The futility of vetting immigrants to prevent terrorism

Earlier this week, ABC News reported that federal agents interviewed Sayfullo Saipov in 2015 but never opened a case against him. Saipov went on to kill eight people in a vehicle attack on the West Side of Manhattan.

Saipov was listed as a “point of contact” for two men whose names were in a Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism database and who later overstayed their tourist visas, according to a federal official. One was flagged after arriving from a “threat country,” while the other vanished and was being actively sought by federal agents as a suspected terrorist.

This is a familiar story. We’ve read about other domestic terrorists who were on the FBI’s radar, but not to the point that serious action was taken to thwart them.

It’s difficult to know from this kind of report whether the feds should have done more based on the information they had. In Saipov’s case, for example, we don’t know how his interview with the feds went, what exact information they had on the guy, and what, if anything, they did to keep track of him after the interview.

There is another familiar story buried in the ABC News report — one that strikes me as more consequential:

Saipov, 29, is originally from Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan. A former neighbor of Saipov’s in Tashkent, who did not want to be identified, told ABC News today that she remembers Saipov’s family as modest and secular and described Saipov as “a normal young man” when he lived there.

“The family was normal, modern, wearing tight pants, no scarfs,” she said. “They did not go to the mosque.”

According to a statement released by Uzbekistan’s embassy in Washington, Saipov graduated from college, worked as an accountant for a hotel and had no previous criminal record while living in Tashkent.

“Neighbors in makhalla (local community in Uzbekistan) described Saipov quite positively: according to them, he did not provoke any suspicions, always kept a low profile and used to be friendly in relation with others,” the statement reads. “He was brought up in a good family environment. His parents preached traditional Islam and have never been noticed in communications with any extremist groups.”

This could be BS, but probably isn’t. It’s easy to believe that, while in Tashkent, Saipov was “normal,” modern, peaceful, and friendly. It’s easy to believe that he became radicalized after coming to the U.S. in 2010. And it’s almost certain that he formed his pro-ISIS views here. ISIS hadn’t really emerged in 2010 when he immigrated to the U.S.

Saipov followed a normal pattern. According to Erica Marat, a Central Asia expert at the College of International Security Affairs:

Patterns of radicalization for Uzbeks are somewhat similar to that of migrants from other countries, an inability to fit into the society where the live, an inability to live the American dream. So they are looking for ways to belong and extremist narratives seem to be the most attractive.

[They] encounter the ISIS narrative in the U.S. through the media and other venues that are radicalized.

Vetting immigrants like Saipov is therefore futile. They have no discernible radical ties before they come here and, indeed, probably aren’t radical.

Vetting is also futile when it comes to the children of immigrants from countries like Uzbekistan. Their views on relevant matters — the West, Sharia law, the true meaning of Islam, etc. — will not have formed yet. As Andy McCarthy says: “Though we worry about the jihadist of today, we must be at least as concerned about the ten-, twelve-, 15-year-old kid who settles into a sharia-supremacist enclave and, like Saipov, is a jihadist seven years from now.”

If we want to prevent attacks like Saipov’s, we should severely limit immigration from countries that are more likely than most to produce immigrants who fit what Marat calls “patterns of radicalization.” Who can deny, for example, that a Uzbek immigrant is more likely than, say, a Polish one to be won over to radical Islam once in the U.S, and thus to engage in domestic terrorism?

And, as Saipov’s case reminds us, we simply can’t tell which particular Uzbeks are the likely converts to jihad against our country after they arrive here.

It follows that the Diversity Visa Program, as implemented, is perverse. Immigrants admitted under this program come disproportionately from Muslim countries, making them, almost by definition, better candidates than most to become jihadists in the current environment.

High up on the list of countries whose residents have been admitted to the U.S. under the program are Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, and, yes, Uzbekistan. In other words, we are going out of our way to admit immigrants with a heightened likelihood of terrorizing our citizens. It would be enlightening to know which officials are responsible for this.

Of course, the Diversity Visa Program must go. Then, we need further to limit immigration from countries like the ones listed in the previous paragraph.

Liberal judges will do their best to block this endeavor. Fine. Let them be exposed for their lack of common sense and their disregard for the safety of Americans. Then, take the cases to the Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court blocks the endeavor, let it be exposed. But let’s not have political correctness — even if dressed up as convoluted modern constitutional law theory — deter us from pushing for common sense immigration rules that minimize penetration by those most likely to do us harm.