Amer­ica’s un­der­rec­og­nized ally in the fight against ter­ror­ism: Ge­og­ra­phy

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - Philip Bump Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York City.

When a bomb ex­ploded on a Lon­don sub­way train on Fri­day morn­ing, 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 United States. 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 United States by in­di­vid­u­als in­spired by rad­i­cal ide­ol­ogy were com­mit­ted by Amer­i­can cit­i­zens.

And never mind that there's a sig­nif­i­cant and of­ten un­men­tioned pro­tec­tion the United States 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 by phone with The Post to ex­plain how the ge­og­ra­phy of the United States of­fers us a dis­tinct ad­van­tage.

That ad­van­tage isn't only about the rel­a­tive dif­fi­culty of get­ting to the United States from the Mid­dle East 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 tak­ing about the Is­lamic State – 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 United States 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 United States 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 – trav­el­ing to an­other coun­try on the con­ti­nent and mak­ing your way into the United States – 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 United States with reg­u­lar­ity. But those are gen­er­ally fun­neled through crim­i­nal op­er­a­tions, and a crim­i­nal op­er­a­tion that was con­sid­er­ing help­ing to smug­gle a ter­ror­ist into the coun­try would cer­tainly rec­og­nize that the reper­cus­sions of be­ing caught do­ing so would be sig­nif­i­cant. A ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion con­sid­er­ing work­ing with a crim­i­nal group to be smug­gled into the coun­try, for their part, would likely rec­og­nize 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. When stuff is harder, it re­quires more re­sources on their side, there's more chances of get­ting caught, there's more in­tel­li­gence to fo­cus on – and all of th­ese have a sig­nif­i­cant cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect over time."

He also noted an­other way in which Amer­ica's iso­lated ge­og­ra­phy af­fected the like­li­hood of ter­ror­ist in­fil­tra­tion.

"There are his­toric rea­sons Euro­pean states have sig­nif­i­cant Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties," he noted. 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 cen­tered 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 den­sity of those lo­cal pop­u­la­tions in Europe also makes it eas­ier for those look­ing to blend in to do so.

"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 United States as a harder place to get into than they do Europe," By­man said.

Put an­other way: A 3,000-mile wide ocean is a pretty large, tough lim­i­ta­tion on travel al­ready – and one that has the ben­e­fit of be­ing un­ques­tion­ably con­sti­tu­tional.

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