Let’s Talk About Terrorism and Migration


The brutal and tragic attack in Paris has clear counterterrorism and policy implications. And yet our political discourse somehow shifted specifically and almost immediately to Syrian refugees. This emphasis on the potential threat posed by refugees is misguided, however; refugees are the most aggressively screened of any category of traveler coming to the United States. Whether potential terrorists mingle in transit with individuals seeking asylum has clear border security implications, but has no bearing on their legal recognition of political protection. Of 784,000 refugees we’ve welcomed in since 9/11, only three have been arrested for terrorism charges. And none of their plots were either successful or aimed at the United States. The issue of migration is integral to understanding terrorism, but it is those we push away that are more of a threat than those we welcome in.

None of the Paris attackers were from Syria and none of them were given refugee status, although you would not know this from listening to many of our political leaders. The perpetrators whose backgrounds we know were French and Belgian nationals of North African descent. The Charlie Hebdo perpetrators were French nationals of North African descent. The attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014 that took four lives was also committed by a French national of North African descent. But none were refugees. The accomplice who housed the Paris attack’s planner had drank alcohol and only started wearing a veil a month ago, having grown up being passed from foster family to foster family and struggling with unemployment. The feeling of “outsiderness” — not being from a dangerous country — fueled a need to act out violently. Immigrants to the United States are less likely to commit crimes and their children more likely to go to college than the average American. The problem isn’t letting them in — it is pushing them aside.

The mastermind of the Paris attack spent time training and fighting with the Islamic State in Syria. There, he learned skills and built a network that would help him plot once back home. Over 30,000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries have followed similar paths. The motivation to join the fight could be due to a range of ideological, psychological, or situational background factors — from disillusionment with the Arab Spring and anger toward the Assad regime, to local community roots with established terrorist organizations. France and Belgium have seen high numbers and rates of their citizens joining the fight, many of whom are of North African descent; one study puts the number of Belgian foreign fighters at 80 percent ethnically Moroccan. Many jihadist recruits from other nations have similarly had an ethnic or nationalistic motivation to feel like an outsider — for example, Albanians from Germany, Chechen nationalists, etc. Not refugees, and not just any immigrants, but those who have been exposed to previous military conflict, poor socioeconomic conditions, or particularly charismatic recruiters. Combined with the alluring excuse that one’s violent outlet for this frustration may be tied to a Caliphate, the call to violent extremism may seem like the only way to counter the perceived slight of social ostracism with an excuse of religion or politics.

So I am confused. Why focus on Syrian refugees running from the same threat we are trying to counter? To date, no refugees have committed attacks on American soil and the same type of security checks that may have eluded Greek authorities are performed several times before someone is admitted into the United States, so an Islamic State member posing as a refugee is highly unlikely to make it to the United States. As for refugees who may choose to take on the group’s cause, leaving them in refugee camps may make them more susceptible to radicalization and socially ostracizing immigrants is playing a role in exacerbating the global threat. If anything, the Paris attacks should teach us that integration of outsiders is a critical element to counter violent extremism, and that our security requires a more welcoming posture — not less. We need to prevent the next attackers, not punish the most vulnerable.


Ryan B. Greer recently left the State Department, where he served as Policy Advisor for Syria/Iraq Foreign Fighters.  The views expressed here are his own and not related to any former or current employer.  Ryan is CEO of Vasa Strategies — a social impact strategic advisory firm with a focus on countering violent extremism — and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Prior to joining the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, Ryan had managed Afghanistan reconstruction programs. He has also served as a Special Assistant at the White House National Security Council and on staff for two Members of the U.S. House of Representatives.


Photo credit: Freedom House