Coming Home

There are some interesting anecdotes and observations in former New York City Police Department Intelligence Director’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on the prospective dangers that radical Islamist violence in Syria and Iraq pose here in the United States:

In 2008, for example, the NYPD identified a young Staten Island man who admired Osama bin Laden and American-born terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki and sought to travel to Pakistan to join the Pakistani Taliban. Fortunately, an NYPD undercover officer managed to penetrate the cluster of radicalized men around him and learned of his plans. This police work allowed U.S. intelligence agencies to alert Pakistani authorities.

As a result, 18-year-old Abdel Hameed Shehadeh would be denied entry to Pakistan and sent back to the U.S., where he was later arrested for making false statements related to the reasons he gave for his travel. After Pakistani officials denied him entry, Shehadeh had told investigators from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force that he had traveled to Pakistan to visit a university. But he later admitted that his true purpose was to wage violent jihad against U.S. forces; he was convicted in 2013 for lying about his attempt to join the Taliban and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

In June 2010, two men from New Jersey, 24-year-old Carlos Almonte and 20-year-old Mohamed Alessa, were seized at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport while trying to leave the country on separate flights for Cairo, en route to Somalia to join the Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabaab. The men had stated that their goal was to train to kill Americans overseas—or when they returned. Once again, a NYPD undercover officer detected and penetrated their conspiracy, allowing the FBI and NYPD to work together to thwart their travel plans. In 2011, Almonte and Alessa pleaded guilty to conspiring to murder people outside the U.S. and were sentenced to 20 and 22 years in prison, respectively.

In January 2013, counterterrorism agents and NYPD officers intercepted 18-year-old Justin Kaliebe as he tried to board a flight to Oman at JFK airport on his way to Yemen. Prosecutors alleged that Kaliebe began plotting to join al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, in 2011. An undercover NYPD officer with whom Kaliebe was in contact was able to record their conversations and alert the authorities before Kaliebe attempted to leave for Yemen and jihad. He was arrested at the airport by members of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and charged with attempting to provide material support to an al Qaeda affiliate, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.


We have seen the implications, most clearly on 9/11, of trying and failing to detect individuals trained and radicalized to launch terrorist attacks once they have arrived on U.S. soil. As for homegrown terrorists, it is not easy to detect when thoughts and intentions turn to action unless covert sources are in place to observe these sometimes subtle changes. As the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings showed, missing the signs can be deadly.

I think his key observation, that radicals who have honed their skills overseas can bring them back here, is actually a more severe problem for Germany, France, and the United Kingdom than it is for us. We are the natural destination of immigrants from Latin America. They are are the natural destination of immigrants from the Middle East. Still, it highlights a problem I’ve noted for some time.

There are some very contentious and troubling questions we should be discussing but aren’t. Why is dual citizenship tolerated? Why don’t we keep track of visa holders? Under what circumstances does a naturalized American citizen implicitly renounce his or her citizenship? A native-born American citizen?

I don’t claim to have answers for any of those questions but I do believe we should be thinking about them. I also don’t claim that we can completely eliminate risk. Dealing with risk is a process of mitigation not elimination. If we’re not willing to take any steps to mitigate risk, that means that we accept the risks. It seems to me that’s something that should be explicit rather than implicit.

I do know that sanitary war in which no Americans are killed, only violent radicals are killed, and is enough to mitigate our risks here at minimal cost is a phantasm. That’s true whether it’s practiced by neoconservatives or liberal interventionists.

11 comments… add one
  • steve

    Dual citizenship is tolerated because we have citizens with dual citizenships with Israel. That will not be terminated. That said, I think mitigation is what we need to understand and accept. Striving for zero risk leads to things like the Iraq War. We overreact and just create more problems. Terror attacks don’t work so well if we don’t agree to be terrified. Outside of the dual citizenship issue, we could certainly look at answers to the questions on your list, but I suspect it would devolve into arguments between folks who want some maximalist answer and those who want an affordable, practical one.


  • jan

    Keeping a country safe and secure is a complex task. However, such a task becomes more manageable when a clear direction is fleshed out with understandable goals, perimeters set forth as to how far we will go to achieve these goals, and the means of their implementation are outlined, openly defined and decisively executed when a situation calls for us to give a timely response .

    IOW, keeping a country safe and secure necessitates having coherent, well-thought-out policies, constructed in advance — especially those pertaining to our foreign engagements and terrorist threats — in order to meet sudden or escalating events that are typical in today’s global environment.

    However, with a president so enamored with ideological protocol and correctness, mired down in consistently dithering on what to do, we become a country highly susceptible to sudden security breeches. The very fact that this administration meekly defaults to explanations of “unexpected,” when responding to increasing upheavals and terrorist aggression abroad, and now to our own southern border being inundated by illegal traffic, is disturbing and should be unacceptable to most people living here.

  • Lack of a coherent, thought-out policy has been SOP under most presidents for most of our history, jan.

    The reality is that our Cold War/George Kennan grand strategy was an anomaly. We generally just muddle along. It’s worked well for us.

  • jan

    We generally just muddle along. It’s worked well for us.

    I don’t think it’s working well for us at the present.

    Perhaps, though, I was alluding more to having some kind of general predeposition to our foreign policy that world members could rely on as being present and exercised should it be crossed. As I see it, we have none today. Sure, onerous statements and even threats are made, and then they disappears into the vapors. Even in child rearing parents are cautioned to be consistent and have follow-thru in their parenting declarations, or else children simply won’t take them seriously. In our case, world leaders no longer take us seriously, for the very same reasons of inconsistency and prolonged hesitation in taking action.

  • Yep. We aren’t France, the UK, Russia, or China. We don’t have a systematic foreign policy. What serves as a policy is completely transactional.

  • Craig

    Why is dual citizenship tolerated? U.S. citizenship law defines everyone as a U.S. citizen or an alien*, and ignores what other countries think. In principle, this is workable. It would help if new citizens were expected to understand the renunciation part of the oath of allegiance.

    (* pedants’ footnote: there is also a status for non-citizen nationals, at present basically restricted to residents of American Samoa.)

    Why don’t we keep track of visa holders? Because it would be hard. No, of course that’s not a good reason.

    Under what circumstances does a naturalized American citizen implicitly renounce his or her citizenship? A native-born American citizen? See 8 USC 1481; unfortunately, the Supreme Court has drastically undermined the statute. It is currently official policy to assume that any American citizen who takes an oath of allegiance to another country is committing perjury, though of course that’s not how it’s phrased.

  • Ben Wolf

    Interesting that you would address this topic when I had just read an article by Owen Bennett-Jones:

    There has been much comment about the foreign volunteers attracted by Baghdadi’s pan-Islamist ideology. You might think the recruits from Western Europe in particular would be more trouble than they’re worth: many don’t speak Arabic and have been brought up in such comfort that they find it difficult to adapt to jihadi life. But they have advantages too. Often well educated, they bring zeal along with their Western passports. Some can be persuaded to become suicide bombers. Isis’s openness to foreign fighters has paid dividends, though the question that concerns Western media is how much of a threat they would pose if they returned to the societies that nurtured them. British officials claim that as many as five hundred Muslims from the UK are now fighting in Syria and Iraq and that those who survive and return will be too numerous for the security services to monitor. But in reality there is nothing even approaching an existential threat to the UK. Many of the young men who have gone to the Middle East have done so precisely because they don’t consider the UK their enemy and don’t think they should attack British targets. And one of the insights gained by the various deradicalisation programmes that now exist all over the world is that while jihadis appear ferocious, many are fairly weak-willed individuals. It’s easy to persuade them to fight, but it also turns out to be easy to persuade them to stop. It has been estimated that in the past just one in nine returning foreign fighters has continued to wage jihad in some form in his home country.

  • Let’s say there are 1,000 jihadis fighting in Syria with Western passports. That seems like a very conservative estimate.

    1 in 9 is 110. That’s a lot more than it took to bring down the World Trade Center. With the personal empowerment available today 110 people can do a lot of damage.

  • TastyBits

    If counter-terrorism operations are using the techniques of counter-espionage, the terrorists will need to be right every time. By this time, the US should have gotten its act together. There is probably more to the lack of attacks than luck.

    Transferring large sums of money through the banking system can be traced. Doing it manually is subject to robbery. If you have good intel, this is one way to introduce counter/dis-information into the organization.

    Cellphones, satellite-phones, etc. can be traced and networked. Again, using couriers is a problem because they provide intel. Their families can be “visited” by the local country’s intelligence service (goon squad) to help with any memory loss.

    The good guys build a big picture of the terrorist organization, affiliates, allies, enemies, family members, “vendors”, etc. When President Obama first came into office, he began dismantling the tools to create and maintain this intel, but he quickly learned it was necessary.

    He has gone even further by terrorizing the terrorists with his drone war. “If you harbor a terrorist, you will die like a terrorist.” By the standards of the right and left, President Obama should be a super-hawk or a war criminal but, nobody wants to acknowledge this.

    The home-grown, one-off terrorist is still difficult to catch, but if the Boston Bombers were wearing trench coats, anarchists masks, or swastikas, it would have been regular US crazies doing regular crazy things.

    I saw your post on the Chinese at OTB, but I do not have a lot of time to post. I have not kept up with Janes or news about US subs for years, but some time back, nuclear subs were noisy. If I recall correctly, they were too noisy for shallow waters, and diesels are better because they are quieter.

    The US also has listening devices planted underseas, but I do not know how much has been laid-in around China.

  • Ben Wolf

    You’ll get no argument from me, Dave. I just find it endlessly fascinating that two people can look at the same thing and arrive at six different conclusions.

    I had a friend who once related the events of a road trip he had taken many years ago: his vehicle suffered a terrible failure that cost him a consideable sum of money, a policeman cited him for failing to carry proof of insurance and a friend with him came dangerously close to a fatal diving accident. From one perspective a terrible week but from another his friend didn’t die, his vehicle was repairable and he wasn’t arrested for lack of the porper documentation.

    How we judge the threat illustrated by the Boston bombing, for example, is very much in the same vein.

  • jan

    I just find it endlessly fascinating that two people can look at the same thing and arrive at six different conclusions.

    A good observation about the nature of human nature, Ben. Police will often say the same thing when correlating the stories from various witnesses — oftentimes showing great disparities even when it comes to physical descriptions of culprits.

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