Halifax International Security Forum

As US politicians protest, security officials brush off refugee 'hysteria'

At Halifax security forum, military officials and security experts say blocking refugees carries its own risks

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Since last week’s attacks in Paris, grumbling about President Barack Obama’s plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees on U.S. soil has swelled into an uproar. A bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives26 state governors and just about every Republican presidential candidate agree: With Europe still reeling from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) biggest-ever strike on a Western capital, it is too risky to roll out the welcome mats for those fleeing the armed group’s stronghold.

Conspicuously absent from the anti-refugee chorus, however, are the military officials and security experts whose jobs it is to actually keep the homeland safe. Nowhere was that more apparent than at last weekend’s Halifax International Security Forum (HISF), an annual NATO-sponsored summit that is held on Canada’s eastern seaboard and happened to fall a week after the Paris attacks. Whether on stage during discussions of the burgeoning ISIL threat, or in interviews on the sidelines, it was hard to find anyone who shared the alarmist warning that resettlement could provide a "federally-funded jihadi pipeline”  into the United States.

"We have systems in place to vet people and understand where they’re coming from,” said Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, during one discussion at HISF. “Does that mean it’s foolproof? No.” But ultimately, he said, “It’s a political decision.”

The sober tone set by U.S., Canadian and other NATO security officials at the forum lent credence to the arguments of refugee advocates, who have accused lawmakers of fear-driven xenophobia in the wake of Paris. As Gortney noted, Syrian refugees — three-quarters of whom are women and children — will be vetted more stringently than any other travelers to the U.S., a multi-agency process that takes up to two years. Meanwhile, Canada’s new defense minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, used the conference to showcase his country’s plan to resettle 25,000 Syrians — highlighting the relatively small commitment U.S. lawmakers are wrangling over.

If anything, the consensus at HISF was the exact opposite fear: that scapegoating Syrian refugees for the Paris attacks — which were perpetrated by European citizens, some with ties to Syria, but no Syrian refugees — could ultimately pose a far greater security risk. Experts on ISIL say the group is shifting its strategy toward terror attacks on the West specifically in order to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment, boosting its recruiting efforts and its narrative of a global war against "infidels." The discovery of a forged Syrian passport at one of the attack sites fits that narrative, with many analysts questioning why an attacker would carry it with him if not as a plant to stir suspicions about refugees.

“The U.S. debate is playing right into the hands of ISIL,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which coordinates aid delivery into difficult-to-reach parts of Syria. “They have publicly condemned the flow of refugees into Europe because it goes against their narrative that the so-called caliphate is a sanctuary for Sunnis. People are supposed to flee to there,” not away, he said. ISIL "wants us to hate refugees, they want to hear Donald Trump saying they should wear ID badges, to hear Ben Carson compare them to rabid dogs.”

Perhaps more urgently, however, anti-refugee hysteria can distract from important policy debates that are critical to staving off more attacks, said Janice Gross Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and a panelist at HISF. Noting that the attackers in Paris were mostly European-born, she argued that the violence says more about France’s domestic challenges integrating its Muslim minority than it does about war refugees. "This is fundamentally a story about Europeans attacking Europeans, with very minimal logistical and financial support,” Stein said.

“If we do not make the Muslim community in North America feel fully welcome and fully part of life, then we are creating the preconditions for successful radicalization and recruitment," she said later in an interview. "This has been the great failure of Europe,” and something with which North America has traditionally done a better job, she added.

More generally, there does not appear to be empirical evidence backing the claim that refugees pose a particular domestic terror threat. The Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, are frequently cited as evidence that it only takes a few radicalized individuals to slip through the cracks of U.S. security vetting — but the Tsarnaevs are believed to have radicalized after they arrived in the U.S. They also entered on a tourist visa and received political asylum, meaning that they didn’t go through the painstaking process that will be conducted for every Syrian refugee before he or she ever boards a plane for the U.S.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, none of the 784,000 refugees the U.S. has resettled since 9/11 has been arrested on domestic terror charges, and only a handful have been arrested for aiding plots abroad. A recent New York Times analysis found that none of the "jihadist-inspired" terror attacks in the U.S. since, and including, 9/11 involved a refugee. Speaking about her native Canada, Stein noted that both high-profile terror attacks last year were carried out by Canadian citizens who were recent converts to Islam. “The message here is not that operatives are coming from Syria to attack Europeans or North Americans," she said. "There’s simply no evidence of that.”

Forgetting that it was Europeans behind the Paris attack could obscure another security risk, said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso: the visa-waiver program that allows citizens of 38 nations to enter the U.S. without pre-screening. While U.S. lawmakers debate over highly vetted Syrians, the more pressing concern could be that the French and Belgian citizens “involved in the attacks on Paris could have just gotten on a plane” to the U.S., Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, told reporters at a news conference in Halifax. That is why Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., are co-sponsoring a bill they say will patch loopholes in the visa-waiver program.

Nevertheless, wariness about Obama’s resettlement plan appears to be growing. According to a recent Bloomberg poll, 53 percent of Americans now support blocking the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives last week overwhelmingly passed an act to delay refugee resettlement, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies act. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said the delay was necessary "until we can be certain no one coming here is a threat to our country," arguing that the situation in Syria was too murky to fully understand the threat an individual may pose. Once they return from the Thanksgiving holiday recess, the Senate will open debate on the bill.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a critic of the bill who led a Senate delegation in Halifax, said he didn’t think it would pass in its current form. “Syrian and Iraq refugees are not ‘foreign enemies,’” Kaine said during one session in Halifax, referring to the act’s name. “We have an enemy, and the enemy is ISIL. Not the refugees fleeing from ISIL.” Even John McCain, R-Ariz., a hawkish voice in the Senate and vocal proponent of stronger military intervention against ISIL, has called his House colleagues’ focus on refugees “misplaced.”

Even so, experts note that the American public’s fear response to terror is to be expected. Paris, in particular, was discomforting to many Westerners, who had been under the impression that ISIL was focusing its efforts on territorial expansion in Syria and Iraq — not Al-Qaeda-style strikes abroad. The soft targets struck on Nov. 13th — restaurants, bars, a concert hall and stadium – were specifically chosen to make people feel unsafe in public spaces they visit on a daily basis.

“It evokes fear, and we need to understand that. It’s legitimate for people to feel frightened,” Stein said. “But the job for academic and political leaders is to bring the evidence to bear, and say, ‘We understand why you feel this way, but the evidence doesn’t support those fears.’”

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