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Vetting immigrants fleeing war at home

Homeland Security has a wide variety of tools at its disposal to ID evacuees


Elizabeth Neumann Illustration by Borja

Vetting immigrants fleeing war at home
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Elizabeth Neumann is a former Department of Homeland Security official who has also worked in cyber security and threat assessment. She opposed former President Donald Trump’s reelection effort, arguing his rhetoric and inaction on domestic terrorism contributed to attacks. She’s on the board of the National Immigration Forum. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What security vetting did Afghan evacuees receive? Looking at their faces, irises, fingerprints, and running it through all of the U.S. government’s holdings. Also biographical information—name, date of birth, place of birth, and so on. There were reports that if they had any sort of documentation on them that the Taliban would kill them. To flee, they probably had to leave everything behind, including any proof about who they were and their work with the United States. This is true for most refugees. Most don’t have identity papers, a birth certificate, or a passport, because they fled for their lives.

So we’re doing other things to validate. You might be asking family members to validate each other’s stories, you might be asking associates. You’re looking for: Is anybody bobbling? Is anybody saying the wrong thing? It’s very similar to establishing witnesses for a court case or a criminal investigation. When you’ve done security vetting for 20 years as a national security community, we’re really good at understanding when to press something that doesn’t line up.

Anything easier about security vetting in Afghanistan? In Afghanistan we’ve been collecting fingerprints off of explosive material, bombs, or cars that exploded, for well over a decade. The Department of Defense has this massive database of fingerprints of people that we know are bad guys because they’re the bomb makers or they’re the ones that outfitted the car. It doesn’t matter if they lied about their name. If their fingerprint was on that bomb, we’re going to find them and make sure that they don’t come to the United States. And many of these people worked for the U.S. government, so we have data on them, and then some portion are their family members.

Didn’t a few people get into the U.S. that shouldn’t have? This isn’t something to be fearful of. But it was a lot of people in a short period of time, and human beings do make mistakes. At the very beginning, there were a few individuals that came in before the full system was up, and derogatory information was detected after they had arrived.

But the vetting community figured out how to take a process that often takes months and shrank it to a matter of a day or two per person. They had brought all these separate databases into a more efficient search process. They put analysts together that are usually located all across Washington, D.C. They were running shifts 24/7 to process what we now know is about a hundred thousand people. And they didn’t cut corners.

We don’t know what we don’t know. You could be a bad guy, but if we’ve never collected intelligence that says you’re a bad guy, there is no reason not to let you into our country.

What are the remaining risks? We don’t know what we don’t know. You could be a bad guy, but if we’ve never collected intelligence that says you’re a bad guy, there is no reason to not let you into our country. Bottom line, there is a limit to the U.S. government’s knowledge. But in Afghanistan, we have a whole lot of knowledge after 20 years of being there.

What about some crimes we’ve already seen? We have seen some culturally repulsive and outright criminal behavior. I think it’s important we put those into context. We’re talking about a very small percentage. If you compare it to the U.S. population—we’ve done studies on this, when you resettle refugees and you do it well, refugees and immigrants as a whole commit less crime than the U.S. general population. I’m sure that somebody will be a bad apple among a hundred thousand, but that’s true of all of us living here in the United States.

And when you see headlines, remember the trauma they’ve gone through and remember that they’re human. The Afghans arriving have gone through tremendous trauma. They’re losing the life that they knew, they’re losing the hope that they had for their country, many lost family members.

And we have a very politicized culture where there are people actively suggesting that somehow a refugee is dangerous, and creating an us versus them. I’m not worried about the refugees as much as I am about domestic violent extremists deciding that this is the reason why they’re going to do something, to speak out against foreigners coming into their country. That concerns me.

Let’s talk about domestic extremism. How has it changed since you started in the field? Radicalization has started happening much faster because of the internet.

It used to take years and usually happened in person. In the transition from the late aughts to the early teens, the time frame from being introduced to radicalized material to actually committing an attack shortened significantly, which means law enforcement doesn’t have time to run investigations, infiltrate, or recruit a source who can tell you what the plot is. And when it’s happening online, when it’s one person on their own, who’s going to be the source there?

What puts someone at risk of becoming a violent extremist? First, there’s a difference between being vulnerable, being radicalized, and being mobilized to violence. Having these risk factors doesn’t mean you’re going to go commit an attack.

Some of those factors are loss of significance, loss of job, loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship, financial stress, other major life stressors. Usually there’s one or two life stresses that have occurred fairly recently in an attacker’s life.

They tend to not have a lot of strongly held relationships. They tend to be struggling with a lack of belonging or can’t find the reason for why life matters.

Which is why it’s not hard to understand why, historically, the types of people that tend to get recruited into extremism are adolescents, early twenties. We’re all trying to figure ourselves out at that age, and that search for significance, if it’s stunted in some way, can lead to a lot of anger and angst. And that makes them very vulnerable to being recruited into a gang or a terrorist group that gives them a sense of belonging, gives them a sense of purpose.

So it’s not about extreme ideology? It turns out ideology is pretty loosely affiliated with violence. It’s not that the ideology can’t motivate or justify, but it’s usually not the core driver.

Let’s say I’ve got a 15-year-old who has never known a dad and has some neo-Nazi guys offering him cigarettes and saying, Hey, you can come join us, and his mom’s working all the time and doesn’t notice that they’re also recruiting him on the video games that he’s playing. It doesn’t have to be neo-Nazis, it could be anything.

But that kid is maybe vulnerable to nefarious individuals coming in and offering him solutions to what is inherently a problem of trying to find meaning and purpose in life. These other suggestions come in and give him a sense of belonging and a way to channel rage, something to blame for whatever he’s mad at.

He might tell you he’s a die-hard believer in whatever the ideology is, but what is actually going on underneath tends to be more about seeking meaning by joining those groups. Moving him off that path is about empathy.

He might tell you he’s a die-hard believer in whatever the ideology is, but what is actually going on underneath tends to be more about seeking meaning by joining those groups.

How do you stop the cycle? Turns out it’s easiest to stop it before it starts. That means working with schools and with counselors to be able to detect signs and indicators that somebody might be radicalizing. They’re already trained in some places on how to deal with gang recruitment. This is just adding to it.

Governors need to have a state plan for how they’re going to stitch together the different services needed for identifying individuals who are vulnerable or in the process of radicalizing and then intervening and getting them help.

Most of that help has nothing to do with law enforcement and everything to do with what we would otherwise term counseling, mental health. If we could do that and do a better job of taking care of those that have been identified as vulnerable or on that radicalization path, we would reduce the burden on law enforcement for all of the other things that they have to investigate and hopefully reduce the number of attacks we see in the country.

You worked under former President Donald Trump and came to believe that his rhetoric about Asians, Mexicans, and other groups was harmful. Is there evidence that politicians’ rhetoric has a real impact on extremism? Most people are rational human beings and realize that it doesn’t matter what anybody says, you’re not allowed to commit a crime, you can’t just randomly go beat people up on the street. But it’s almost like reality gets suspended in this political context. And having the president of the United States express something disparaging certain people gave permission for people to perhaps act out on things that they already wanted to do.

Back to Afghan evacuees. They’ve had trauma, stress. Are they at risk of radicalization? The history of refugees coming to the United States, usually escaping trauma, is not that they do something. I don’t fully know why, because the stressors that occur in an attacker’s background sound very similar to the stressors that a refugee might experience. Also, we’ve resettled through groups like World Relief or Catholic Charities or Lutheran Services and they do it well, and that’s maybe helped build resilience.


Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.

@EstherJay10

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