David Inserra, policy analyst in homeland security and cyber policy at The Heritage Foundation, spoke to The Daily Signal’s Genevieve Wood this week about the Halloween terror attack in lower Manhattan. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
Genevieve Wood: We’re talking about what happened in New York and immigration policy. David, we heard the president has already called for more extreme vetting. How does that all play into what we saw [Tuesday]?
David Inserra: Yeah, well, I think there’s—it’s important to step back and first figure out exactly what the details are in these cases. In this case, it appears as though the individual in question—Saipov is his last name—he came here through a diversity visa is what’s being reported. But, so, this isn’t a question at all of vetting, this is a question of how do you stop someone who’s already in the United States from radicalizing and then acting on that radical ideology?
This is the 86th homegrown plot so we’ve had, actually, this is actually number 100. We’ve had 100 Islamist terrorist attacks and plots against the U.S. homeland since 9/11. Eighty-six though, 86 of those 100 have involved people who radicalized here. So that just speaks to the difficulty of and where we really face a significant challenge. Yes, we need to do a better job of vetting, but the real challenge is how we do stop people who are already here. Whether they be 27th-generation Americans, or something like that, or whether they be new immigrants.
Wood: How much of that though is, I mean, as you mention, he came in we know with a diversity visa. First of all, explain what the diversity visa program is and what it isn’t.
Inserra: Sure. So the diversity visa is essentially a visa which is a lottery. There’s countries that we don’t have a lot of immigration from right now, a lot of sort of Central American, I’m sorry, Central Asian, African, some places in Asia. We don’t get a lot of immigrants from those places and so United States as a policy matter has this law which basically says these places we don’t currently get a lot of immigrants, we’re going to create a immigration visa, a green card to the United States for these countries, for people from these countries. And what these people from these countries do is they sign up and what we do is we literally raffle off a green card to these countries that don’t get a lot of green cards. So that’s what a diversity visa is.
Wood: In the meantime, we’ve got a lot of folks from a lot of countries around the world, maybe not these in particular, but who are in line to get here for various reasons. Is there … you can hardly say the United States lacks in diversity. Why would we have a program like this, what’s the point of it beyond saying we just want to have more people from Central Asia.
Inserra: It’s a great question. No, it’s something which I know even back when there was a debate. The last big immigration debate we had, the comprehensive immigration bill. Even back then everyone sort of agreed that this kind of needed to go away. Everyone sort of agrees but even then, unfortunately, I think you have some, especially folks on the Democratic side who really do think that this is something which diversity in and of itself is the goal, and any of other sort of U.S. national interest are not what we should be concerned about.
Which means that even when they try to rework and they supposedly did away with the diversity visa back in the last comprehensive immigration bill, I have to go back through and look at my notes, but I’m pretty sure what they did was simply inserted the diversity visa into the other visa categories that they were going to be creating and so it’s unfortunately something which is persistent and people want to stay around even though it seems to serve really no purpose.
Wood: And the reason I wanted to kind of dig into this is because you made mention of the guy who, we don’t know all of the details yet, but we think he came in with a diversity visa. It may be the case that even if they had did a extreme vetting on him back in the day they wouldn’t have found anything. That said, when you’re bringing people in who maybe don’t have any family connections here, don’t have a community here, they may get here and find it hard life the United States. That doesn’t make it right what they do but is there a chance that those folks are more apt to radicalizing, if you will, than others? And are we increasing bringing in populations like that, that we shouldn’t be?
Inserra: So, I don’t know, you know, statistics looking at terrorism and how many people come in with diversity visas. Like I said, diversity visas, fairly small category, so I can’t know a broader trend from this.
What I can say is that the concept of assimilation is something which me and my colleagues have looked here and it is a critical feature of what we look at when we say what is the problem with people who are radicalizing. And one of things we see is a lot of young people, this guy is supposedly 29, who come to the United States at fairly young ages, I think he supposedly came at 21 or something like that. They come fairly young. And something doesn’t click, they don’t buy into whatever our culture, our laws, our concept of justice, whatever it is. They don’t buy into that and they instead perceive grievances against themselves they don’t fit in. And they engage in terrorism as a result.
So this assimilation process where the failure of the assimilation process is something to be concerned about and as it relates to terrorism how that might specifically relate to the diversity visa I’m not sure. But quite possibly that people on the diversity visa might not fit in as well. I don’t know. There’s not enough data on that for me to say. But assimilation is a critical problem here.
Wood: One of the huge problems that you’ve pointed to … By the way, you can see all of David’s research if you go to Heritage.org, David Inserra, you’ll see all of his research there. You also write for The Daily Signal, which we appreciate. But you talk a lot about the issue of interior enforcement when it comes to immigration policies and that it’s not just about stopping people at the border. It’s all the folks that we have here that we should be considering trying to get out. Speak to that and maybe how that would have played into this.
Inserra: I’ll say, actually, in this case, I don’t think that would have really been an issue at all. There’s nothing, I don’t know if he became a citizen yet. These details are still unfolding. If he had become a citizen and had become a citizen lawfully, then we usually aren’t deporting people who had become American citizens. There would have to be extreme fraud or something like that. So I don’t think interior enforcement would have come into place into this case. But when we are dealing with illegal immigration, interior enforcement is really an essential tool, but I think that’s a separate piece from what’s going on here.
Wood: So let’s go back to the radicalization piece here. How do we do a better job of dealing with that? I mean, people talk about how we need to be following social media feeds and obviously watching, tracking folks to see were they looking at websites where they’re being radicalized? Is it mosques that are radicalized here, in the cases of radical muslims? What would you point to as policy areas we should look at?
Inserra: Sure, so I would say that there is a couple things we need to do. This case is sort of a good example of why we can’t wait for these events to happen. If security alone isn’t good enough, you can’t put up enough barriers, you can’t put up enough police on every street corner to stop these kinds of incidents. Eventually, terrorists, and right now their MO is really to hit these soft targets and unfortunately, cars are increasingly their MO as well.
We can’t stop that by just putting up enough security, that requires that we have people, we have intelligence and law enforcement tools to stop, to catch, to figure out where these people are before they act. That means looking at yes, it might mean some social media stuff. But it also means putting together the dots with the other intelligence we have. Figuring out what we are getting intelligence from overseas sources. What intelligence we have from domestic targets.
There are some really essential counterterrorism tools that we have on the books right now and Congress is actually going to be debating some of these tools actually by the end of this year. And these kinds of cases just prove how essential it is that we have those tools to be able to improve our security and to be able to hopefully stop more of these incidents in the future. Because we do stop a lot of these, and most of the ways we stop these plots are with good intelligence. It’s not, you know, very rare is it that we, a cop stops some guy in the street right as he is about to attack someone. It’s usually that we’ve got good intel that causes us to catch the guy before he even gets near his target. And so we need to be having a real conversation about that especially as Congress is debating these intelligence tools.
Wood: And what would, I know again we don’t want to overthink this particular incident. What are the kinds of tools that might have caught this person before he did what he did [Tuesday]?
Inserra: So, you know, we don’t know enough about his background at this point to know that definitively. You know, was he, how much was he posting on social media? Was he not posting on social media? Was he posting on, was he using encrypted tools, was he not? Was he in communication with people overseas? Was he not in communication? These are some of the critical questions that we need to know before I think we can answer ‘What exactly should we have done? What did we miss?’
It could also be, it could sadly, be the case he kept to himself, was a loner, read stuff online, radicalized, and then didn’t tell anyone and just rented a truck one day. It’s hard to stop someone who gives, you know, precious few hints to anyone that he is thinking about doing this. Usually when we do stop these guys it’s because they’re talking to someone, we have a confidential informant whose undercover and they reach out and the guy spills the beans, as it were. Or we get intelligence from a source outside the United States that says this guy has been talking, we know that someone in the United States has been talking to some guy overseas and so we are able to put together those dots. We don’t know enough about this guy yet.
Wood: And culturally we, I have to go back to the San Bernardino case where you had neighbors next door, however, who saw what they thought was suspicious activity, boxes arriving, people coming over in the middle of the night, all this stuff going on in the garage. And yet they said we didn’t say anything because, we knew, we thought they were Muslims next door and we were fearful that people would say they were being hate-mongering, Islamophobic, and so on. I mean, that plays into it, too, does it not?
Inserra: It depends on his neighborhood, where he lives, we need those details to know is this something were there tell-tale signs that people would have been coming in contact with. Supposedly, you know, I’ve heard some things regarding, one of the things I’ve read is he was not a good customer, I think it was. And was argumentative when he wanted to purchase soda. But is that a feature of a terrorist or is that a feature of someone who’s used to a society where they bargain for things and wants to bargain over the price of a bottle of soda? It’s tough to know that.
At this point, before we know details about his life, his background—supposedly, he has a family here in the United States. Before we know those details are fleshed out, it’s hard to know exactly what we could have done. But as a principle, yes, it is important that when the average American sees something, very often, intelligence tools are important. Very often there are tips that come in. There are tips either from local law enforcement or from regular people who do that and result in the FBI taking note and elevating the level of suspicion or investigation that they are doing into someone. So that is a very important thing that every American can do.
Wood: Well, David, thank you very much. This is kind of an initial reaction. We don’t have all the details yet, but there’s just so many things that play and things that need to be considered. And every time something like this happens, it’s a good time to re-examine and really take a hard look.