The intense backlash to Syrian refugees 'plays right into' ISIS' hand


ISIS Islamic State graffiti


An image released on an ISIS propaganda channel that supposedly shows an ISIS mural in Hit, Iraq.

A powerful backlash against asylum-seekers from the Middle East in the wake of the Paris attacks culminated last week in the US House of Representatives, which passed a bill that would stifle the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the US.


The legislation - passed after more than two-dozen governors announced they would not allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their states - effectively bars Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seekers from entering the US unless the director of the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence personally certify to Congress that they do not pose a national-security threat.

It was a significant blow to the agenda of President Barack Obama, who in September put forward a plan to accept up to 10,000 refugees over the next fiscal year. But, much like the anti-Islamic rhetoric dominating the discourse among Europe's far-right, it's a propaganda win for the Islamic State.

"IS has utilized its propaganda apparatus in an effort to dissuade Syrians from fleeing to Europe," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Thursday at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

"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."

internally displaced girl Syria

Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

An internally displaced girl poses at a makeshift refugee camp in Sinjar town, in Idlib province, Syria November 20, 2015.

The topic has reverberated on the campaign trail, where the opposition among the GOP field to accepting new Syrian refugees has taken center stage.

Last weekend, presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested to reporters that Muslims pose a "meaningful risk" to national security in a way that Christians simply do not.

"There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror," Cruz said at a press conference in South Carolina. "If there were a group of radical Christians pledging to murder anyone who had a different religious view than they, we would have a different national security situation."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), another presidential hopeful, said Monday that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) should resign if he does not "reject the importation of those fleeing the Middle East."

And Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has made headlines over the past few days by suggesting an openness for creating a "database" of Muslim-Americans. Previously, the billionaire real-estate mogul had said that he thinks "certain mosques" in the US should be surveilled.

anti refugee groups

David Ryder/Reuters

People gather to protest against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees at the Washington State capitol in Olympia, Washington, November 20, 2015.

But as many critics of the charged rhetoric will note, non-Muslim extremists have been responsible for a majority of lethal assaults in the US since 9/11.

"Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim ... compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists," The New York Times reported in June, citing a count by the Washington research center New America.

In inflating the risk that radical Islamic extremists might try to infiltrate Europe and the US by posing as refugees - and ignoring the reality that Syrians are the most heavily vetted group of people currently allowed into the US - anti-refugee groups now share a common interest with the terrorist group they purport to reject.

Namely, stoking fear so that Muslim refugees are demonized and turned away - into the waiting arms of the so-called caliphate.

'We are not terrorists'

As geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer noted to Business Insider, the demonization of Muslims in the West is far from the most-valuable recruiting tool ISIS has at its disposal.

"There's no question that ISIS would prefer the West turn away refugees than accept them. the refugees embarrass them by voting with their feet; they don't want the West championing their cause," Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, said in an email.

"But I think it's a marginal issue when we look at why ISIS has become so effective at recruiting. that's because of the violence and broken states in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. And more broadly, because millions of young Muslim men across the Middle East and North Africa don't feel they have any opportunities - either economically or socially - and are disenfranchised from their local governments."

A Syrian refugee shows his passport after he and 30 other Syrians were rescued by a Greek coast guard patrol boat while attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece on a dinghy during a storm in Kos island, Greece, early May 29, 2015.


A Syrian refugee shows his passport after he and 30 other Syrians were rescued by a Greek coast guard patrol boat while attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece on a dinghy during a storm in Kos island, Greece, early May 29, 2015.

But, as Gartenstein-Ross said in his testimony before Congress, the backlash against refugees remains a valuable propaganda tool for ISIS because it reinforces the group's claims that Muslims can only be safe in the caliphate.

"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," he said.

He added: "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."

The world witnessed this strategy at work earlier this month, when ISIS-affiliated extremists killed at least 130 people in Paris and renewed fears that Europe's open-door policies had allowed Islamic extremists to infiltrate France.

But at least five out of the eight known attackers were French nationals living in Belgium. (One assailant who detonated himself was found with a Syrian passport, but it it was reported to have been stolen or fake, and two others have yet to be identified.)

Nevertheless, the attacks have spurred old fears and given fuel to those who sought to politicize the refugee crisis in the first place - from Europe's far-right, to American policymakers, to the Islamic State.

Passengers among them migrants and refugees, exit the German ferry terminal in Goteborg, Sweden, September 11, 2015. REUTERS/Adam Ihse/TT News Agency

Thomson Reuters

Passengers among them migrants and refugees, exit the German ferry terminal in Goteborg

Most Muslim refugees arriving from Syria and Iraq are seeking little more than physical safety from Syrian President Bashar Assad's relentless barrel bombs and the Islamic State's brutality. Indeed, homegrown terrorism has proven more of a problem for France and other European nations than infiltration by foreign extremists.

"We are not terrorists or extremists," Rabe Alkhuder, a Syrian refugee living in Washington, DC, who left the city of Aleppo in 2011, told Business Insider. "Syrian refugees are kind and hard-working people, and they are just seeking safe haven for themselves and their families."

'Widows and orphans'

So far, most Western leaders have resisted calls to dramatically limit or end their refugee programs.

Last week, US President Barack Obama denounced the "political posturing" that had led to the backlash before mocking Republicans for being afraid of the refugees.

"We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic," Obama told reporters from the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila. "We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks."

"Apparently, they [Republicans] are scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America," Obama added. "At first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of 3-year-old orphans. That doesn't seem so tough to me."

Obama has said he will veto any anti-refugee legislation that reaches his desk.

obama malaysia

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama greets students while on a tour of the Dignity for Children Foundation, an education program for refugee and low-income children, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia November 21, 2015.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who promised to accept up to 800,000 refugees into Germany over the next year, has also remained steadfast.

"We believe in the rights of every individual to seek his fortune, in respect for others and in tolerance," Merkel said in her first public statement after the attacks last Saturday.

"Let us reply to the terrorists by resolutely living our values and by redoubling those values across all of Europe - now more than ever."

During opening remarks at the G-20 summit in Turkey last Sunday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was similarly resolute.

There is "no need for an overall review of the European policy on refugees," he said.

And in his weekly address, US Vice President Joe Biden echoed Obama, imploring Americans to remember "who the vast majority of these refugees are: women, children, orphans, survivors of torture, people desperately in need of medical help."

"To turn them away and say there is no way you can ever get here would play right into the terrorists' hands," he added. "We know what ISIL - we know what they hope to accomplish. They flat-out told us."

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