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Terror Expert: Money Better Spent on Intelligence Than Border Security

WASHINGTON – In combating radical Islamic terrorism, nations would be better served devoting financial resources to intelligence, law enforcement and military efforts than border security, a counterterrorism expert told a House panel Tuesday.

Speaking at a House Foreign Affairs joint subcommittee hearing, Kim Cragin, a research fellow at National Defense University, discussed terror attacks carried out by ISIS outside its 25 claimed provinces. Since ISIS rose to prominence in 2014, only about 3 percent of its external attacks have included a participant who matriculated through a refugee program.

Successful counterterrorism programs, she said, emphasize layers of security measures, which might include border security, but she argued that the focus should be intelligence operations.

“(Three percent) is not zero. It’s something,” she told the panel. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t do border security.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) noted that many of his constituents have voiced concerns about terrorists gaining EU citizenship and using it as a ticket to the U.S. to carry out terror plots. In 2016, Hungarian security officials reported that a large number of the ISIS assailants responsible for attacks in Paris and Brussels that year entered the EU posing as migrants, using the Balkans route of Eastern Europe. The two attacks resulted in more than 150 deaths. According to The Telegraph, the group had been training fighters in Syria.

“We can’t solve this issue for them, but I hope the Europeans are asking these questions,” Duncan said.

Cragin suggested broader, collaborative intelligence efforts with officials in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, so that those nations are able to absorb and reintegrate foreign fighter returnees.

According to Cragin’s testimony, ISIS leaders are still highly motivated to carry out attacks in the West. ISIS was responsible for about 225 attacks outside Syria and Iraq between June 2014 and May 2017; 42 percent occurred in countries without ISIS safe havens. Comparatively, only 10 percent of al-Qaeda attacks between January 2008 and December 2010 were carried out in countries without organization safe havens.

Experts on Tuesday also discussed the prospect of collaboration between the U.S. and regional powers. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) talked about how he and Rep. William R. Keating (D-Mass.) visited Russia following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. That attack, carried out by brothers Dzhokhar (a U.S. citizen) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (a legal resident), claimed three lives and injured 280 people. Rohrabacher said that Russian officials provided the U.S. with intelligence information that gave a much better understanding of the bombers’ family ties and origin.

“Had they shared that with us beforehand, we might have put (them) on a higher level of observation,” Rohrabacher said, asking Cragin if the U.S. should be working with Russia to defeat radical Islam.

Cragin said that discussions with Russian academics have highlighted a cultural divide. While Americans are more willing to tolerate risks in pursuit of maximizing democratic values, her Russian counterparts’ ultimate goal was “stability.”

“Everything came down to this value- or culture-based tension,” she said.

Rohrabacher also asked if the United States is cooperating on a large scale with European nations to track down terrorists. Robin Simcox, a British fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said that European nations, particularly the UK, are grateful for the intelligence the U.S. provides, noting that it “outstrips the vast majority” of information found in the EU.

Simcox described U.S. intelligence oversight as “quite robust” compared to European governments “who complain in public about American spying but then in private are grateful for some of the intelligence that’s passed on.” The U.S. government came under fire in 2015, when it was discovered that the Obama administration had been spying on Germany.