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Syrian Refugee Programs: A Backdoor for Jihadists?

As the conflict in Syria continues to rage, the US continues to admit thousands of Syrian refugees each year, and is expected to admit 70,000 refugees from other countries this year alone. The number of Syrian refugees seeking safe haven on American shores is only expected to increase, prompting lawmakers to raise concerns over the security risks inherent in the refugee vetting process.

On Wednesday, however, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing to review the potential threat posed by terrorists exploiting refugee resettlement programs. It examined the challenge of gathering sufficient information to vet them and what additional risk mitigation measures can be implemented to improve the ability to detect refugee applicants of concern.

“For Americans, opening our doors to those who flee violence, war, and exploitation is part of who we are as a nation. America has a long and proud history of providing safe harbor for refugees,” said subcommittee chairman Peter King (R-NY). “Refugees admitted to America include Congressman Tom Lantos (Hungary) and scientist Albert Einstein (Germany), among thousands more who have contributed to US society."

“But,” King noted, “We have also had refugees and asylum seekers take advantage of US safe haven to plot and carry out attacks.”

While the US has a history of welcoming refugees, the Syrian conflict is a special case, since Syria is home to one of the largest confluences of Islamist terrorists in history. Consequently, US officials are warning that the refugee process could become a backdoor for jihadists.

Although most refugees are unlikely to have terrorist ties, vulnerabilities in the refugee vetting process could allow those who do to enter the US and possibly conduct an attack on the homeland. Back in May 2011, for example, two Iraqi refugees were arrested in Bowling Green, Kentucky and charged with 21 offenses, including conspiracy to kill US nationals abroad and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.

Earlier this year, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) sent a letter to the Department of State to express concern over the agency’s desire to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the United States. McCaul commented, “The United States has historically taken a leading role in refugee resettlement and humanitarian protections. But we cannot allow the refugee process to become a backdoor for jihadists.”

Over the past year, ISIS has demonstrated great mastery of social media as a mechanism for spreading propaganda, recruiting followers, and calling for attacks. In King’s mind, there is little doubt that these calls for attacks are resonating in the refugee community as well.

“This doesn’t mean that we should close our borders and not accept anyone, but we certainly need to be thoughtful and deliberative about the process and provide the American people with the most assurance that we are not importing terrorists,” King said.

Potential risks posed by refugees

In February 2015, the Department of State noted that it was “likely to admit 1,000 to 2,000 Syrian refugees for permanent resettlement in Fiscal Year 2015 and a somewhat higher number, though still in the low thousands, in Fiscal Year 2016.”

Historically, involvement of refugees in terrorist activity in the US has been relatively low. However, according to Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, the risks associated with refugees from Syria may be higher today for several reasons.

First and foremost, the number of foreign fighters leaving their home nations to join extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and other nations has hit record levels, with estimates of over 25,000 foreign fighters coming from nearly 100 countries, according to a recent United Nations report.

Homeland Security Today previously reported that the latest UN figures reveal a 71 percent increase in foreign recruits since the middle of last year—an increase that the UN panel of experts referred to as “higher than it has ever been historically.” In fact, the number of foreign fighters has “risen sharply from a few thousand a decade ago to more than 25,000 today.”

There is rising concerns that these fighters will return to the USand other Western nations to attack the homeland. Terrorists have used social media, the Internet and magazines like Dabiq and Inspire to repeatedly encourage local radicalized jihadists to carry out attacks.

There have only been a small number of cases in which refugees have been arrested on terrorism-related charges in the United States, including the well-known case involving Waad Ramadan and Alwan Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, who were arrested on federal terrorism charges in 2009 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. They had been granted refugee status despite their insurgent activities in Iraq and their role in attacking US troops.

Other cases include a Bosnian refugee in St. Louis (arrested in 2015), a Somali refugee in Minneapolis (2015), an Uzbek refugee in Boise, Idaho (2013), two Chechen refugees in Boston (2013), a Somali refugee in Columbus, Ohio (2011), a Somali refugee in St. Louis, Missouri (2010), a Somali refugee in Portland, Oregon (2010) and an Afghan refugee in Aurora, Colorado (2009).

After the Bowling Green arrests, a number of changes were implemented to the refugee vetting process. However, Jones believes it is worth examining whether there needs to be enhanced screening and data collection for applicants.

For example, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI should consider implementing additional background checks and other screening protocols for Syrianapplicants. An additional measure to consider is enhancing the role of the US Intelligence Community in implementing heightened measures to vet potential refuges from countries of concern, including Syria.

“The United States has a long-standing tradition of offering protection and freedom to refugees who live in fear of persecution, some of whom are left to languish in deplorable conditions of temporary asylum,” Jones said. “An integral part of that mission needs to be ensuring that those refugees considered for entry into the United States, including from such jihadist battlefields as Syria, do not present a risk to the safety and security of the United States.”

Overall, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, emphasized that the humanitarian and security issues surrounding the conflict in Syria are deeply linked.

In addition to considering options related to refugee resettlement, US policymakers should consider crafting comprehensive policies that also address measures to improve the quality of life for Syrian refugees, training law enforcement for countries hosting these populations and making investments to such the economic hardship on countries with large refugee populations.

“Even though rebel groups seem to have recently broken the stalemate with Bashar Al Assad’s regime, this doesn’t mean that the Syrian civil war will imminently end, and even an end of the civil war doesn’t mean an end to the refugee crisis: The proliferation of jihadist groups in the country is a demonstration of just how enduring the refugee crisis may be,” Gartenstein-Ross said.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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