Catching foreign fighters
US Customs and Border Police detained me last Friday en route home from Istanbul. I’ve been hesitating to write about the experience, until I read the story of three Colorado girls busted on their way to Syria to join up with ISIS.
My experience was mundane. I was clearing Customs in Toronto on my way home as a Global Access passenger, which means I usually slide through on my machine-read passport and fingerprints without any questions asked. But human intervention prevailed. When an official examining my passport asked why I had been in Istanbul, I uttered the key word: “Syria.” I was there for a meeting of Friends of the Syrian People working group, an intergovernmental group beginning to plan for reconstruction in the war-torn country.
That was enough to get me shunted to secondary screening, where I found a young man who looked military age and stature as well as an Iraqi Kurd of 45 or so who was returning from visiting family in Dohuk. He had lived in Nashville he said for the past 20 years or so. We were eventually joined by two young men who looked to my inexpert eye to be South Asians, I know not from which country.
By then I was next up to be questioned. It is mildly absurd to question someone my age, ethnicity and occupation as a potential ISIS recruit, but I decided not to object. Any sign of resistance would clearly have meant even more time in detention. If I was only being questioned to demonstrate that they weren’t profiling it was all right with me. Whites and Jews should know what Arabs, Kurds, South Asians and others are subjected to.
It wasn’t painful though for me. The questioning was straightforward and respectful. I explained in a bit more detail what I had done in Istanbul, emphasizing that the US government was represented at the meeting. I answered truthfully whether I had ever been to Syria: yes, before the revolution, to study Arabic. Yes, I know quite a few Syrians, as I’ve done some training of Syrians for nonviolent democratic transition and have followed events there with interest. I pushed forward my Johns Hopkins/SAIS business card. I willingly opened my suitcase and displayed my dirty laundry (literally literally).
About an hour and a half after the initial questioning, I was on my way again, having missed a connection. But no one should assume that my fairly mild experience is typical. The officials were unabashedly giving the Iraqi Kurd a hard time. They said he had deleted something from his cell phone while waiting to be questioned.
I confess I felt for the officials who do this work. Of the thousands of passengers through Toronto on a given day, how many are signing up for, or returning from, fighting with ISIS? Who knew whether and what my Kurdish friend had deleted.
The three Somali girls headed for Syria were caught at the Frankfurt airport. That’s a good thing. But fighting the Islamic State is going to require far more savvy than US Customs and Border Patrol can muster. Even if we stopped every single American going to fight in Syria, there would still be lots of volunteers from other countries far less committed than Germany and the US to stopping them. The contest we are in requires that we win hearts and minds, not just find needles in a haystack.