The link (or lack thereof) between refugees and terrorism

Remember the ‘refugee crisis’ of  a few summers ago?  We all were riveted by the pictures of hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians, Iraqis and many others, risking their lives in overland journeys or even more perilous sea voyages, fleeing danger and violence in their homelands to start a new life in Europe.  Some countries welcomed these people (Sweden, Germany) while others brutally rejected them (Hungary).

One of the main arguments used to keep the door to ‘fortress Europe’ was the belief that the newcomers would not fit in.  While there was some truth to the difficulty for a family from rural Iraq to adjust to cosmopolitan life in the West, a lot of the criticism was leveraged by far right political groups and was nothing more than thinly veiled Islamophobia and racism.  There are still some out there that rail on about the creation of ‘Eurabia’ and the Muslim takeover of the Continent despite very little, if any, objective evidence to back this position.

Speaking of a lack of evidence, another reason put forward to turn away refugees from the Middle East was the ‘certainty’ that terrorist groups like Islamic State were using the human flow to introduce its operatives into Europe to plan and execute terrorist attacks.  Well, it turns out that this was not true either.  A US-based thinktank called the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has found that even if a few attacks were indeed perpetrated by IS ‘refugees’, the terrorist group is not making ‘systematic use’ of this way to get to Europe.

This should come as a surprise to no one who has any knowledge of how terrorist groups work.  These organisations want to cause fear and panic through successful attacks – or mildly successful attacks as last week’s Tube ‘bombing’ showed.  They do not want to fail through early detection and disruption.  Despite commonly-held views to the contrary, trained and capable operatives are not in infinite supply.  Having one detained or killed before carrying out a mission is ‘bad publicity’ for a group that paints itself as a worldwide threat both to our security and our normalcy.

If, then, IS wants to get its highly-effective martyrs into Europe, it could not choose a worse avenue than a refugee stream.  There are multiple reasons for this:

a) most refugees do not make their destination either because they are rejected or die on route.

b) most refugees are mired in squalid camps for months or even years and a terrorist attack against the poor and the downtrodden in a muddy, tarp-filled field does not boost your credibility.

c) single males are already earmarked for special attention, even in refugee flows, thus reducing the chances of successful integration.

So, no, IS and other nasties are NOT opting to use the refugee system in a calculated way to besiege us with suicide bombers.  There is simply no data to support the belief that they are.  This is NOT fake news: it is based on what we know rather than what we are convinced is true.  We need our policies and laws to be drafted using real information, not conjecture.

Of course we have to allow our security services and governments to carry out full vetting of all refugees and immigrants.  Not only do we not want to admit terrorists but we also do not want to allow violent criminals and pedophiles to take up residence in our lands.  While I was at CSIS this was one of the most important parts of the mandate (and still is I wager): CSIS advises the government of Canada on all applications for citizenship and many refugee claims. Sweden’s security service is now doing the same.  This is indeed a good policy.

In the end I am confident that much of the hue and cry over IS terrorists trying to hide in the refugee streams can be reduced to fear of the unknown and good old Islamophobia.  For a certain part of the population in many Western countries even one Muslim immigrant is one too many. This is a wretched bias that ends up turning away many worthwhile new citizens.

Many have shown that the West is dying as its population shrinks due to smaller family sizes: some countries are reproducing at well below replacement rates.  We need immigrants and we need new citizens to make our societies better.  As long as we allow our protectors to do their jobs and keep the bad guys out we should have an open door policy.  Canada, as a nation of immigrants, could certainly serve as a great example in this regard.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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