9/11, surprising results from overseas arrests
Sunday, July 6, 2008
MSNBC reports that many fundamentalist
Muslim insurgents detained in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia
have turned out to have prior criminal records in the USA.
records suggest that potential enemies abroad know a great deal about the
United States because many of them have lived here, officials said. The matches
also reflect the power of sharing data across agencies and even countries, data
that links an identity to a distinguishing human characteristic such as a
"I found the number stunning," said Frances Fragos Townsend, a
security consultant and former assistant to the president for homeland
security. "It suggested to me that this was going to give us far greater
insight into the relationships between individuals fighting against U.S. forces
in the theater and potential U.S. cells or support networks here in the United
The fingerprinting of detainees overseas began as ad-hoc FBI and U.S. military
efforts shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It has since grown
into a government-wide push to build the world's largest database of known or
suspected terrorist fingerprints. The effort is being boosted by a presidential
directive signed June 5, which gave the U.S. attorney general and other cabinet
officials 90 days to come up with a plan to expand the use of biometrics by,
among other things, recommending categories of people to be screened beyond
"known or suspected" terrorists.
Fingerprints are being beamed in via satellite from places as far-flung as the
jungles of Zamboanga in the southern Philippines; Bogota, Colombia; Iraq; and
Afghanistan. Other allies, such as Sweden, have contributed prints. The
database can be queried by U.S. government agencies and by other countries
through Interpol, the international police agency.
Civil libertarians have raised concerns about whether people on the watch lists
have been appropriately determined to be terrorists, a process that senior
government officials acknowledge is an art, not a science.
Large-scale identity systems "can raise serious privacy concerns, if not
singly, then jointly and severally," said a 2007 study by the Defense
Science Board Task Force on Defense Biometrics. The ability "to cross
reference and draw new, previously unimagined, inferences," is a boon for
the government and the bane of privacy advocates, it said.
The effort, officials say, is bearing fruit.
"The bottom line is we're locking people up," said Thomas E. Bush
III, FBI assistant director of the Criminal Justice Information Services
division. "Stopping people coming into this country. Identifying
IED-makers in a way never done before. That's the beauty of this whole
data-sharing effort. We're pushing our borders back."
I can't say I'm surprised. Having worked in a Federal prison as a chaplain, I
know that there are a considerable number of foreign-born detainees, many of
them illegally in the USA, who are doing their time for their crimes before
being deported. There's also a massive (and surprisingly successful)
recruitment effort by militant Muslim inmates to recruit others to their
religion and its associated causes. Many of those behind bars are less than
exemplary in their practice of the Muslim faith (drunkenness, drug use and
homosexual activity not being officially approved by that religion), but they
nevertheless express their faith with fervor. I can't say how strongly many of
them continue to adhere to it once they leave prison, but I'm sure some do.
This also correlates to a
recent essay by Daniel Pipes. Analyzing (and refuting) a claim by another
author that Europe has a larger problem with Islamic terrorists than the USA,
he goes on to say:
that the Muslim population in the United States is about 1/7th size of its West
European counterpart (3 million vs. 21 million), using the figures of 527
arrests for the United States and 1,400 for Europe suggests that the Muslim
per-capita arrest rate on terrorism-related charges in the United States is 2.5
times higher than in Europe, not, as Sageman asserts, 6 times lower. In fact,
Sageman (who was offered a chance to reply to this article but declined) is off
by a factor of about 15.
His error has major implications. If the United States, despite the much better
socio-economic standing of its Muslims, suffers from 2.5 times more terrorism
per capita than does Europe, socio-economic improvements are unlikely to solve
This conclusion fits into a larger argument that Islamism has little to do with
economic or other stresses. Put differently, ideas matter more than personal
circumstances. As I put it in 2002, "The factors that cause militant Islam
to decline or flourish appear to have more to do with issues of identity than
with economics." Whoever accepts the Islamist (or communist or fascist)
worldview, whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, also accepts the
ideological infrastructure that potentially leads to violence, including
Both reports are worth reading in full - and worth remembering. Our troubles
are not over, and won't be for a long, long time.
The old, old saying still applies: Si
vis pacem, para bellum.
Posted by Peter