On January 5, following months of deliberation, the Department of Homeland Security instituted a new security procedure requiring foreigners entering the U.S. to be fingerprinted and photographed. While the program, called US-VISIT (U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology), is chiefly intended to monitor potential terrorists who attempt to enter the U.S., it is not applied to citizens from several countries where Islamic terrorists and their supporters operate. For example, while citizens from notorious terrorist-sponsoring states like Iran and Syria are included, visitors from France and England—both growing hotbeds of Islamic militancy—are not subject to US-VISIT.
The program, which has been implemented at 115 airports and 14 seaports nationwide, was successfully tested at Atlanta International Airport prior to its nationwide launch. The Atlanta test run produced interesting results: most notably, 21 individuals found on the FBI criminal watch list were prevented from entering the U.S. In addition, the program caused only minimum inconvenience, adding, on average, just 15 seconds to the entry process.
Not surprisingly, the usual cast of self-appointed civil rights experts and Bush-bashing Leftists immediately criticized US-VISIT as intrusive and a violation of privacy. Charlie Mitchell, the ACLU’s Washington, DC-based legal counsel, expressed concern about “who will have access and how people would be able to contest being included once they are on the list.” Omar Najib, treasurer of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, complained that the program would single out Arabs and Muslims. But the most ridiculous reaction came from Brazil, where Judge Julier Sebastiao Da Silva called the program “xenophobic” and, in a fit of childish retaliation, ordered all U.S. citizens entering Brazil to be fingerprinted.
If there is indeed a problem with US-VISIT, it will not be found in the baseless ranting of those who oppose any measure enacted by the Bush administration a priori. Rather, the program’s main flaw is that it does not apply to citizens from 27 mostly European countries, many of which have become virtual breeding grounds for Islamic militants. Citizens of countries like Holland, Germany and Italy, who are already able to enter the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days, are also exempt from US-VISIT. Considering that European intelligence agencies have repeatedly warned about the radicalization of a significant part of Europe’s approximately 15 million Muslims, this decision leaves the U.S. dangerously exposed.
Over the last few years, Islamic radicals carrying European passports have played a major role in international terrorism. But under US-VISIT’s present guidelines, would-be 9/11 hijacker and French national Zacarias Moussaoui, for example, would not have been fingerprinted or photographed. More Al-Qaeda sympathizers carrying European passports would potentially be able to enter the U.S. undetected as well.
Europe is presently faced with thousands of second and third-generation European Muslims who feel detached from mainstream Western society and have turned to radical Islam as an alternative. For example, Asif Mohammed Hanif, a British-born Muslim of Pakistani origin, carried out a suicide bombing in a popular Tel Aviv pub last May, killing three people and injuring more than 50. Other European Muslims, like German citizen Christian Ganczarski, are native Europeans who have converted to Islam. Prior to his 2003 arrest in France, Ganczarski managed to reach a leadership position in Al-Qaeda and arrange terrorist attacks with the likes of the organization’s former third-in-command, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Several European countries have acknowledged that white converts like Ganczarski are a growing threat.
While Hanif, Ganzcarski and others have acquired a European citizenship through birth, many terrorists have gained this privilege via Europe’s generous political asylum laws. For example, during the 1990s, Rabah Kebir, one of the leaders of the Algerian terrorist group FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and several of his followers managed to obtain political asylum in Germany. Some radicals have even been known to use marriage to native European women in order to gain citizenship.
It is common knowledge in the intelligence community that Al-Qaeda has a particular interest in recruiting operatives who carry European passports, since they draw less scrutiny from authorities. A recent phone conversation between two high-ranking Al-Qaeda members in Europe that was intercepted by Italian intelligence revealed that there are currently British, German, Austrian and Swiss citizens working for the organization. With the way US-VISIT is presently construed, all of these individuals could possibly enter the U.S. untouched.
Despite potential problems that may arise with European countries and other allies as a result of a broadening of US-VISIT, the U.S. cannot afford to compromise in matters of national security. It is a harsh fact that our enemies have managed to infiltrate countries that are friendly to the United States. The U.S. must adjust to this new reality—expanding the guidelines of US-VISIT would be a step in the right direction.
Lorenzo Vidino is a terrorism analyst and Erick Stakelbeck is head writer at the Investigative Project, a Washington, DC-based counter-terrorism research institute.