The Islamic State’s threat is closer to Paris than Syria’s refugees

Over the past week, attacks carried out by people who were neither Syrian nor refugees have jump-started and fundamentally changed the way the United States is debating how to handle Syrian refugees.

By 7:33 PM EST last Friday, after the attacks had taken place but before the Islamic State’s involvement had been confirmed, Congressman Jeff Duncan, among other social media users, was already making snide comments targeting the European Union’s refugee policies as though they were responsible for the attacks. Knee-jerk reactions against people fleeing war-torn Syria may score political points, but they ignore the threat of homegrown radicals traveling to and from Syrian battlegrounds, and they threaten to reinforce the Islamic State’s propaganda bonanza.

Long before the attackers were even fully identified, though after Duncan’s snotty remarks, police discovered a Syrian passport that was allegedly linked to one of the perpetrators. This ignited a firestorm, with numerous Republican governors instantly assuming that at least one attacker was a Syrian refugee and subsequently calling all Syrian refugees threats to national security. Soon after, however, the story became more complicated for those interested in the truth: AFP reported that the owner of the Syrian passport, who had been loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, had died months before the attack. French officials investigating the situation stated that the passport may have been planted, saying that it was not on the attacker’s body, but “lying nearby, as if meant to be found.”

The deathblow to xenophobia against Syrian refugees here should have been the actual identities of the attackers: All of the attackers identified thus far have been either French or Belgian. Furthermore, Greek officials have said that none of the attackers even set foot in Greece on their way to France, whether they masqueraded as refugees at any point in their travels or not.

These facts have proven irrelevant to members of Congress and presidential candidates, who have spent the week trying to one-up each other over who can come up with the most draconian anti-refugee declarations and policies. Regardless as to whether the passport was planted, the Paris attacks have led numerous pundits and politicians to develop narratives unjustly framing refugees as national security threats. Duncan’s, Donald Trump’sBen Carson’s and others’ profoundly irresponsible and misleading rhetoric have successfully framed large populations of the West as fearful or antipathetic toward Muslims.

They have with poetic irony played into the Islamic State’s strategy, which, as detailed in its Dabiq magazine, is focused on destroying Muslim and Arab coexistence with the West and political pluralism. The Islamic State’s recruitment operations of foreign fighters have long relied upon alienation of Muslims in Western countries. They tell adolescent Muslims that they aren’t welcome in their own countries, and that they need only turn on the TV to see right-wing politicians proving their point. What the Ben Carsons, Donald Trumps and Marco Rubios of the political class fail to understand is that US’s counterterrorism strategies rely upon military action complemented with economic and political outreach efforts used to prevent attacks from occurring in the first place. Bombing terrorists to hell makes for a great headline, but unless you starve terrorist organizations of their source of angry recruits vulnerable to extremist indoctrination, all you’re doing is racking up a body count for the sake of a body count.

How it’s at all possible that self-proclaimed leaders of American conservatism fail to demonstrate the slightest understanding of the role of politics and propaganda in counterterrorism is a question I’ll leave for the reader.

the flag of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS). Via Shutterstock.

The flag of the Islamic State, via Shutterstock.

Politically, the Islamic State has everything to gain from xenophobic responses driven by terrorism. It helps them prevent the integration of Arabs into the West, bolsters its attractiveness to foreign fighters and constructs an image of the West as unfriendly to refugees fleeing the Islamic State itself. Stopping the outflow of refugees has become especially important in the Islamic State’s development as a self-proclaimed caliphate — its religious legitimacy relies on the predicted migration of Muslims to live and serve under its rule, and its operations demand populations for extortion, which declined as it lost 25% of its territory in early 2015.

Based upon previous attacks claimed by the Islamic State, the greatest threats to national security, aside from xenophobic rhetoric bolstering its recruitment, lie not with refugees but with Western citizens fighting in Syria. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who allegedly served as a link between the Islamic State and the other French and Belgian Paris attackers, developed his relationship with the Islamic State after leaving to fight in Syria in 2014. As a Belgian citizen, he was relatively free to move throughout Europe, and intelligence gaps had resulted in the failure of surveillance and military action against him.

A similar background has been associated with other attackers allegedly linked to the Islamic State, including the perpetrators of a May 2015 shooting in Garland, Texas. These individuals were US citizens who were inspired by ISIS, though, in contrast with Abaaoud, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to travel to Syria before the attack.

What does this mean in the broader context of national security? At the moment, Europe might be at a much greater risk than the US for Islamic State-inspired attacks. Not because of the incoming refugees, but because of the thousands of EU citizens who have traveled to Syria. In the US, the intelligence community can point to just 40 individuals who have done the same, and none of them pose credible threats.

By overblowing the threat of the refugees, right-wing politicians have created a self-fulfilling prophecy of alienated individuals unable to integrate with the West due to the very real xenophobia they experience in Western countries. These knee-jerk xenophobic reactions have failed to demonstrate the slightest understanding of the fight against the Islamic State, and have weakened our counterterrorism efforts in the long run. Indeed, Congress’s willingness to halt the resettlement process for Syrian refugees will only serve to undermine America’s efforts by playing into Islamic State propaganda without addressing the actual threats to Western security.


Anhvinh Doanvo is an MSPPM candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. He has written for numerous publications including The Hill, Georgetown Public Policy Review, and Baltimore Sun. He is one of forty 2016 finalists for the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which funds twenty US citizens' graduate education annually and places them in the American Foreign Service of the Department of State. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/anhvinhdoanvo or Facebook at Facebook.com/AnhvinhD.

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