Immigration and terrorism are independent social phenomena stemming from dissimilar causes and
with radically different objectives. To explore the relationship between the two will raise academic eyebrows and generate the usual accusations. But if we want to connect the dots, we can hardly do less. The two phenomena have grown spectacularly in the past several decades, becoming mass immigration and global terrorism. And they converge in Western Europe.
Television commentators regularly fret about terrorists crossing our southern border concealed in a torrent of illegal immigrants. National media attention is riveted on the Middle East. But the nightmare of Department of Homeland Security officials with whom I talk is not the Mexican border or the Middle East. They lose sleep over Muslim immigrants from enlightened Western Europe.
At the Nixon Center we have investigated 373 suspected or convicted terrorists who resided in or crossed national borders in Western Europe and North America since 1993. Despite extensive search our matrix did not include any mujahiddeen with ties to al Qaeda entering from Mexico, In contrast, we found 26 subjects who used Canada as a host country. Moreover, while the U.S. asylum system has been relatively secure, Canada and European are regularly abused by terrorist asylum claimants. Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian who tried to bomb the Los Angeles airport, availed himself of the Canadian asylum system.
Canadian authorities have pointed to the existence of Islamist support cells in Canada and have identified 50 terrorist groups composed of 350 individuals in their country. In Mexico on the other hand, the Arab Muslim population is miniscule and there is no evidence so far of any support cells. As for the Middle East, the Department of Homeland Security has stationed law enforcement agents in capitals such as Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Casablanca, Jakarta, Islamabad and Riyadh (and Jeddah), specifically to investigate visa applicants suspected of ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The CIA and FBI focus like a laser beam on travelers from that region.
Meanwhile, in Western Europe, the two trends of mass immigration and global terrorism intersect visibly and dangerously. For more than a decade the region has formed a haven for Middle Eastern “dissidents,” often a.k.a. mujahideen, and for graduate students like Mohammed Atta. But these visitors or first generation immigrants are by no means the only source of concern. The murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent served notice for a new generation of mujahideen born and bred in Europe and the object of focused al Qaeda post-9-11 and post-Iraq recruitment. Because these children of guestworkers are European born, they are citizens entitled to passports. And they are also entitled to enter the United States without so much as an interview by a U.S. official. That is because European countries enjoy a reciprocal agreement with the United States called the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
The new mujahideen are European born and bred and products of a little noticed convergence of migratory networks and terrorist cells. In addition, European Muslim recruits can form the al Qaeda cells most apt to plot a course in the United States. The second-generation terrorists speak European languages, handle computers, surf the internet, exchange e-mail, and are familiar with post-industrial infrastructures and customs. Unlikely to be watchlisted, the new mujahideen not only navigate a modern society but can enter the United States freely. But terminating the VWP would exact a heavy bureaucratic, financial and diplomatic price and would be a major blow to U.S.-European relations and constitute a strategic misstep. This paper proposes to mending, not ending, the VWP.