As the Syrian refugee crisis mutated from a regional problem to a global one, security concerns have increasingly been cited as a justification for keeping borders closed and refusing to resettle migrants. This argument has gathered momentum in the wake of the attacks in Paris in November, after a Syrian passport with the name Ahmad al-Mohammad, a 25-year-old born in Idlib province, was found near the body of a suicide bomber. French authorities say fingerprints from the suicide bomber match those of someone who passed through Greece in early October.
If one of the Paris attackers really did make his way from the Middle East, through Greece, and into Western Europe, it will raise big questions on the continent about the tens of thousands of other refugees traveling along this route. In the United States, 13 governors have said that they will not allow Syrian refugees to be resettled in their states.
It is undeniable that the huge numbers of refugees and migrants reaching Europe do represent some kind of security threat — anything involving that many people arriving in such chaotic situations would. However, it is not only deeply unfair to paint all of those arriving with the same brush — it is also self-defeating.
All of the other suspects in the Paris attacks appear to have been European citizens. In fact, large numbers of citizens from France, Britain and other Western nations have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight, suggesting that the problem is not so much those coming from over there but those who are already here. Nor are these people necessarily the ones with familial links to the Islamic world: There have been a number of European converts to Islam who have traveled to join the Islamic State, and vast numbers of European Muslims have repeatedly condemned the actions of the Islamic State.
Perhaps one of the most persuasive arguments against equating refugees with terrorists is simple: It’s exactly what the Islamic State wants.
The very same refugees entering Europe are often the very same civilians who face the indiscriminate violence and cruel injustice in lands controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (though, it should be noted, many in Syria are also threatened by the brutal actions of the Syrian government). Globally, studies have shown that Muslims tend to make up the largest proportion of terror victims, with countries such as Syria and Iraq registering the highest toll.
If Muslim refugees come to Europe and are welcomed, it deeply undercuts the Islamic State’s legitimacy. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has helpfully catalogued some of the Islamic State’s messages on the refugees pouring into Europe from the Middle East. The messages give the impression of deep discomfort and even jealousy that the Muslim population the Islamic State so covets for its self-proclaimed “caliphate” would rather live in “infidel” Western lands.
“Would You Exchange What Is Better For What Is Less?” is the title of one video message. It sounds more than a little like a note from a jilted ex.
Writing in The Post’s opinion pages this weekend, counterterrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir said the Islamic State had deliberately “set a trap” for Europe with the Paris attacks:
The strategy is explicit. The Islamic State explained after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine that such attacks “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.” The group calculates that a small number of attackers can profoundly shift the way that European society views its 44 million Muslim members and, as a result, the way European Muslims view themselves. Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West.
Some have suggested that the Islamic State deliberately sent someone along this route to help sow discord. Given the availability of fake Syrian passports in Turkey and other places, it is quite reasonable to presume that the passport found near the body of one of the Paris bombers was planted there to further inflame a tense Europe — an idea strengthened by reports that a different man was found traveling with the same passport in Serbia.
What seems almost certain is that the Islamic State wants you to equate refugees with terrorists. In turn, it wants refugees to equate the West with prejudice against Muslims and foreigners.
The reality is that most of these refugees are already receiving a pretty rough welcome in the West. Syrian refugees who arrive in the United States face remarkable scrutiny from multiple government agencies, including the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Department. The screening process can take years, leaving legitimate refugees in limbo. It’s worth remembering that making that welcome worse may be exactly what the Islamic State wants.