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TSG IntelBrief: Terrorism and the Refugee Crisis
September 14, 2015

Terrorism and the Refugee Crisis

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Amid Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, the potential for terrorist ‘infiltration’ is both exaggerated and a real possibility

• The argument that terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda could plant operatives amid crowds of desperate refugees is cited as a reason to better control the influx of people fleeing conflict zones into Europe

• Some of the fear is warranted; not necessarily because of refugees’ home countries, but because of the lack of the usual vetting and processing that goes into standard asylum and immigration cases in most countries

• As the number of refugees grows, there will be increasing backlash among some in the host communities; the nature of the crisis results in understandable concerns mixed with alarming rhetoric and reactionary policies.

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One of the most insidious aspects of terrorism is the unwarranted fear and suspicion it sows—a self-generating cycle of mistrust that is, after all, one of the primary goals of terrorism. It was inevitable that the threat of terrorism would exacerbate the already catastrophic refugee crisis now unfolding in parts of Europe. Politicians and others are increasingly raising the fear of terrorist infiltration amidst the massive numbers of desperate people fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa as reason to clamp down on what is now an uncontrollable situation at many European borders. These fears are not irrational—though they might not be proportionate—since the threat, like so much about terrorism, is both hypothetical and legitimate. That it could occur is taken by some to mean that it is certain to happen, and therefore all measures must be taken to prevent it.

The refugee crisis in parts of Europe has worsened so quickly and dramatically that even countries such as Germany, willing and able to absorb massive numbers of asylum seekers, are taking steps to regain some sovereign control over their borders. The utter lack of vetting and assessing of those entering the country creates legitimate security fears among officials and the general public. Officials should therefore move quickly to determine who is in the country and begin assessing the situation—though the staggering numbers have overwhelmed every existing protocol and procedure in place.

The challenge is that it is impossible to prove that terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are not trying to plant some of their members in the waves of desperate people trying to reach the shores of Europe. Though the threat is unknowable, it is probable that they are, given the lack of downside for the groups to try and the huge upside should they succeed. The unknowable nature of the threat, however, makes it susceptible to exaggeration and exploitation. That a few terrorists may be hidden among hundreds of thousands of refugees is perceived as a greater threat than the destabilizing consequences of a massive humanitarian crisis—though in reality, the latter threat is much greater.

For its part, the Islamic State has denounced refugees fleeing its territory (though it is more than likely many of the Syrian refugees are fleeing Assad’s butchery as much as the Islamic State’s barbarism). The group has warned refugees from running into the arms of the infidel West, and of the pernicious influences of alcohol and pornography on young refugees in their new adopted homeland. This is a stunning denial of how unbearable life is under the Islamic State and Assad, where the absence of alcohol and nudity cannot overcome barrel bombs and beheadings. The pressure on refugees by the Islamic State—as well as the Assad regime—not to leave is nothing compared to their urgency to flee, and no amount of hectoring or threats will alter that fact.

As unmanageable as the refugee numbers are now, they will likely worsen in the near to medium term, as the prospects for peace in places like Syria are—for the people suffering through conflicts—far more distant than the shores of Greece or Italy. The numbers are so massive that even with basic biographical information, which is sorely lacking now, authorities have no realistic chance of vetting and assessing refugees with any confidence. Better border controls and asylum processing protocols are important but they alone will not address the crisis. The solution lies in resolving the conflicts—which has always proven an impossible task. The threat of terrorism stemming from the refugee crisis will likely become more of a public issue in the West, as understandable frustrations and concern give way to misplaced anger and fear. Terrorism feeds off of fear and uncertainty, two emotions that all sides in the refugee crisis have in abundance.

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