Center for Security Policy, by Ben Lerner, Sep.11,2014:
As several Members of Congress have begun calling for the revocation of passports of US citizens fighting for ISIS in order to keep American jihadists who have trained overseas from returning to the United States and carrying out attacks here, Washington Free Beacon reports that American intelligence is cautious about a similar proposal being offered with respect to British citizens by Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom:
While such [passport revocation] measures serve as an appropriate response to the alarming trend of Western recruits joining terror groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and al Qaeda, members of the American intelligence community have warned that the policy could result in an overall loss of valuable intelligence.
The U.S. counterterrorism strategy has been to “lure in” militants returning from Iraq or Syria with the hopes of extracting detailed information about ground operations, recruitment, and designs for attacks on the homeland. Cameron’s strategy, on the other hand, imposes strict no-fly restrictions on travelers returning from Iraq and Syria with the goal of ‘excluding’ British citizens from the U.K.
Although it is unclear which “members of the American intelligence community” are expressing these concerns, and whether they are outliers or are representing a consensus view, there are two problems with the “lure in” objection to passport revocation with respect to US citizens:
1) The fact that they’re here doesn’t mean we’ll be able to track them. Recent revelations that the Department of Homeland Security has lost contact with 58,000 expired student visa holders – 6,000 of which are subjects “heightened concern” that may pose threats to national security – do not inspire confidence that our resource-constrained intelligence bureaucracy will be able to successfully track jihadist operatives that we’ve “lured in”.
Such an approach would seem especially risky when the subjects are themselves the would-be attackers, as opposed to support components like recruiters or financiers. We may indeed (on a case-by-case basis) want to lure in the latter to uncover terrorist plots, but when the individual in question is himself the plot — the trigger-puller, the bomb-detonator, the virus-carrier – preventing entry ought to be the priority. If these guys disappear into the crowd, it could be too late to prevent anything.
2) Even if we can track them, that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to extract intelligence from them. The Obama administration has shown that it’s more inclined to let jihadists on US soil lawyer up and remain silent, such as in the case of the Christmas Day underwear bomber of 2009 and the Boston Marathon bomber of 2013. The military might have success in “extracting detailed information” from such individuals if allowed to detain them as enemy combatants before turning them over to law enforcement (even if as US citizens they are ineligible for trial by military commissions), but that appears unlikely under this administration.