By Stephen Bryen
With the flood of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa overwhelming Europe, and with the Obama administration allowing large numbers to come to the United States, there is a justifiable fear that embedded in the ranks of the refugees are trained terrorists.
Until now, identifying embedded terrorists has been nearly an impossible challenge. People have called for better “vetting,” but to “vet” means to look back at people’s history based on their documentation. For most people, certainly for most Syrians, there is no “back” – even a legitimate passport can’t be verified with Passport Control in Damascus. With whom would one check local police, employment or education records?
Then add other, practical, problems. How do you interview a refugee when you have few officials who speak Arabic? And even if some know the language, how can a border control agent or a customs official determine whether the answers are truthful? How can the border control system deal with the extraordinary volume and process people who are disoriented, angry, and pressing to move on to more permanent quarters?
Government officials in Europe and the United States are under pressure to be accepting and flexible, not to ask too many questions, and not to delay the resettlement process. The laxity of governments and their officials has helped accelerate the flow of refugees to an unprecedented degree. The inability to “vet” and the corresponding huge leap of faith by the government necessary to offer people entry is what drives so many Americans to hedge their welcome.
Is there any way to weed out the “bad guys” in circumstances that make normal vetting processes impossible?
Israel has actually developed a system that uses technology to help spot potential risks. The system was initially developed for airports, where a terrorist boarding an airplane is a distinct threat. The technology is essentially ancillary to the main Israeli approach, which is to interview passengers using highly trained agents who ask visitors many questions, listen to the answers, and then decide whether follow up is needed. But the technology exists and is used.
A company called Suspect Detection Systems developed a technology-based system that, early on, was tested by the Department of Homeland Security’s TSA with impressive results. But, as TSA was interested in an approach that would look for weapons or bombs and not as interested in a vetting technique, DHS never followed up. Instead, DHS went after x-ray and sensor technology, with very mixed results.
The Israeli system is fast and is automated. A suspect is run through the system and asked pre-recorded questions in his or her own language. The system uses advanced algorithms and biometric sensors to assess whether the answers trigger a specific kind of response.
The method is based on stimulating a crowd of people with specific risk-related triggers to get a stimulated psycho-physical reaction (SPP). The method postulates that a specific stimulus “trigger” will cause a terrorist to generate a SPP Reaction that is identifiably different than that of a non-terrorist, non-criminal SPP Reaction to the same stimulus.
This identifiable motivation is known as the “terrorist hunting–hunted syndrome” (THHS). In order to identify and isolate the terrorist, one needs to stimulate and detect the THHS. The technology utilizes existing and field-proven Galvanic Skin Response and Blood Volume Pulse psycho-physiological sensors to measure an examinee’s responses during the automated interviews.
The system is already in use in many countries and functions in many languages without difficulty. Typically the subject sees certain “triggers” such as posted signs, a customs official, or some terrifying-looking machinery to create sufficient anxiety.
Based on extensive field experience accumulated in Israel, the only common characteristic to all suicide bombers and “effective terrorists” is their desire not to be caught by security authorities.
In the Department of Homeland Security test, 126 “meeters and greeters” were used to simulate a non-guilty group and another 33 police officers were set up as a Red Team who were supposedly smuggling IED components through an airport checkpoint. Overall the system was able to correctly identify nearly 74% of the two teams correctly and “caught” 66.7% of the Red Team in the experiment.
The test was early in the design of the complete system and the system has been significantly improved as field experience has helped the designers sharpen the detection algorithms and improve the signage – the warnings – that create the SPP. Today the system is close to 90 percent accurate.
What does this mean? It actually means two things. First, 90 percent of potential threats can be detected at the border or in refugee camps, whereas today the chances of finding any terrorist threat among refugees is close to zero. Second, it means that such a functioning system will be a strong deterrent to terrorist organizations who may not want to risk having their guys caught. Deterrence is a very important part of screening.
Most importantly, the system is non-invasive and does not require trained personnel or culturally alert officials, or even language capability. All of that is built into the system.
In the search for answers about refugees, technology can help in finding threats to peace and security, as this Israeli technology proves.