Reinier Bergema is a junior Analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), focusing on radicalization, (jihadist) foreign fighters, and terrorism
Only days after his inauguration as President of the United States, Donald Trump stated that he would not shy away from “fighting fire with fire” when it comes to combating terrorist organizations, such as the self-styled ‘Islamic State’ (or Daesh) and al-Qaeda.
The newly-elected President publicly contemplated the reintroduction of ‘enhanced interrogation’ methods such as waterboarding, opposing international law and conventions. Two days later the new administration’s counter-terrorism strategy turned into reality as Trump signed an executive order to restrict immigration to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Although the measure was condemned by many, it also received acclaim, especially from a chorus of populist politicians in Europe. Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry and Geert Wilders all cheered; all advocate similar measures to reduce Muslim immigration and all call for the repeal of the Schengen agreement.
While it is impossible to predict the exact number of future attacks that may be prevented by this measure, we can gain insight by looking at past acts of terror.
Take the most recent attacks in the United States: neither the 2015 San Bernardino attack nor the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting would have been prevented by the travel ban, as the perpetrators were either born in the United States or in Pakistan, which is not among the listed countries.
The desire to close borders overlooks the notion that today’s terrorists are mostly homegrown
Looking at Western Europe it seems unlikely that such travel restrictions would have made our societies much safer. The most violent attacks in recent years (the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, the November 2015 Paris attacks, the March 2016 Brussels bombings, the July 2016 Nice attack and the December 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack) are unlikely to have been prevented. The perpetrators were either EU nationals, came from countries whose nationals do not face restrictions, or entered Europe using fake passports as part of the refugee flow. Rather than counterfeiting a Syrian or Libyan passport, they can simply opt for another nationality that would not be subject to a ban.
The desire to close borders overlooks the notion that today’s terrorists are mostly homegrown.
The approximately 5,000 to 6,000 EU nationals that travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2012 – not to mention the thousands more that were unable to make the journey – indicate that the current threat is not purely exogenous. Instead it finds its roots, to a significant degree, in our own society. Restricting immigration will not end the underlying grievances; it may even exacerbate them.
Organisations like Daesh and al-Qaeda are actively trying to drive a wedge between the Islamic and Western worlds by creating a narrative that emphasises the oppression of the former by the latter. Discriminatory policies such as this travel ban only feed the jihadist propaganda machine; it seemingly confirms their notion that the West is at war with Islam. Trump’s decree has made the jihadists’ job much easier.
Counterterrorism efforts should be rooted in Western values and focus on inclusion, rather than exclusion
As a direct result of the ban the Trump administration also risks affronting its Arab allies, whose support is crucial to effectively fight Daesh and its underlying ideology. American and European forces fight side-by-side and rely on Muslim forces in their attempts to oust Daesh.
That regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are involved in the US-led operation targeting Daesh is already a delicate subject, prompting them to maintain a low profile. Trump’s provocation might force these regional actors to distance themselves, shattering the unified front, and further diminishing the prospects of stability in the region.
Counterterrorism efforts should be rooted in Western values and focus on inclusion, rather than exclusion – both nationally and internationally. Terrorism can be tackled effectively only through a consistent and coherent approach that respects fundamental rights, such as the right to privacy and the freedom of religion, thought, and expression. Any strategy that neglects the rule of law would merely be grist to the mill of jihadist organisations and further bolster their propaganda and recruitment efforts.
Rather than fighting fire with fire, it is imperative that we base our strategy on Western, liberal values.
President Trump may have been right when he noted that the battle with Daesh is not played on an even field. However, as Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, recently remarked during the Future Force Conference, we should avoid getting into a mud fight with a pig, as the pig will love it, while we would look awful. As Timmermans said, “only an open society can truly protect us from the challenges of modernity”.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr - Masha George