The Trump Administration Might Put the ‘Extreme’ in ‘Extreme Vetting’


Most foreigners arriving in the United States are greeted by Customs and Border Protection officers asking routine questions, such as the reason for the trip, where they’re staying and who they’re visiting. But the Trump administration is now considering a far more intensive screening process for visitors and visa applicants from some of our closest allies.

The new process would allow Homeland Security officials not only to go through social media content, but also to inspect cellphones for suspicious contacts. The process under consideration could apply to visitors from a broad cross-section of countries, possibly including the 38 countries whose citizens can usually enter the country without a visa per the Visa Waiver Program, such as Britain, France and Japan.

Even more alarming is a potential entrance questioning on ideology that would assess a visitor’s beliefs on issues such as the treatment of women in society, ethics in military conflict and the “sanctity of life,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Some have argued that these policies represent the president’s effort to fulfill his campaign promises of “extreme vetting.”

Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly succinctly articulated the administration’s considered approach for the seven countries included in the administration’s travel ban during a February congressional hearing: “If they come in, we want to say, what websites do they visit, and give us your passwords. So, we can see what they do on the Internet . . . If they truly want to come to America, then they will cooperate. If not, next in line.” And while it’s too early to tell what the final policy will look like, the proposed procedures would, if adopted, set a dangerous precedent for privacy.

The proposal represents a marked break from core American values. As a model of democracy, we must protect both our citizens’ privacy and the privacy of non-citizens. We can’t cherry pick which values we embrace and to whom we apply them.

And not only is it bad for democracy, but also it’s bad for business. In 2014, international travel and tourism generated more than $1 trillion in spending around the world. We host many visitors each year in Las Vegas for CES, where more than 180,000 attendees — including more than 60,000 international attendees — gather to do business and drive the global technology market. Visitors to the United States not only buy American products, they stay in American hotels, eat in American restaurants and participate in American culture.

If we make it harder for international travelers to come to the United States we not only discourage business and tourism but also encourage a retaliatory response from other nations. How many of us would travel outside the United States if we had to give up our passwords, contacts and perhaps other information on our cellphones?

What’s more, social media screenings so far have resulted in dead-ends as a security tool. Last December, former US Citizenship and Immigration Services director Leon Rodriguez told Congress that most information acquired through such screenings had not been helpful.

Every day we get better tools to weed out the visitors who mean us harm — tools that don’t require giving up a password from what could well be a bogus account or asking everyone to share their private conversations and content. We can do gait analysis and facial recognition to confirm identities. We can employ biometrics to determine stress levels. We can use algorithms to analyze facial micro expressions to tell law enforcement whether someone is being deceptive. And apps such as Moodies and others can listen to a voice for as little as 20 seconds and determine the speaker’s emotion.

By combining the smart use of technology with modern questioning techniques such as those used by Israel to remarkable effect in their airports, smart security can strike a balance between our need for privacy and our need for safety. We can debate the privacy issues surrounding such use of these technologies, but certainly we can agree these are less immediately invasive — and more effective — than demanding passwords for cellphone and social media access.

The United States’ unique role as a model for democracy, a home for free enterprise and a beacon for the world’s best and brightest has been the reason for our global lead in innovation and our consistently strong economy. If we are to prosper, we must resist the urge to shut our doors and instead develop innovative ways to reduce the risks of imported terrorism.

Inside the Economic War against ISIS

Washington- ISIS starts the new year with a drastically depleted bank account, counterterrorism officials say, following months of intensified efforts to deprive the jihadists of oil profits and other revenue used to finance military operations and terrorist attacks abroad.

Coalition aircraft in the past 15 months have destroyed more than 1,200 tanker trucks — including 168 vehicles struck in a single air raid in Syria in early December — while also using new weapons and tactics to inflict lasting damage on the terrorists’ remaining oil fields, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say.

The military strikes are being paired with new measures intended to shut down financial networks used by ISIS to procure supplies and pay its fighters, the officials say. Two weeks ago, the U.S. and Iraqi governments announced the first coordinated effort to punish Iraqi and Syrian financial services companies used by the terrorists to conduct business.

The campaign has slashed profits from oil sales, traditionally the biggest revenue source for ISIS, U.S. officials say, and deepened the economic pain for a terrorist organization that until recently was regarded as the world’s wealthiest. One sign of the financial strain, the officials say, is a shrinking payroll: After cutting salaries by 50 percent a few months ago, ISIS now appears to be struggling to pay its workers and fighters at all.

“We are destroying ISIS’s economic base,” Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the 67-nation coalition arrayed against ISIS, said at a news briefing recently. Just a year ago, the militants were luring foreign fighters with promises of generous paychecks, but today “that is not happening,” he said.

“Their fighters are not getting paid,” McGurk said, “and we have multiple indications of that.”

Coalition planes have been bombing the group’s oil fields and tanker fleet for more than two years, but the most notable successes in recent months have come from military operations that targeted individual oil wells, including well casings and other underground infrastructure, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials familiar with the new strategy.

The tactics make it all but impossible for ISIS to repair the wells or extract oil through makeshift techniques, the officials said.

Previous airstrikes crippled ISIS’ oil-producing capacity, but the militants consistently found ways to pump and refine oil in smaller batches using primitive methods, said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military operations. Now, even the small-scale operations are struggling, he said.

“We can take them back to the 19th century, but people were still able to extract oil in the 19th century — it bubbles up to the ground and they find a way to bottle it and sell it to someone,” the official said. The new approach involves inflicting “the maximum amount of damage with the right weapons so it will not be easy or quick for them to repair,” the official said.

The improved targeting comes against a backdrop of ongoing airstrikes on tanker trucks used to haul oil and refined products such as gasoline and diesel. The bombing campaign, dubbed Operation Tidal Wave II, initially focused on large tanker convoys before ISIS leaders switched tactics and began relying on smaller vehicles, often traveling alone and hidden or camouflaged by day to elude detection.

Yet on Dec. 8, U.S. warplanes spotted and destroyed a caravan of 168 tankers near the terrorist-held Syrian city of Palmyra, in the largest raid of its kind since the conflict began. The U.S. pilots dropped leaflets warning the drivers — typically civilians and local conscripts — of the impending attack before A-10 “Warthog” jets swooped in to strafe the convoy.

“While the Palmyra raid was exceptionally large, the attacks themselves are a regular occurrence,” said Daniel L. Glaser, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing. “This has been an ongoing campaign over the past year to target those tanker trucks.”

As the result of such raids, oil revenue for ISIS is now a tiny fraction of the estimated $1.3 million per day the group was earning in early 2015, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said. Still, small truckloads of oil, mostly from the Syrian side of the militants’ self-proclaimed caliphate, continue to find their way to the black market, aided at times by corrupt officials in Syria and Turkey, two countries that are officially at war with ISIS, the officials said.

“ISIS is still selling oil to [Bashar] Assad,” said a Middle Eastern official familiar with operations against ISIS, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. “It’s an important revenue source, and we see Assad’s people continuing to facilitate.”

Destroying ISIS’ financial underpinnings has been a primary objective for the U.S.-led coalition since 2014, although progress at times has been halting.

Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS is largely self-financed, deriving most of its income from oil sales and criminal enterprises, as well as from money taken through taxes and fees extracted from local residents and businesses in the territories it occupies.

The terrorist group also benefited initially from the vast hard-currency holdings it confiscated when it seized banks in Iraqi and Syrian cities in 2014. The cash windfall — at least $500 million initially, according to U.S. estimates — has largely vanished, in part because of U.S. air raids that targeted the bunkers where the money was stored.

The Washington Post

ISIS’s Second-in-Command Hid in Syria for Months. The Day he Stepped out, the U.S. was Waiting.


For a man given to fiery rhetoric and long-winded sermons, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani became oddly quiet during his last summer as the chief spokesman for ISIS.

The Syrian who exhorted thousands of young Muslims to don suicide belts appeared increasingly obsessed with his own safety, U.S. officials say. He banished cellphones, shunned large meetings and avoided going outdoors in the daytime. He began sleeping in crowded tenements in a northern Syrian town called al-Bab, betting on the presence of young children to shield him from the drones prowling the skies overhead.

But in late August, when a string of military defeats suffered by ISIS compelled Adnani to briefly leave his hiding place, the Americans were waiting for him. A joint surveillance operation by the CIA and the Pentagon tracked the 39-year-old as he left his al-Bab sanctuary and climbed into a car with a companion. They were headed north on a rural highway a few miles from town when a Hellfire missile struck the vehicle, killing both of them.

The Aug. 30 missile strike was the culmination of a months-long mission targeting one of ISIS’s most prominent — and, U.S. officials say, most dangerous — senior leaders. The Obama administration has said little publicly about the strike, other than to rebut Russia’s claims that one of its own warplanes dropped the bomb that ended Adnani’s life.

But while key operational details of the Adnani strike remain secret, U.S. officials are speaking more openly about what they describe as an increasingly successful campaign to track and kill ISIS’s senior commanders, including Adnani, the No. 2 leader and the biggest prize so far. At least six high-level ISIS officials have died in U.S. airstrikes in the past four months, along with dozens of deputies and brigadiers, all but erasing entire branches of the group’s leadership chart.

Their deaths have left the group’s chieftain, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, increasingly isolated, deprived of his most capable lieutenants and limited in his ability to communicate with his embattled followers, U.S. officials say. Baghdadi has not made a public appearance in more than two years and released only a single audiotape — suggesting that ISIS’s figurehead is now in “deep, deep hiding,” said Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the global coalition seeking to destroy Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

“He is in deep hiding because we have eliminated nearly all of his deputies,” McGurk said at a meeting of coalition partners in Berlin this month. “We had their network mapped. If you look at all of his deputies and who he was relying on, they’re all gone.”

The loss of senior leaders does not mean that ISIS is about to collapse. U.S. officials and terrorism experts caution that the group’s decentralized structure and sprawling network of regional affiliates ensure that it would survive even the loss of Baghdadi himself. But they say the deaths point to the growing sophistication of a targeted killing campaign built by the CIA and the Defense Department over the past two years for the purpose of flushing out individual leaders who are working hard to stay hidden.

The effort is being aided, U.S. officials say, by new technology as well as new allies, including deserters and defectors who are shedding light on how the terrorists travel and communicate. At the same time, territorial losses and military defeats are forcing the group’s remaining leaders to take greater risks, traveling by car and communicating by cellphones and computers instead of couriers, the officials and analysts said.

“The bad guys have to communicate electronically because they have lost control of the roads,” said a veteran U.S. counterterrorism official who works closely with U.S. and Middle Eastern forces and who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. “Meanwhile our penetration is better because ISIS’s situation is getting more desperate and they are no longer vetting recruits,” the official said, using a common acronym for the terrorist group.

“We have a better picture inside ISIS now,” he said, “than we ever did against al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

The caliphate’s cheerleader

The first to go was “Abu Omar the Chechen.” The red-bearded Georgian militant, commonly known as Omar al-Shishani, fought in the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and had been trained by U.S. Special Forces when he was in the Georgian military. He rose to become ISIS’s “minister of war” and was reported to have been killed on at least a half-dozen occasions since 2014, only to surface, apparently unharmed, to lead military campaigns in Iraq and Syria.

Shishani’s luck ran out on July 10 when a U.S. missile struck a gathering of militant leaders near the Iraqi city of Mosul. It was the beginning of a string of successful operations targeting key leaders of ISIS’s military, propaganda and “external operations” divisions, U.S. officials said in interviews.

On Sept. 6, a coalition airstrike killed Wa’il Adil Hasan Salman al-Fayad, ISIS’s “minister of information,” near Raqqa, Syria. On Sept. 30, a U.S. attack killed deputy military commander Abu Jannat, the top officer in charge of Mosul’s defenses and one of 13 senior ISIS officials in Mosul who were killed in advance of the U.S.-assisted offensive to retake the city.

On Nov. 12, a U.S. missile targeted Abd al-Basit al-Iraqi, an Iraqi national described as the leader of ISIS’s Middle Eastern external-operations network, responsible for carrying out attacks against Western targets.

But it was Adnani’s death that delivered the single biggest blow, U.S. analysts say. The Syrian-born militant was regarded by experts as more than a mere spokesman. A longtime member of ISIS’s inner circle, he was a gifted propagandist and strategic thinker who played a role in many of the organization’s greatest successes, from its commandeering of social media to its most spectacular terrorist attacks overseas, including in Paris and Brussels.

His importance within the organization was also steadily rising. Last year, after the U.S.-led coalition began retaking cities across Iraq and Syria, it was Adnani who stepped into the role of cheerleader in chief, posting messages and sermons to boost morale while calling on sympathetic Muslims around the world to carry out terrorist attacks using any means available.

“He was the voice of the caliphate when its caliph was largely silent,” said Will McCants, an expert on militant extremism at the Brookings Institution and author of “ISIS Apocalypse,” a 2015 book on ISIS. “He was the one who called for a war on the West.”

The CIA and the Pentagon declined to comment on their specific roles in the Adnani operation. But other officials familiar with the effort said the task of finding ISIS’s No. 2 leader became a priority nearly on par with the search for Baghdadi. But like his boss, Adnani, a survivor of earlier wars between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents in Iraq, proved to be remarkably skilled at keeping himself out of the path of U.S. missiles.

“His personal security was particularly good,” said the U.S. counterterrorism official involved in coordinating U.S. and Middle Eastern military efforts. “And as time went on, it got even better.”

But the quality of the intelligence coming from the region was improving as well. A U.S. official familiar with the campaign described a two-stage learning process: In the early months, the bombing campaign focused on the most visible targets, such as weapons depots and oil refineries. But by the middle of last year, analysts were sorting through torrents of data on the movements of individual leaders.

The information came from a growing network of human informants as well as from technological innovations, including improved surveillance drones and special manned aircraft equipped with the Pentagon’s Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System, or EMARSS, designed to identify and track individual targets on the ground.
“In the first year, the strikes were mostly against structures,” said a U.S. official familiar with the air campaign. “In the last year, they became much more targeted, leading to more successes.”

Watching and waiting

And yet, insights into the whereabouts of the top two leaders — Baghdadi and Adnani — remained sparse. After the Obama administration put a $5 million bounty on him, Adnani became increasingly cautious, U.S. officials say, avoiding not only cellphones but also buildings with satellite dishes. He used couriers to pass messages and stayed away from large gatherings.

Eventually, his role shifted to coordinating the defense of a string of towns and villages near the Turkish border. One of these was Manbij, a Syrian hub and transit point for ISIS fighters traveling to and from Turkey. Another was Dabiq, a small burg mentioned in Islam’s prophetic texts as the future site of the end-times battle between the forces of good and evil.

Adnani picked for his headquarters the small town of al-Bab, about 30 miles northeast of Aleppo. There he hid in plain sight amid ordinary Syrians, conducting meetings in the same crowded apartment buildings where he slept. As was his custom, he used couriers to deliver messages — until suddenly it became nearly impossible to do so.

On Aug. 12, a U.S.-backed army of Syrian rebels captured Manbij in the first of a series of crushing defeats for ISIS along the Turkish frontier. Thousands of troops began massing for assaults on the key border town of Jarabulus, as well as Dabiq, just over 20 miles from Adnani’s base.

With many roads blocked by hostile forces, communication with front-line fighters became difficult. Adnani was compelled to venture from his sanctuary for meetings, and when he did so on Aug. 30, the CIA’s trackers finally had the clear shot they had been waiting for weeks to take.

Records generated by commercially available aircraft-tracking radar show a small plane flying multiple loops that day over a country road just northwest of al-Bab. The plane gave no call sign, generally an indication that it is a military aircraft on a clandestine mission. The profile and flight pattern were similar to ones generated in the past for the Pentagon’s EMARSS-equipped MC-12 prop planes, used for surveillance of targets on the ground.

The country road is the same one on which Adnani was traveling when a Hellfire missile hit his car, killing him and his companion.

The death was announced the same day by ISIS, in a bulletin mourning the loss of a leader who was “martyred while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo.” But in Washington, the impact of his death was muted by a two-week delay as U.S. officials sought proof that it was indeed Adnani’s body that was pulled from the wreckage of the car.

The confirmation finally came Sept. 12 in a Pentagon statement asserting that a “U.S. precision airstrike” targeting Adnani had eliminated the terrorist group’s “chief propagandist, recruiter and architect of external terrorist operations.”

The Russian claims have persisted, exasperating the American analysts who know how long and difficult the search had been. Meanwhile, the ultimate impact of Adnani’s death is still being assessed.

Longtime terrorism experts argue that a diffuse, highly decentralized terrorist network such as ISIS tends to bounce back quickly from the loss of a leader, even one as prominent as Adnani. “Decapitation is one arm of a greater strategy, but it cannot defeat a terrorist group by itself,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and an author of multiple books on terrorism. Noting that ISIS’s military prowess derives from the “more anonymous Saddamist military officers” who make up the group’s professional core, Hoffman said the loss of a chief propagandist was likely to be “only a temporary derailment.”

Yet, as still more missiles find their targets, ISIS is inevitably losing its ability to command and inspire its embattled forces, other terrorism experts said. “The steady destruction of the leadership of ISIS, plus the loss of territory, is eroding the group’s appeal and potency,” said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran and a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution. “ISIS is facing a serious crisis.”

The Washington Post

Concerns over ISIS Emergence in Albania

The Washington Post

By Joby Warrick

Tirana-Ask Bujar Hysa about the charges that landed him in Tirana’s cramped No. 302 Prison, and he spits furious denials. “I never encouraged terrorism!” declared the Muslim cleric, convicted last month of recruiting young Albanians for ISIS.

But press further and Hysa readily admits to supporting a kind of ISIS – not in Syria, but at home, in Albania, a NATO member and close U.S. ally on Europe’s southern flank.

Reflecting on his country’s future from the prison’s tiny visitor’s room, he predicted that Albanians would inevitably replace Western-style governance with sharia, or Islamic law. Indeed, younger members of his flock were clamoring for it, he said.

“Islam can coexist with other religions, but with democracy? No!” the bearded imam told a reporter as a guard kept an anxious watch just outside the door. “Anyone who says that sharia can coexist with democracy is a hypocrite.”

It is precisely this sentiment that has officials on a war footing in tiny Albania, a country with 2.8 million people, but an outsize problem trickling in from across its rugged eastern border.

The Balkan enclave, nestled between the shimmering Adriatic and the high peaks of the Dinaric Alps, has a majority-Muslim population but a centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance and moderation. Yet even here, 1,200 miles from the fighting in Syria, ISIS has found a small but devoted following.

More than 100 Albanians have traveled to the Middle East to join the terrorist group, and a few have gained prominence, using the Internet to beckon their countrymen. Their call to militancy has been echoed by a handful of ultra-conservative mosques that have sprung up in Albania in recent years, some of them built with help from Islamic charities and missionaries from Turkey and the Arab Gulf region.

Albania’s government is aggressively pushing back. The parliament recently passed laws forbidding participation in ISIS, and the security services have cracked down on recruits making the trek to Iraq and Syria. Bujar Hysa, the imprisoned imam, was one of three clerics and six others sentenced last month to prison terms of up to 18 years for allegedly encouraging young Albanians to embrace violent jihad.

But these efforts are facing strong headwinds, including a current of radicalism welling up from the Levant and spilling through a Balkan neighborhood still scarred from the sectarian warfare of the 1990s. Extremist messages are finding fertile ground in poorer neighborhoods and villages, where official corruption is high and unemployment among young adults often exceeds 40 percent.

Border police are stepping up patrols for Islamist fighters traveling north to central Europe with Syrian refugees, though few of the migrants have dared to attempt Albania’s dangerous alpine passes so far. “We have high mountains to serve as partial barriers to their entry,” Albanian parliament speaker Ilir Meta said during a Washington visit last month, “but even mountains cannot stop this tide.”

Albanian officials acknowledge that their most potent weapon against extremism – economic development – continues to fall short, as do Western promises of increased trade and investment with a country still mired in poverty 25 years after the end of communist rule.

“Religion has never been the problem here; it’s education. It’s the lack of a developed civil society. And it’s poverty, especially in the remote areas,” Ylli Manjani, the country’s justice minister, said in an interview. “When you have a situation where people feel hopeless, extremists can fish in that pool.”

The very idea of radical Islam still sits uneasily in a country that has always worn its religion lightly.

For centuries, Albanians were an amicable mix of Sunni Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, with a significant minority of Bektashis, a moderate Sufi Muslim sect that has its global headquarters in Albania. For nearly 50 years until the collapse of communism in 1990, the country’s Marxist leaders proclaimed Albania to be the world’s first atheist state, officially banning religious observances and persecuting imams and priests.

Among the persecuted was the Muslim grandfather of Ylli Gurra, a moderate Sunni cleric who today presides over a prominent mosque in Tirana, not far from statues honoring Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero and a 15th-century convert to Christianity.

Gurra, wearing a tailored suit and sipping coffee in one of Tirana’s fashionable outdoor cafes, credited his grandfather not only for his faith but also for his belief in embracing neighbors from different religions. Such acceptance, he said, has always been a staple of Albanian Islam – at least, until recently.

“We have always been proud of being a country where you can practice your beliefs as you see fit,” Gurra said. “But the people who grew up under communism had little understanding of their religion. And now, after 25 years of democracy and freedom, some have trouble understanding the boundaries.”

Foreign groups have been only too eager to assist in the country’s religious education. Starting in the early 1990s, Islamic charities, some with the backing of oil-rich gulf kingdoms, jetted into Tirana to begin building mosques and madrassas, or religious schools.
In the past decade, Albania’s larger cities have witnessed a proliferation of independent mosques, unaffiliated with the Muslim Community of Albania, the organization that presides over the country’s moderate-Sunni worship centers. New evangelical Christian congregations had cropped up, as well, reinforcing a growing sectarian consciousness that many Albanians say is alien to their culture.

Today, one of the biggest construction projects in Tirana is a huge, $34 million mosque funded in large part by the Turkish government. While few officials would publicly question Turkey’s largesse, some privately expressed exasperation. Why a lavish new mosque in a country with so many critical needs, including schools, highways and infrastructure for Albania’s promising but underdeveloped tourism industry?

“Please,” implored one senior official, “we have needs other than mosques.”

Lately, it is not the mosques themselves that worry Albanian security officials. It is the messages, communicated by a small number of independent imams, many of them trained outside the country.

Fears about radicalization began building two years ago when the first waves of ISIS volunteers began leaving for Syria, urged onward in some cases by local clerics. In some remote villages in southeastern Albania, young Muslims in their teens and 20s left home in clusters, sending word later that they had arrived in Iraq or Syria. Some joined up with all-Balkan combat units made up of Albanian and Kosovar nationals.

One Albanian fighter, Ebu Belkisa, a 32-year-old imam from the tiny eastern village of Leshnica, was promoted to a leadership post and then to Internet stardom, appearing in ISIS videos under the nom de guerre Almir Daci to urge his countrymen to carry out terrorist attacks at home. Belkisa was later killed in fighting, but his widely circulated videos helped spur an unprecedented crackdown by Albanian officials on real and perceived radicals across the country.

Some of the most notorious mosques were closed or forced to change leadership, and many of the more outspoken Islamists were arrested. Among those caught up in the initial sweeps were Bujar Hysa and the eight other Islamists accused of encouraging congregants to support ISIS.