News & Politics

Terror Groups Look to Test U.S. Defenses After Visa Ban

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The neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbeneh, in the city of Tripoli, Lebanon, is a notorious hotbed of radical Islam. The Sunni area borders on a neighborhood of Alawites loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and tension between the rival sects has often exploded into violence in recent years. It’s a bleak landscape of buildings peppered with bullet holes, where every alleyway could be a target for snipers during a clash. Though the city has been relatively calm in recent months, numerous terror plots and sleeper cells have been uncovered by the Lebanese army — one as recently as December 2016 — and the atmosphere in Bab al-Tabbeneh is thick with unease, even as people go about their daily lives.

Mohammad, whose name has been changed because he fears retaliation by the Lebanese government, is in his early thirties. He’s a Lebanese member of Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), an Al Qaeda–affiliated group high on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist entities that’s fighting against Assad’s regime in Syria.

I interviewed Mohammad by phone last week, soon after the executive order shutting off almost all travel to the U.S. by immigrants and visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations. When I asked him about the ban, Mohammad laughed mockingly.

“First of all, we [Al Qaeda] are already in America,” he claimed. “Look what we accomplished in Europe. We can do that in America as well. We don’t have to come to the U.S. from the Middle East. We didn’t come to Europe all the way from Deir Ezzor [a town in Syria]. We had people there. We don’t have to come to the U.S. from the Middle East. We are already there.”

Mohammad says the order would not stop a group like Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS from carrying out a terror attack against the United States — an assertion that security analysts largely accept.

The visa ban likely hits ISIS and other groups fighting the United States where it hurts least. It doesn’t protect Americans overseas, probably the target for terrorists who aim to attack American interests. And if these groups do want to sneak militants into the United States, refugee and immigration programs that already demand years of intense vetting would be an ineffective way to do so.

“None of the recent or previous significant attacks since September 11 have come from outside the country,” says Clinton Watts, formerly an FBI special agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and now a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “These were Americans who were either recruited overseas and sent back or set up through some kind of recruitment system.”

Watts accepts Mohammad’s claim that groups like Jabhat al-Nusra already have operatives in the United States: “There has been recent data that Al Qaeda has operatives they’re trying to communicate with inside the United States. These are Nusra guys and others, so that’s already in place.”

So far, Watts says, U.S. intelligence has been effective at preventing attacks, and having operatives in the United States hasn’t been enough. Says Watts, “You just have to think, if [Al Qaeda and ISIS] are not attacking now, then maybe they don’t have the ability to.” The question for the United States is whether it will be able to retain the consistent record of stopping attacks before they happen.

Elsewhere in Bab al-Tabbeneh, Shahid, a 28-year-old Syrian member of Jabhat al-Nusra  whose name has likewise been changed for fear of reprisal by the Lebanese government, says the United States is responsible for more global bloodshed than all the groups like his combined could ever dream of. “They killed Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria,” says Shahid. “What makes them better than us?”

But Shahid acknowledges that the immigration ban is not a deciding ideological factor for groups like Nusra and ISIS. “We consider ourselves at war with America,” he says. “This decision didn’t make America our enemy. We’ve thought of the U.S. as an enemy for a long time. There is nothing they can do about that.”

The hardening of extremist positions seems sure to continue for years into the future, with no effort to de-escalate on either side. Michael S. Smith II, an analyst with the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, says that groups like al-Nusra and ISIS “harness decades- and sometimes centuries-old tensions between conservative communities in the Muslim world and their misgivings toward Western powers that assert influence, political or societal, within the Muslim world.” In that world, Smith says, the ban makes these groups appear stronger, even if that doesn’t translate into immediate gains in recruitment.

Ironically, Washington, D.C., is one place where Shahid’s vision of a permanent war between Islam and the United States may now find a parallel. Watts, the ex–FBI agent, believes that Steve Bannon, the political adviser widely seen as the driving force behind the ban, is part of a close group of Trump aides who nurture a violent view of the West’s relationship with Islam. “That’s how his inner circle feels, that Islam is the problem, that it is a cancer,” Watts says. “They believe we have to be at war with militant Islam. So you have to create that war to get what you want.”

In Bab al-Tabbeneh, radical Salafists may welcome the kind of confrontation the administration appears to be inviting, believing it brings them one step closer to the dream of an America in ashes. “Who is this guy Trump?” Mohammad asks rhetorically. “He is nobody to us. We live by God’s law. Trump’s law means nothing. We will let the black flag of Allah fly over Washington soon, over the White House. Just wait and see.”

Watts, meanwhile, thinks the visa ban invites a dangerous escalation at an inopportune time for the United States. The schism between the administration and the intelligence community could encourage groups like al-Nusra and ISIS to probe American defenses. “The conditions are so ripe to make a comeback, in a way that they weren’t even a year ago,” Watts says. “[The intelligence community] is being overridden by strategists in the White House.”

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