benefit-trumps-executive-order-immigration.
[x] Mao Tse-Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare (Samuel Griffith trans., US Marine Corps 1961), 93.
[xi] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom a Triumph 105 (Penguin Group UK).
[xii] David Kilcullen, Twenty-Eight Articles Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency 1 (2006).
[xiii] Alice Fordham, Trump’s immigration order creates political tension with Iraq (NPR.org Jan. 30, 2017), http://www.npr.org/2017/01/30/512501519/trumps-immigration-order-creates-political-tension-with-iraq.
[xiv] Id. at 18.
[xv] Chindu Sreedharan, The Rediff Interview: Lt Gen V G Patankar, Rediff (Apr. 2003), http://www.rediff.com/news/2003/apr/08inter.htm.
[xvi] James Mattis, Small-Unit Leaders’ Guide to Counterinsurgency 28 (U.S. Marine Corps), Jun. 20, 2006.
[xvii] Id. at 33.
[xviii] Id. at 65 (emphasis in original).
[xix] Id. at 20–21.
[xx] Donald Trump, DONALD J. TRUMP STATEMENT ON PREVENTING MUSLIM IMMIGRATION, Donald J. Trump For President, Inc (Dec. 7, 2015), https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-statement-on-preventing-muslim-immigration.
[xxi] Rob Tornoe, Rudy Giuliani: President trump asked me to create a legal “Muslim ban” (Jan. 29, 2017), http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/real-time/Rudy-Giuliani-President-Trump-asked-me-to-create-a-legal-Muslim-ban-.html?amphtml=y.
[xxii] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones 118 (1964).
[xxiii] Alice Fordham, Trump’s immigration order creates political tension with Iraq (NPR.org Jan. 30, 2017), http://www.npr.org/2017/01/30/512501519/trumps-immigration-order-creates-political-tension-with-iraq.
[xxiv] Mary Mcdonnell et al., Iraqi man, Hameed Darweesh, free after detainment at JFK airport (NY Daily News Jan. 28, 2017), http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/iraqi-man-free-detainment-jfk-airport-article-1.2958091.
[xxv] Carla Marinucci, Ex-military leaders at Hoover institution say trump statements threaten America’s interests (Politico PRO Jul. 15, 2016), http://www.politico.com/states/california/story/2016/07/schultz-top-military-leaders-issue-warning-on-us-leadership-and-trump-103858.
[xxvi] Paul D. Batchelor et al., Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (Center for a New American Security), Jan. 2010, 8.
[xxvii] Id. at 24 (quoting General McChrystal).
[xxviii] David Kilcullen, Twenty-Eight Articles Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency 2 (2006).
[xxix] Paul D. Batchelor et al., Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (Center for a New American Security), Jan. 2010, 8.
[xxx] Thomas H. Kean et. al, The 9/11 Commission Report Jul. 2004 161.
[xxxi] Karen DeYoung and Michael Leahy, Uninvestigated Terrorism Warning about Detroit Suspect Called Not Unusual, Washington Post, Dec. 28, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/27/AR2009122700279.html.
[xxxiii] Vinayak Gopal Patankar, Terrorism (general) seminar report #89, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (2003), http://www.ipcs.org/seminar_details.php?recNo=578.