Sunday, July 6, 2008

After 9/11, surprising results from overseas arrests

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.

The 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 fingerprint.

"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 States."

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:

Given 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 Europe's problems.

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 terrorism.

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.


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