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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  • Rebecca Jones

    As previously said before me, the underlining issue here is the US media and what they choose to report, by ignoring white terrorism they are demonising terrorists from other countries leading to a racist culture. All nations have to stop doing this and becoming more excepting of refugees showing them they have no need to join Islamic State and become more at home in their new found country. If the media switches how it reports these events we could see a huge reduction in terrorism.

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  • The_Fixer

    Agreed. Well done piece.

  • nicho

    All the media have said that the ISIS attack was the worst terrorism since WW2. They conveniently ignore the massacre of Algerian demonstrators by the Paris police in 1961 (which you can Google).

    In a carefully planned slaughter, police attacked the demonstrators. Some were beaten senseless and thrown into the Seine to drown. Others were tied up and also tossed into the river. Hundreds — no one really knows how many — disappeared into prisons and concentration camps, where they were beaten, tortured, and murdered by police.

    No one mentioned that in last weekend’s coverage. In fact, they pretended it never happened.

  • Bill_Perdue

    In March 2003, soon after the U.S. invaded Iraq, a news outlet predicted the war would be a colossal disaster that would ultimately destabilize the Middle East and fuel the rise of anti-Western forces willing to die for a fundamentalist cause. … In a point-counterpoint op-ed [in The Onion] titled “This War Will Destabilize The Entire Mideast Region And Set Off A Global Shockwave Of Anti-Americanism vs. No It Won’t,” the fictional Nathan Eckert eerily described a world in which newly radicalized militants fueled by hate, much like the Islamic State, rise up after the war and obtain weapons of mass destruction to try to drive out Western influence.

    “If you thought Osama bin Laden was bad, just wait until the countless children who become orphaned by U.S. bombs in the coming weeks are all grown up. Do you think they will forget what country dropped the bombs that killed their parents?” said Eckert. “In 10 or 15 years, we will look back fondly on the days when there were only a few thousand Middle Easterners dedicated to destroying the U.S. and willing to die for the fundamentalist cause.” from HuffPo via Truthdig

  • Bill_Perdue

    The threats to “Western security” all have one source, and only one. That source is the barbaric and ceaseless war of aggression by the US and NATO against Arab and muslim peoples. Those wars created ISIS, Al-Qaeda and floods of refugees from Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Palestine, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and the AFPAK front.

    The regimes of Democrats and Republicans and their counterparts in NATO nations and the zionist colony in Palestine created this crisis and they’re completely unable to solve it.

    Working people will pay the price whether as victims of terrorism in the US and NATO nations or, in vastly larger numbers, as victims of US and NATO terrorism in the states under attack by them or as soldiers in the wars that ensue.

  • mf_roe

    France has a long history, large parts of it not worthy of pride, the French to their credit choose to use their history to guide their course today. They have been guilty of antisemitism in the past, they renounce it today. As a colonial power they oppressed Islam in the countries they enslaved, they acknowledge that they were wrong today. They use failures to craft solutions that attempt to avoid repeating the old mistakes. But the French still insist on maintaining some core principles that will draw evil to their door. They reject the idea of Theocracy in a more forceful way than any other major power. They can not pretend that that want come at a cost. Defending your values means that anyone that rejects your beliefs is going to attack you. I think the French know better than most Americans why they were attacked, and I think they are proud that they were attacked because they stand up for some very important principles.

  • 2karmanot

    Well done!

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