Last October, before the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, I argued that the security risks from Syrian refugees are, in general, low, but the potential ones are considerable if the crisis is handled poorly. In particular, I worried that refugees with no links to terrorists would be let into the West in a fit of generosity, but then ignored, mistreated, and marginalized over time – making them potential supporters of terrorism.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that four of the terrorists involved in the network that conducted the Paris attack infiltrated into the continent as refugees, entering Europe via the Greek island of Leros. Two of the four blew themselves up near the Stade de France sports complex, while the other two – delayed because Greek officials realized their documents were suspect – still made their way into Europe, but were not able to join the attack and were eventually arrested after the massive post-Paris investigation. Looking at the four individuals involved and the subsequent attacks offers important insights about the overall threat level facing the United States and Europe, as well as logical next steps for policy makers.
The Syrian war, as has long been feared, is an incubator for international terrorism. The Paris cell’s ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a Muslim born in Belgium who had flitted back and forth to Syria in the months before the attack. In addition to the European members of the cell, an Islamic State commander sent four non-Europeans “on a mission to go to France, to kill, to become a martyr.” The Islamic State gave the non-European operatives doctored Syrian passports from its huge cache, hoping they would slip into the huge stream of almost one million Syrian refugees flooding Europe in search of safety. The plan was that the four foreign operatives, two Iraqis, one Algerian, and one Pakistani, would join ranks with the European-born Muslims to carry out the attacks.
The paths of these four operatives are instructive. The two Iraqis would succeed, demonstrating the weakness of Europe’s border controls. Greece, never known for its tight security, and Frontex, the EU’s border agency, were overwhelmed – only 20 percent of refugees were being screened before the Paris attacks. Meanwhile, according to the Post story, the Algerian and Pakistani terrorists’ accents and lack of local knowledge about their supposed Syrian homes gave them away to Frontex officials, but they were merely turned over to the overwhelmed Greek authorities, who allowed them in with other non-Syrian, economic migrants. They quickly found another way into other parts of Europe, but they were too late to join the attack. Although border security has since improved its screening capabilities, Greece and the EU certainly have a long way to go.
Improving capacity is one obvious policy recommendation. Greece and Turkey in particular need help with border security and with vetting refugees. This will enable them to better sort out true Syrian refugees from other communities, both Arab and non-Arab, that may feign being Syrians to take advantage of Syrians’ preferred status in Europe (Afghans and Eritreans, for example, are getting little welcome). Such help will also make it more likely to detect terrorists and returned foreign fighters trying to go from Syria and Iraq back into Europe.
The bigger, longer-term issue, however, remains that of integration.
The bigger, longer-term issue, however, remains that of integration. The two Iraqis were the only non-European terrorists in the Paris attack: without their presence, many still would have died. The lack of integration of refugees and minority communities can lead to radicalization, offering the Islamic State and other groups a potential pool of shooters and suicide bombers. Moreover, it enables suspects from these communities to hide from law enforcement. The Paris attack suspect, Salah Abdeslam, who was also probably connected to the cell that carried out the Brussels attacks, was able to avoid authorities for months in his home neighborhood of Molenbeek, despite being subjected to a continent-wide manhunt.
Looking at the latest information about the Paris bombers should also be somewhat reassuring on the U.S. front. If the EU, with almost no vetting, was able to disrupt two of the four imposters, then what would a multi-year and far more competent U.S. investigation reveal? Similarly, as I’ve argued before, the United States is far better than Europe when it comes to integrating refugees and immigrants in general – pockets of disaffection within the Somali-American community is probably the best comparison to the European problem in America, but there are no U.S. equivalents of large disaffected neighborhoods like Molenbeek for American Muslim communities. Poll after poll suggests Muslim Americans’ high level of loyalty, and there is regular cooperation with law enforcement.
What both Europe and the United States must wrestle with is a question of risk: whenever people cross borders, some of the “wrong” ones will cross as well. However, as Benjamin Wittes, the imperial poobah of Lawfare, has argued, a zero risk approach is as absurd as it is impractical:
Why do we let students come here from the Persian Gulf? Why do we let tourists come here from just about anywhere? And, more to the point, why have we let refugees come here from all sorts of nasty places in the world?
Indeed, given the better U.S. track record on integration and skilled law enforcement services, it is sensible to argue that the United States should be taking even more refugees, rather than relying on Germany and a few other countries to salve the West’s overall conscience.
Whether in the United States or Europe, the refugee issue must be thought of as an integration crisis, not a border security challenge. These refugees are not likely to go home soon: the Syrian civil war shows no signs of ending, and the level of destruction is so great that, even if it did, many refugees have no homes to which they can return. We do not want these refugees to come to Europe and America and then, through discrimination and mistreatment, become hostile to their new host countries. Counterterrorism, then, means ensuring that the refugees have access to services, are educated, and over time, become citizens of their host countries who respect its law and traditions and are respected in turn.