Vetting immigrants for terrorism potential

I recently finished Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, and the book describes an attempt by Jordanians to sort folks by terrorism potential:

in March 1999, as the country marked the end of the official forty-day mourning period for King Hussein’s death. In a tradition dating back to Jordan’s founding, new kings are expected to declare a general amnesty in the country’s prisons, granting royal pardons to inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses or political crimes. It was a way to clean the slate and score points with important constituencies, from the Islamists to powerful East Bank tribes. To ensure the maximum political return, members of Parliament were given the task of nominating release-worthy prisoners and drafting the amnesty’s legal particulars. Their list quickly grew to five hundred names, then a thousand, then two thousand. And still lawmakers pushed for more.

“Jordan is on the threshold of a new phase of its history, which means that the government should turn a new page, especially with political detainees,” Saleh Armouti, president of Jordan’s Bar Association, told the Jordan Times as negotiations dragged on. But some of the country’s law-enforcement chiefs saw a disaster in the making. “Most of them will be repeat offenders and we will see their faces again and again,” a police official complained to the same newspaper. “Most of them are thugs who will harm people when they are free.”

In the end, the list, now with more than twenty-five hundred names, was endorsed by Parliament and sent to the palace for the final approval. The king, then just six weeks into his new job and still picking his way through a three-dimensional minefield of legislative, tribal, and royal politics, faced a choice of either adopting the list or sending it back for weeks of additional debate. He signed it. Many months would pass before Abdullah learned that list had included certain Arab Afghans from the al-Jafr Prison whose Ikhwan-like zeal for purifying the Islamic faith should have disqualified them instantly. But by that time, the obscure jihadist named Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh had become the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [founder of ISIS]. And there was nothing a king of Jordan could do but berate his aides in an exasperated but utterly futile pique. “Why,” he demanded, “didn’t someone check?”

Elsewhere in the book, the Jordanians are described as having the most sophisticated and effective anti-terrorism investigative bureaucracy (the Mukhabarat). Yet, even given a common language and cultural background, they couldn’t “vet” Zarqawi. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current head of ISIS, was imprisoned by the U.S. in Iraq circa 2004 but released after a determination that he represented at most a low-level threat.

Abdul Razak Ali Artan has been in the news for going on a jihad in Ohio this week. He managed to get through the U.S.’s refugee “vetting” process in 2014. Based on a tip from the Russian government, the Tsarnaev family that blew up the Boston Marathon in 2013 had been interviewed by the FBI and cleared for terrorism potential back in 2011 (Wikipedia).

Given these failures, you might think that people would lose faith in “vetting” or at least switch to a different term. Apparently not, though. Black Flags notes that

[Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton began privately pushing for what she would call a “carefully vetted and trained force of moderate rebels who could be trusted” with American weapons [to fight in Syria].

Hope springs eternal?

[I do recommend Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and will post about it some more. Next on my reading list is The Elementary Particles, a French novel. A few samples:

At sixty, having just retired from the factory, she agreed to look after her son’s only child. He had wanted for nothing—clean clothes, good Sunday lunches and love. All these things she had done for him. Any analysis of human behavior, however rudimentary, should take account of such phenomena. Historically, such human beings have existed. Human beings who have worked—worked hard—all their lives with no motive other than love and devotion, who have literally given their lives for others, out of love and devotion; human beings who have no sense of having made any sacrifice, who cannot imagine any way of life other than giving their lives for others, out of love and devotion. In general, such human beings are generally women.

But one statistic at the bottom of the page attracted his attention: in July–August of the previous year, sixty-three percent of visitors to the Lieu du Changement were female. That was almost two women to every man: an excellent ratio. He decided to check it out, and booked a week there in July; especially as camping would be cheaper than going to a Club Med. Of course, he could guess what sort of women went there: deranged old lefties who were probably all HIV-positive. But still, with two women to every man, he stood a chance; if he worked it properly, he might even bag two. The year had started well from a sexual point of view. The influx of girls from Eastern Europe had meant prices had dropped. For two hundred francs you could get a little personal relaxation, down from four hundred francs some months earlier.

Sexual desire is preoccupied with youth, and the progressive influx of ever-younger girls onto the field of seduction was simply a return to the norm; a restoration of the true nature of desire, comparable to the return of stock prices to their true value after a run on the exchange. Nonetheless, women who turned twenty in the late sixties found themselves in a difficult position when they hit forty. Most of them were divorced and could no longer count on the conjugal bond—whether warm or abject—whose decline they had served to hasten. As members of a generation who—more than any before—had proclaimed the superiority of youth over age, they could hardly claim to be surprised when they, in turn, were despised by succeeding generations. As their flesh began to age, the cult of the body, which they had done so much to promote, simply filled them with an intensifying disgust for their own bodies—a disgust they could see mirrored in the gaze of others. The men of their generation found themselves in much the same position, yet this common destiny fostered no solidarity. At forty, they continued to pursue young women—with a measure of success, at least for those who, having skillfully slipped into the social game, had attained a certain position, whether intellectual, financial or social. For women, their mature years brought only failure, masturbation and shame.


10 thoughts on “Vetting immigrants for terrorism potential

  1. Allow me to slice the gordian knot of vetting and what is and isn’t racist: don’t allow in any immigrants at all. There are zero problems in America right now made easier to deal with by continued immigration.

  2. The most important thing to vet immigrants for is common criminals and ability to succeed in American society. Both are significantly easier than vetting for terrorists but no doubt subject to errors. Vetting immigrants for terrorists would be similar to screening airline passengers: one wants to do enough to catch dumb ones but any reasonable vetting system is likely to miss smart and determined adversaries so you need different tactics for them (e.g. law enforcement and intelligence agencies). As a practical matter, a terrorist can easily enter the US legally or illegally and then stay indefinitely. I don’t see why they would submit themselves to our lengthy and burdensome legal immigration process. Given that the overall risk of terrorism is low in the US (including from immigrants) I don’t see why it would make sense to let anti-terrorism concerns drive big changes to immigration policy or procedures.

  3. Nativists like Bobbyboob wet his pants over the remote threat of a terrorist attack. Buck up son, this is the land of the free, home of the brave.

    Total number of Americans killed in the U.S. by terrorists over past decade < 50.

    Total number of Americans killed in the U.S. by drunk drivers over the past decade ~ 100,0000. Close all bars?

    Japan has shut down virtually all immigration to appease nativists. It's economy has stagnated for 20 years, and their aging population is (literally) dying out.

  4. PatriotAct is spot on. People are terrible at judging threats. The domestic threat from terrorists is absolutely minuscule, yet vast numbers of people are concerned and afraid. The media, who never present these acts in a rational context are to blame, regardless of how ignorant their consumers are. A similar amount of people probably succumb of infection due to paper cuts each year as domestic terrorism!

    2500+ people per day die from heart disease, and 1500+ from cancer, PER DAY in the US. If the irrational fear people have over terrorism was scaled proportionally to the rational and actual threats to which they are blissfully ignorant of, they’d die instantly of anxiety.

  5. Senorpablo – I think you’re leaving out that people generally accept that it’s ok to die of natural causes, but noone really accepts that it would be ok to be killed by a terrorist, however ‘rare’ that might be.

  6. There are dozens of compelling reasons to shut down immigration, including ecological impact of ongoing population growth, cost of living and quality of life impacts, cultural strife and disruption, as well as the net negative tax implications of most current immigration.

    Not having to fund and administer a domestic surveillance police state and vetting program is just yet another reason on the pile. If we shut down immigration tens of thousands of FBI, ICE, and INS agents could be laid off and put to more productive use.

  7. Let me just say it’s pretty funny to see the pro-open borders being represented by Patriot Act and Senor Pablo.

  8. @bobbybobbob

    As someone who recently attended a wedding between an American citizen and a very recent immigrant (two people I care about), let me just say…

    Actually, it would be impolite to say it.

  9. I will ignore other comments and say

    1) a very interesting 1 star review of the book ( suggests the book is quite poor in its analysis, and recommends “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution” by Patrick Cockburn. Anybody read both and wants to comment?

    2) The book is titled “Atomised” in the Queen’s English, and it is something like 65 millions years old — you are pretty late to the party. I am not amused that you lot in the colonies do not accept the intellectual primacy of the nation that spawned you (the ‘shrivelled husk’…) and change book titles.

  10. Federico: The book got great reviews, but it does seem simplistic in some ways and there is a lot of hero-worship of the Jordanian monarchy (which I can share because it seems that both recent kings were pilots!) and the Jordanian FBI/CIA-equivalent. I don’t think it is as bad as the 1-star reviewer suggests. If you read the book you wouldn’t send the U.S. military into an Arab country. You’d say “This is a complicated world in which we have no expertise so let’s not meddle.”

    Neal: The wedding between an immigrant and an American does sound heartwarming. Congratulations to the happy couple. On the other hand, I talked to an immigrant from Eastern Europe just yesterday. He came to the U.S. and worked hard doing skilled manual labor for more than a decade, living frugally, buying a house in a neighborhood with great schools, etc. Then his American wife sued him under Massachusetts family law (see ). Between his plaintiff and the lawyers on both sides, he lost everything that he had worked for: kids, house, savings. If he’d stayed in his Civil Law jurisdiction he (a) probably wouldn’t have been sued, and/or (b) wouldn’t have his ex-wife as a long-term adult dependent. (See for how having sex with the richest person in Germany can’t yield more than $6,000/year in child support.)

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