When I first started talking to ISIS propagandists and supporters, I was much impressed by one of their favorite Koranic verses: “We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.” The verse is a reminder of God’s omnipresence, and his Santa Claus-like awareness of our deepest selves, our sins, and our good deeds. In time, I came to associate that unsettling proximity (He is closer than you think) not only with God, but also with ISIS. They too were less distant than they seemed. What seemed at first like a movement of barbarians with alien origins and impulses looked increasingly like a human phenomenon, with human flaws and virtues (mostly flaws). The more I investigated the group’s supporters, the more I found people who at one point had shared my culture and community, even if they tried to throw it all away in the service of something wicked. In the end I discovered that one of the most important figures in the Islamic State, a mysterious ideologue named Yahya Abu Hassan, was not Syrian or Iraqi at all, but a 33-year-old American, a dope-smoking theological prodigy from my own hometown.
The executive order President Donald Trump is expected to sign on immigration and refugees promises, according to a draft that leaked Wednesday, to suspend for 30 days the issuance of visas to citizens of a short list of scary-sounding “countries of particular concern,” likely including Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. Conspicuously absent from this list are the countries whose nationals have actually perpetrated the most ghastly attacks on Western targets, and on some non-Western ones. Nearly all the attackers in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016 carried European passports. The ringleader of the attack on diners at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Bangladesh in July of 2016 was a Canadian citizen, and the attackers all Bangladeshi. The San Bernardino shooters were an American man and his Pakistani wife, and the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen a native-born American of Afghan descent. The ISIS sympathizers to whom I spoke in researching my book, The Way of the Strangers, were European, British, Japanese, Egyptian, and American. These foreign members of the group differ from the Iraqis and Syrians in the intensity and form of their zeal. They often viewed Iraqis and Syrians as good people—but in need of theological correction and radicalization.
The Trump administration is right to treat the threat as a global one, but characteristically fact-resistant in its imagining that visa-seeking nationals of the “particular concern” countries listed above are the most likely perpetrators of slaughter in the name of the Islamic State. A global threat is a global threat, and Europeans and Americans are still part of planet Earth. If the Islamic State intends to kill Americans by sending an Iraqi or Syrian to get a visa, they are doing it the hard way. Most of the attackers will blow themselves up out of frustration with the American immigration bureaucracy before they can ever reach American shores to blow themselves up near their intended targets.
Compare the tedious process of applying for a visa to the ease with which a citizen of a visa-waiver country can buy a ticket on Air France or British Airways—or just stay home and rent a truck, or buy a kitchen knife or a jerrycan of gas and a matchbook. The whole process can be conceived and executed with a credit card, in less than a day. According to Seamus Hughes of George Washington University, slightly fewer than 120 Americans have been caught on the road to jihad, and another 52 are known to have made it to Syria. One assumes there are more waiting for their moment. Add to that number the thousands who follow ISIS in Europe, Australia, and friendly countries in the Middle East. For ISIS to choose a Syrian or Yemeni to attack a Western target is not inconceivable, but it would present needless obstacles—and ISIS wants easy wins, rather than complicated plots with high risk of failure.
Meanwhile, the losers in this process are the citizens of the suspect countries whose plans to come to United States for business, study, family reunification, and refuge are now suspended. None of these people has a right to come to the United States (although asylum-seekers do have a right not to be repatriated to a place of likely persecution), and the president is within his rights to implement this policy. But it is coldhearted folly. Whatever dangers visitors to the United States bring—and by any standard they should be minimal—will be outweighed by the benefits.
The draft executive order sounds compassionate notes. They are often off-key. It commands the State Department to revamp the refugee program to prioritize immigration “on the basis of religious-based persecution,” with the stipulation that the religion be a minority religion in one's home country. The obvious purpose of this order is to welcome non-Muslims victimized by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, such as the Chaldean Catholics of the Nineveh Plain, or Armenian Orthodox Syrians, or the Yezidis. But I await the first applications from Muslim minorities who allege persecution in their home countries. Would Sunnism qualify as a persecuted minority religion in Shia-dominated Iraq? Could radical Shia claim persecution by the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain? Can Ahmadi Muslims, mistreated by majorities all over the Muslim world, now cut to the front of the immigration line?
Perhaps the most important of these compassionate notes is the draft executive order’s sixth section, pertaining to the “establishment of safe zones to protect vulnerable Syrian populations.” To anyone who has paid attention to Syria for the last three years, the phrase “vulnerable Syrian populations” will sound like a sick joke: Most of the country has been a kill-zone for some time now, and the areas of superficial safety are safe only because President Bashar al-Assad has retaken them, mercilessly. The section goes on to direct the State Department to come up with a plan for “safe areas in Syria or the surrounding region” in which to kennel the millions of “vulnerable” people.
Safe zones need to be secured by force, or those within them become targets for mass killing: a turkey-shoot for genocidaires. So to establish them will require either unexpected generosity on the part of some unnamed regional government, or the establishment of an American protectorate in Syria.
If that is indeed the plan—invasion and administration of a portion of Syria—then the single paragraph devoted to the subject in this draft is a buried hint that the Trump administration is ready for an overseas military adventure beyond anything countenanced by the Obama administration, or by Trump himself. Either that, or it is a hint that the new administration has no idea how complicated Syria, refugee issues, and terrorism really are. Given the haphazardness of the rest of the new administration’s policies, and callous irrationality of the rest of this order, I find it hard to speculate on which interpretation is more likely right.