Who's making decisions at the TSA? I understand that when something happens on Christmas Day, it's unlikely that we'll get the creme de la creme of the government's bureaucracy making decisions, but it's been ten days since the underwear bomber incident, and the TSA's policies keep getting crazier. Their latest idea? Requiring U.S.-bound individuals who are citizens of or coming from fourteen countries to undergo full-body pat-downs and carry-on baggage checks.
These countries are all shown on the map above, and include Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria, Libya, and Somalia.
It's important to note a couple of facts about this new regulation:
- The requirement for extra screening is based primarily on citizenship, not involvement with extremist organizations or time spent overseas. In other words, if you're a Nigerian businessperson who lives more-or-less permanently in London and decides to fly to New York for a holiday, you'll still get the extra screening, even if you haven't been to Nigeria in twenty years.
- American citizens, except if they're traveling from or through these countries, aren't subject to the extra screening.
This policy is, in a word, nuts. Absolutely nuts.
Now. I recognize that in some ways this is just a formalization of a form of profiling that already takes place. The U.S. already required citizens of twelve countries to undergo secondary screening at U.S. airports, although this only kicked in if they traveled using their passports rather than another ID document like a driver's license. But we've all stood in TSA lines and noticed that the people picked for so-called "random" secondary screening are more often than not people who look "foreign." There's a huge degree of racism and profiling that goes on in our airports, so maybe this isn't all that significant in that the policy is just now slightly more overt.
I even recognize that there's probably a place for some profiling in airport security these days. Like it or not, most modern terrorists who attempt to blow up airplanes of late have one thing in common: they adhere to a fringe, extremist interpretation of Islam. We should absolutely be tracking people who frequent extremist websites or attend houses of worship at which hateful vitriol is preached (and I don't just mean mosques) or who show a sudden interest in the market price of explosive materials.
But that's precisely why this policy is so insane. It doesn't actually target terrorists.
We're now going to waste countless hours of effort and sums of money to screen people about whom there are no indicators whatsoever
that they will engage in acts of terror. Instead, we're going to assume that nationality and flight origin automatically makes an individual suspect. That is irrational, impractical, and unlikely to result in making anyone safer doesn't seem to trouble the TSA.
Why is this policy irrational? Let's take Nigeria as an example. Nigeria's population is somewhere around 150 million. I haven't been able to locate data on how many Nigerians travel abroad each year, but I think it's safe to assume that the number is substantial. A very large number of wealthy Nigerians have houses in London or elsewhere abroad, and the middle class often sends its children overseas for education. And a huge number of foreigners travel into and out of Nigeria every year, including the enormous diaspora population that's concentrated in the U.S. and the U.K. (many of whom have citizenship in those countries).
Of the 150 million people in Nigeria, how many are actually likely to be or to become terrorists whose objective is to harm American interests? We'd have to go into far more detail than a blog post allows to fully answer this question, but I think we can safely assume that the vast majority of the 40% of the population who are Christians and the 10% of the country who adhere to traditional beliefs are highly unlikely to engage in terrorism. (MEND
's members are an exception to this claim, but their beef is with the multinational oil companies, not the U.S. government.)
Then there's the approximately 50% of the population who are Muslim. Can we safely assume that most of these people are interested in engaging in terrorism, or in supporting those who do? I don't think so. There's no evidence to back that claim. Yes, I'm certain that there are some extremists in Nigeria, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab among them. But let's not forget that Abdulmutallab's father (also Muslim) was so disturbed by his son's radicalization that he reported it directly to American authorities. That's not a sign of an Islamic community that is out to destroy America.
Again, I don't have any systematic, non-anecdotal evidence to prove that most of Nigeria's Muslims aren't dangerous. But the lack of a substantial number of Nigerians involved in international terrorist plots, coupled with the fact that Abdulmutallab became radicalized not in Nigeria but rather in London suggests that this isn't really that big of a problem. As Alex Thurston points out over at the excellent Sahel Blog
, Islamic radicalization in the Sahel tends to be more about local grievances and power struggles than about international terrorist aims.
How likely is it that any terrorists will be caught coming from Nigeria under these new rules? I'd say slim to none. In the meantime, we risk angering a key regional ally. Indeed, members of Nigeria's government are already protesting these regulations
, as well it should. It's just a matter of time before some third-tier prince on a shopping trip or a Nigerian oil executive headed home to Houston reacts to this unnecessary screening and thereby creates an international diplomatic incident.
Then there's the problem of the complete randomness of picking specific countries and leaving others out. Why would we target citizens of Saudi Arabia but not, say, Egypt? We know for a fact that al Qaeda-affiliated groups have kidnapped expatriates in places like Mali, but Mali isn't on this list. This just makes no sense. Terrorists come from all nationalities (including American and British). Why would we not instead focus our efforts on identifying and screening people whose behavior actually indicates a propensity to engage in this sort of behavior?
(Of course, these decisions aren't random; there are very few close allies of the United States on the list. Nigeria is included for one reason only: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.)
Profiling potential terrorists on the basis of nationality is terrible public policy. Not only does it waste valuable time and resources screening people who don't need to be screened, it also provides an incentive for al-Qaeda and its affiliates to expand their efforts to recruit and train people elsewhere in the world. After all, if Nigerians will be caught with explosives, why not move into Niger or Mauritania? And don't you know the black market passport trade will take off even more than it already has in Lagos and various other places on the listm - not to mention countries in which expatriates of those countries reside?
This policy will also worsen the perception among many in the Islamic world that the U.S. is engaged in a war against Muslims, which could actually weaken us in the fight against global terrorism. As counter-terrorism expert and former naval commander Rick Nelson told the NYT
, “We have to be careful not to play into the narrative that Al Qaeda has made up, where it is Islam versus the West. ...We risk alienating the moderate populations that we need to be successful against Al Qaeda.”
Furthermore, these policies won't actually stop terrorism. Along with pumping more resources into intelligence-gathering, as Stephen Walt points out, it would be far more productive to examine the reasons people become terrorists
and attempt to respond to those concerns rather than playing these silly cat-and-mouse games ad infinitum
, ad nauseum
As long as the TSA continues to labor under the illusion that airport security is a good way to prevent terrorism, I'm afraid we're going to be stuck with more and more pointless policies like this one. Nigerian friends, I am truly sorry for the increased hassles you'll have to endure at the hands of my government.
(Graphic: AP, via Yahoo! News)