Geography: America’s underrecognised ally
The 4,828km-wide Atlantic ocean is a pretty large, tough limitation on travel by any prospective terrorist
hen a bomb exploded on a London subway train on Friday morning, United States President Donald Trump was quick to put the incident to his own political use. “Another attack in London by a loser terrorist,” he said on Twitter. He continued: “Must be proactive! The travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher and more specific — but stupidly, that would not be politically correct!”
Trump’s assertion, mirroring similar ones in the past, was that the attack demonstrated the need to curtail new immigrants to the US. Never mind that, when Trump tweeted, it wasn’t clear who’d planted the bomb (a missing bit of information that British authorities pointedly noted in response to Trump). Never mind, too, that recent attacks in the US by individuals inspired by radical ideology were committed by American citizens.
And never mind that there’s a significant and often unmentioned protection that the US enjoys, which Europe doesn’t: the Atlantic Ocean.
Dan Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at Brookings who served as a staff member on the 9/11 Commission. He spoke over the phone with the Post to explain how the geography of the US offers the country a distinct advantage. That advantage isn’t only about the relative difficulty of getting to the US, as compared with getting to continental Europe, but that’s a lot of it. “Europe has all of these land entry points,” Byman said. “And especially when you’re talking about [Daesh, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] — notionally, you could drive from Syria to Paris. You wouldn’t drive, technically; you’d cross borders, take buses and all that, but even so, it’s just harder to secure.”
To get to the US is much harder. To gain access directly, you have to arrive by boat or airplane, limiting the number of entry points that the government needs to police and limiting the number of people who can attempt it. (Not to mention that reaching the US by boat is an order of magnitude more difficult than reaching Europe by boat.) Travel over such a distance is also more expensive, leaving more of a paper trail.
To gain access indirectly — travelling to another country on the continent and making your way into the US — may alleviate some of the scrutiny of the authorities, but introduces a new complexity. “From a terrorist’s point of view, they have to worry about the odds of success,” Byman said. “Many groups can’t afford to try 20 times and say, We’ll lose some but it will be okay. They have to worry that one blown operation will have profound consequences.”
Sure, he pointed out, lots of things get smuggled into the US with regularity. But those are generally funnelled through criminal operations, and a criminal operation that was considering helping to smuggle a terrorist into the country would certainly recognise that the repercussions of being caught doing so would be significant. A terrorist organisation considering working with a criminal group to be smuggled into the country, for their part, would likely recognise that the criminals might just as readily turn them over to the authorities.
“All of these are about probabilities,” Byman said. “This doesn’t stop anything; it just makes it harder.”
Shared culture and language
He also noted another way in which America’s isolated geography affected the likelihood of terrorist infiltration.
Western colonialism in Africa and the Middle East, for example, helped build communities in Europe with roots in those nations. America’s colonial extensions were centred elsewhere, like Latin America. Those existing communities meant that when people sought to emigrate from the Middle East more recently, they tended to focus on nearby countries with populations that shared a culture and language. If you were looking to emigrate from Algeria, would you go to Miami or would you travel to Paris?
“The number of people who are skilled enough to operate in an environment where there aren’t many people who speak their language and whose culture they don’t know? It’s a lot harder,” Byman said. This goes back to Byman’s other point: When it’s harder to sneak terrorists into a country and there are fewer terrorists who could be successful once they’re there, that sharply decreases the number of people who’d be successful. This isn’t just theoretical. “We know from some of the records we’ve seen over the years from groups like Al Qaida that they see the US as a harder place to get into than they do Europe,” Byman said.Put another way: A 3,000-mile (4,828km) wide ocean is a pretty large, tough limitation on travel already — and one that has the benefit of being unquestionably constitutional. Philip Bump is a correspondent for the Washington Post based in New York City.