The Muslim Ban
I’ll give you a hint to the answer of the question in the title: it doesn’t help at all. The reasons for this are more complex than many existing analyses have made it seem, however. The discussion so far has traced the ineffectiveness of the ban to the fact that it gives terrorist groups more of a reason to hate the United States, thus motivating them to carry out more attacks. To some extent, that’s right– organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS capitalize on every event, publication, speech, law, etc. that they can in order to motivate their followers. “See?” they say. “The West hates us. They oppress Muslims world-wide. They’re a corrupt collection of despots, intent on destroying true Islam.”
Microterrorism in the West
However, that’s not all there is to the story. Part of it has to do with the fact that the terrorist attacks inside the U.S. and Europe aren’t the complex, large scale efforts that characterized the 9/11 attacks. Instead, they’re what the news stations have referred to as “lone-wolf” terrorism and what counterterrorist experts have called incidents of microterrorism. The difference between microterrorism and the 9/11 attack is analogous to the difference between the large-scale troop movements of World War II and the guerrilla warfare that characterized the Vietnam war. It’s actually very difficult to both predict and prevent guerrilla warfare-like attacks, since the trail of evidence that microterrorists leave behind is a slippery mess of localized activities that often only make sense as a narrative after the attack has happened. Yes, the scale of microterrorism is, as the name suggests, small. The San-Bernadino, Paris, Brussels, Turkey, and Florida incidents all had low casualty numbers, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t effective. All of these attacks resulted in both fear and chaos, which is the lifeblood of the terrorist movement.
All publicity is good publicity
There is a reason that ISIS lays claim to every incident of microterrorism that they can, even if the main organization had nothing to do with the events. It’s because the more they can instill fear in Western audiences, the better it is for their public image. It’s the same reason that ISIS always exaggerates the numbers of their active adherents, like in the case of the current Libyan civil war. ISIS was claiming that they had about six thousand “troops,” so to speak, in the country as of last fall when the actual total of their physical presence in the country was about one thousand (or even less). From a PR standpoint, the more important and effective they seem, the better it is for their recruitment efforts and for the garnering of the ideological fealty of non-active audiences. Non-active audiences, although they won’t carry out acts of terrorism, will allow Islamists to act without interference from community members, something that makes it much easier for the coalition to organize/implement their plans.
Ideological fealty, which is basically the loyalty of potential follower to the tenants of the group in question, is actually way more important for recruiting purposes abroad than it may seem, especially in the case of these lone-wolf attacks. ISIS and AQ members don’t actually need to travel to the U.S. Instead, all these organizations have to do is to find someone already within the United States (or any country) that is sympathetic to their cause. That potential recruit can then go online to follow pro-terrorist Twitter feeds or Facebook groups or forums or even just find Islamist publications that promote physical violence and then find some simple ingredients to carry out their plans. It’s incredibly easy to find pro-Islamist groups online. I had a fake Twitter account that I used for an experiment to see how many Syrian ISIS proponents I could find, and the ISIS accounts actually came to me after I followed a few of the most prolific users.
The wolf among the sheep
So, there is no real reason for someone from the new axis of evil to even come to the United States. Instead, all radical Islamists need to do is to find someone already within the United States that is already pissed off enough at the government to take action. And this recruit could be anyone– white, black, Arab, Latino, male, female, single, married, young, or old that has been tipped over the edge by something (and there is much debate over the combination of factors that can lead a person to take violent action). This person needn’t not even be Muslim, but simply have access to radicalizing online media that details how to make a chemical bomb (as is the case in AQ’s English-language magazine, Inspire) or how to attach spikes to a car and drive it through a crowd (also a suggestion from Inspire) in order to take violent action.
And, so the problem is A) how do we predict and prevent microterrorism within the U.S. without violating the civil liberties of the population (and, so, avoid the scandal cause by the NSA’s surveillance of the online activities of persons of interest) and B) How can we intervene in the radicalization process to start with? So far, the federal government doesn’t have any answers.
This is why the Muslim ban and the prevention of refugees seeking sanctuary is ineffective and dangerous. It does nothing to prevent microterrorist attacks from recruits already in the population and it doesn’t catch any of the myriad of those potential terrorists not on the axis of evil list of suspicion. It can also function as the one element that angers someone that already feels disaffected and marginalized either socially, politically, economically, or all of those things, and motivates them to take action.
Next up– more details about online Islamist media, especially Inspire and Dabiq.
I’ll also talk about the strange case of Zachary Chesser– a middle-class, white-male teenager from a nice, middle-class family who was somehow radicalized in the summer between his graduation from high school and his first year of college.