Editor’s note: This analysis is part of 2017 Presidential Inbox — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series.
By Brian Goebel
THE CHALLENGE: More than 30,000 people may have traveled from dozens of countries, including the United States and many in Europe, to fight with the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. As FBI Director Comey and European Union (EU) counter-terrorism officials have warned, there is a serious, urgent, and increasing threat that many of these foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) will return to their home countries and carry out attacks, especially because of the ongoing losses that ISIS is suffering on battlefields in Iraq and Syria.
Although the U.S. has many successful programs in place designed to mitigate the risk posed by returning FTFs (e.g., the Immigration Advisory Program (IAP), Joint Security Program (JSP), and Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)), we remain vulnerable for at least three reasons. First, FTFs are becoming increasingly adept at disguising their travel to and from Iraq, Syria, Libya, and surrounding countries. By utilizing various “broken travel” techniques, FTFs who are not on a government watchlist substantially reduce their risk of being identified and detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel upon their return. Second, there are thousands of European FTFs. European law enforcement and intelligence personnel are struggling to identify, monitor, and detain returning FTFs. European FTFs can, in turn, travel to the U.S. without a visa, and CBP may have difficulty identifying them if they are not on a watchlist. Third, notwithstanding increases in North American perimeter security, there are concerns that FTFs could travel to Canada or Mexico in order to surreptitiously enter the U.S.
Beyond Europe, nations with large numbers of FTFs — Tunisia, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, for example — are vulnerable as well. As the United Nations Security Council has noted, border controls, law enforcement cooperation, and information sharing are currently insufficient to stem the flow of FTFs to and from Iraq, Syria, and Libya. As the events of the past decades have taught us, we are safer when terrorists cannot travel or operate effectively overseas. It is therefore in our strategic interest to work with the EU and various countries to systematically reduce the threat posed by FTFs.
THE CONTEXT: In 2014, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 2178, which called upon all Member States to cooperate in efforts to address the threat posed by FTFs, prevent FTFs from crossing their borders, and intensify and accelerate the exchange of operational information regarding the movements of FTFs. Since then, the G20 has resolved to enhance operational information sharing, improve border management to detect terrorist travel, and take other preventative measures to stem the flow of FTFs.
Although progress is being made in these areas — countries are implementing travel management systems to identify potentially high-risk travelers and working with INTERPOL to develop a multinational watchlist of known FTFs, for example — it is insufficient to mitigate the threat. Broken travel techniques reduce the effectiveness of operational and planned traveler management systems, and nations continue to withhold watchlist records from INTERPOL for a variety of legitimate reasons. To quickly change this dynamic and increase our security, the U.S. must lead new bilateral and multilateral efforts to prevent the movement of FTFs, just as we lead bilateral and multilateral efforts to protect global trade in the aftermath of 9/11.
To reduce the threat posed by returning FTFs, the U.S. and other nations should launch the “Combatting Terrorist Travel Initiative” (CTTI) to deploy law enforcement personnel at key overseas transit points, including airports, land border crossings, and ferry terminals. Under CTTI, multinational law enforcement teams would: (1) collect information on people traveling along routes known or suspected to be used by FTFs; and (2) target and inspect suspicious travelers and take law enforcement action against those likely to be FTFs.
By compiling data on people using suspicious travel routes (e.g., Americans crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria), law enforcement officials will be able to determine that a traveler has visited a high-risk location (e.g., Turkey) when her travel itinerary may show a low-risk point of origin (e.g., Romania). This is critical for overcoming broken travel and identifying likely FTFs. Targeting suspicious travelers would involve a number of techniques, including: (1) examining passports for evidence of tampering or travel to high-risk locations; (2) each participating country collecting biometric and biographic data and running it against its terrorist watchlist(s) (which works around longstanding challenges associated with sharing access to such lists); and (3) observing or participating in the questioning and inspection of the traveler by host government personnel. By taking law enforcement action against likely FTFs — those who match a watchlist record or arouse heightened suspicion following questioning and inspection — CTTI personnel can prevent FTFs from returning to countries where they may carry out attacks.
This forward-deployed law enforcement approach is hardly unprecedented for the U.S. and other nations. Under the Container Security Initiative (CSI), the U.S. has deployed law enforcement personnel to 58 overseas seaports in countries such as Jordan, Pakistan, and the UAE. These personnel work with host government personnel to jointly identify and inspect high-risk shipments using both separate and shared data and methods — a concept of operations very similar to the one proposed for CTTI. Moreover, several other countries have deployed personnel to the U.S. under CSI.
Similarly, for decades, the U.S. and Canada, for example, have deployed immigration officers to overseas airports to work with airlines to identify and prevent the boarding of passengers likely to be denied admission upon arrival in their destination country, and the U.S. has expanded its program in certain countries to identify travelers posing a potential security risk. In addition, the U.S. also stations personnel overseas to perform “preclearance” of air travelers, a model similar to the “juxtaposed” controls used by the U.K. and France for the Chunnel crossing.
PRAGMATIC STEPS: The U.S. should lead the development and implementation of CTTI. Not only do we face the threat of returning FTFs, but we have designed and implemented similar and successful programs in equally exigent circumstances. Our leadership on legal, policy, and operational issues will reduce errors and implementation time, which is critical given the ongoing and increasing diaspora of ISIS fighters. And cooperation with other governments in launching CTTI could facilitate cooperation and/or reduce tensions on other strategic issues.
The U.S. should take the following pragmatic steps to begin deploying law enforcement personnel at key transit locations for returning FTFs over the next several months:
- Work with Jordan, a CSI participant, to implement a pilot program at Jordan’s land border and/or Queen Alia International Airport;
- Expand on the JSP with Mexico and Panama by implementing pilot programs at their southern land borders and/or major international airports;
- Collaborate with the EU to implement a pilot program in Tunisia at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport and Tunis ferry terminals or in European airports with service from Tunis where CBP personal are already deployed (e.g., Schiphol and Heathrow) and European seaports with ferry service from Tunis where CSI is operational (e.g., Genoa and Marseilles);
- Collaborate with the EU to implement a pilot program at the land border crossings from Turkey into Greece and Bulgaria; and
- Collaborate with G20 members to develop one or more pilot programs in Turkey and other strategic locations.
Brian Goebel is a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center.
Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces via Flickr