November 19, 2015: Testimony for Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs addressing the ISIS threat to homeland security and refugee resettlement in the United States.
Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Carper, and distinguished members of the committee, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, it is an honor to appear before you to discuss the Islamic State’s (IS) impact on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, there has been much discussion about the security challenges associated with admitting Syrian refugees. I offer several overarching conclusions that I will discuss at greater length in this testimony:
- If a jihadist group like IS wants to place terrorists in the United States through the current refugee resettlement program, the risk is very low, though it is non-zero.
- The biggest barrier to terrorist operatives entering the United States in this way is the selection process rather than the screening process. The existing selection process for admitting refugees into the United States is rigorous and time-consuming, and the odds are significantly against any one refugee’s admission: only 10,000 of an estimated 2.1 million Syrians registered by UNHCR will be admitted. Further, the United States privileges the “most vulnerable” refugee populations in its admission process, a cohort that includes single mothers, children, and individuals with medical needs but excludes populations—like teenage and young adult males—that are most likely to be infiltrated by violent extremist groups. This makes it difficult for extremist groups to plant operatives in the admitted refugee population. Moreover, the resettlement process for refugees entering the United States takes 18 to 24 months on average. However, the refugee screening process is highly unlikely to uncover an operative who can be considered a “clean skin” (someone connected with a jihadist organization whose connections to the group are not known by American intelligence), and the U.S.’s intelligence penetration into Syria is limited.
- A significant expansion of the Syrian refugee resettlement program in the U.S. would increase the risk of militant infiltration. Significantly increasing the number of Syrian refugees who will be resettled might expand the parameters of the selection process beyond “most vulnerable” populations, and could make the infiltration of operatives in this manner more attractive to militant groups.
- IS views the refugee outflows from Syria as a major challenge to the legitimacy of its caliphate, and the group has exhorted Syrian refugees to return. At the same time, it is in IS’s interest to create a backlash against Syrian refugees in Europe or the United States, which would then allow militant organizations to recruit from within the ranks of disaffected refugee populations. A backlash could also deter future waves of refugees from leaving Syria. Such a move is central to IS’s playbook.
- It is counterproductive for U.S. governors to publicly announce their opposition to admitting refugees into their states. Governors do not have control over where refugees are placed, but this hard line marginalizes refugee populations even before they arrive, and creates the perception that they are not welcome, thus complicating and threatening integration and assimilation processes. While it is their prerogative to express their legitimate concerns to the Obama administration, the very public announcements that have been made recently are counterproductive.
The Islamic State’s Strategic Outlook Toward Refugees
The iconic images of thousands of Syrians fleeing their homes for Europe are terrible publicity for IS. IS has sought to foster the perception that the caliphate is a refuge and safe haven for Muslims from across over the world; this narrative is essential to the group’s foreign fighter recruitment efforts. But the refugee crisis directly undercuts this narrative. If Syrians choose to flee for thousands of miles rather than joining the caliphate next door or remaining in it, the caliphate’s political legitimacy is called into question. Prospective foreign fighters may be less inclined to join IS after witnessing the flood of refugees into Europe, and hearing horror stories about life in the caliphate.
IS has utilized its propaganda apparatus in an effort to dissuade Syrians from fleeing to Europe. Between September 16 and 19, IS media outlets released twelve videos addressing the refugee crisis. IS’s strategy in this propaganda blitz was twofold: underscore the dangers of life in Europe for refugees while painting the caliphate as a safe haven for Muslims. One theme that emerged in this propaganda was the idea that Muslim refugees who flee to Europe will suffer oppression at the hands of secular and Christian governments, and will be forced to abandon their faith. IS also warned of the dangerous journey to Europe, in one video montage incorporating the image of Aylan Kurdi, the young Syrian refugee who washed up dead on a beach in Turkey as his family was attempting to travel to Greece. Another theme that pervaded IS’s refugee propaganda was that the caliphate was preferable to Europe. IS juxtaposed the experiences that refugees would encounter in Europe with images and videos portraying the caliphate as an Islamic utopia, where refugees are cared for and all Muslims can find religious salvation.
While IS sees the Syrian refugee crisis as a challenge to its legitimacy, it also perceives strategic opportunities. One possibility is that IS may attempt to embed militants into refugee populations. In January 2015, an IS supporter released a short article that discussed opportunities for IS militants to use migrant and refugee flows from Libya to gain entry to Europe. Further, an al-Qaeda operative who had served time in prison in Italy before being extradited to his home country of Tunisia was arrested in October 2015 after traveling from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Placing operatives among the Syrian refugees would advance IS’s strategic objectives. IS believes that if it can drive a wedge between Muslim populations in Europe and the rest of European society, it can present itself as a protector of European Muslims, thus building its base of support in Europe. This strategic logic is clearly articulated in issue seven of Dabiq, IS’s English-language online magazine, in which IS predicts that jihadist attacks in Europe will “compel the crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone,” forcing Muslims in the West to make one of two choices: “apostatize and adopt the [infidel] religion” or migrate to the caliphate to “escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.” This strategy—in which the group carries out attacks to accelerate societal schisms, then steps in to defend the group against whom its attacks triggered discrimination—is one that IS utilized to great effect in Iraq in the mid-2000s. During that period, IS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, launched attacks against Shia populations in order to trigger revenge killings against Iraqi Sunnis.
It now appears that the passport of a Syrian citizen that had been stamped in Greece, Serbia and Croatia—three typical way-stations for refugees making the trip to western Europe—was on one of the Paris attackers in an effort to incite anti-refugee backlash. (It is possible that IS planted a stolen or forged passport on one of the attackers, and as of this writing its authenticity has not been determined.)