Experts from some so-called “terror-prone” nations targeted by new, more stringent airline safety regulations are speaking out against them. They say the U.S. response to the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt has unfairly targeted innocent people.
“The news has not been well-received by people in the 14 designated countries – including my own,” said former Pakistani journalist and diplomat Akbar Ahmed.
Ahmed, who currently serves as chair of the Islamic Studies department at the American University in Washington, said the frustration is understandable. “The majority of people in those countries are law-abiding people, and they do not see themselves as either terrorists or aligned with terrorists. In fact, many of them see themselves as victims of terrorists,” he added.
The new regulations issued by the U.S. agency in charge of transportation security require air travelers coming to the United States from 14 nations to undergo extra security screening. Four countries on the list – Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria – are considered “state sponsors of terrorism” that have repeatedly given support to acts of terrorism. Ten others – Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen – are seen as “countries of interest,” where air travel is deemed to be at greater risk from terrorists who target U.S. citizens and interests.
Ahmed said he understands the need for administrators to be very sensitive to security. “But I also have experience in the field and know that many of these measures are simply irritants to people and they do not make us safer. What they do is make people angry, and they are ultimately self-defeating,” he noted.
Ahmed’s arguments are also personal. He recalls when he and a friend, UCLA Professor Judea Pearl, were traveling together to a conference to promote Jewish-Muslim understanding. Ahmed assumes it is his name that regularly sets off alarm bells for airport security. “Ahmed, Mohammed – all these names are related and in Islam maybe 20 to 30 percent of the males have some kind of variation of those names because it means that they are related to the Prophet of Islam. And when security officers see the name, they begin to be suspicious,” he explains.
Prejudice and Profiling
That sort of broad “profiling” can produce charges of prejudice. Like his colleague, Ahmed is proud of both his heritage and his legacy to the next generation. Ahmed’s daughter, Amineh Ahmed Hoti, is director of the Centre for Jewish-Muslim Relations at the University of Cambridge. In 2002, Pearl’s son, journalist Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by his al-Qaida captors in Karachi.
Likewise, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad has been the victim of profiling by airport security. “I myself have had a problem of not being able to get my boarding pass on-line or even at the airport kiosk but have to go through an agent,” he said. A Palestinian-American, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad is president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute and teaches at the University of Maryland.
“The American government is trying to take a blanket approach to the perception of an increased risk from people who come – or are in transit – from those 14 countries and does not distinguish among them,” said Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad . “When you look at the actual cases where people have tried to hijack flights,” he said, “We cannot say that it is an effective, efficient, or even moral means of deciding whom to closely examine – to base it simply on their country of origin.”
Instead, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad says intelligence experts should instead pay closer attention to the sources of information that allows them to put people on watch lists. “Searches should be selective and based on at least reasonable suspicion, if not probable cause.” “Too many people appear on the watch-list and are considered terrorist suspects because their names have appeared on “Islamophobic websites,” he added.
Balancing Security and Respect
For someone who campaigned on a promise of restoring respect for human rights and shifting away from the Bush-era “war on terror,” President Obama is finding the struggle between security and freedom as difficult as did is predecessor.
“People in the Arab world see the new regulations on airline security as contrary to the message President Obama delivered in Cairo to the Muslim world – urging more openness, building new bridges, and promoting greater respect for Islam. And that is sad,” said Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent with the Middle East Broadcasting Center.
“Security is paramount for everybody – Americans, non-Americans, Muslims, and non-Muslims,” Bilbassy said. “You need to have a delicate balance of trying to track down extremist elements without jeopardizing or alienating more people,” she urged.
Foreign Policy Considerations
“I’m not sure how all this will end,” said Akbar Ahmed of the American University. “I do know that in Pakistan already there are suggestions that Americans should be subject to this same procedure when they come to Pakistan.” There are newspaper reports that Americans are being denied visas,” he added.
“All of this is moving in a direction that makes me very unhappy because Pakistan and America are supposed to be close allies,” Ahmed lamented. “The primary question is the efficiency of human intelligence,” he stressed, “and I think that’s what needs to be strengthened.”
Correcting a Systemic Failure
Speaking to the nation [7 January], President Obama said U.S. agencies had failed to “connect and understand” intelligence that could have kept the alleged bomber off the plane from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.
Mr. Obama announced a series of changes in intelligence and security procedures to guard against future terrorist plots. Among them are quicker and wider distribution of intelligence reports, new procedures for devising terror watch lists, and revising the “No Fly” list.
The President also instructed the State Department to review its visa policy to make it more difficult for people with connections to terrorism to receive U.S. visas as well as making it simpler to revoke visas when questions arise.