By Anne Speckhard
September 29, 2015
THE Syrian refugee crisis, building in a horrifying crescendo over the past four years, has set in motion a debate in this country: Should America open her arms to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” or fold them in a defensive posture born out of fear that refugees will harbor terrorists among them?
President Obama directed his administration to take in some 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, a tiny number in relation to the total needing help. The administration emphasized that it would not relax the lengthy criminal and terrorist background checks demanded of refugee applicants, a vetting process that can take 24 to 36 months.
Those of us in the security community know this is dangerously long. It is in America’s best interest to speed up the refugee acceptance process for humanitarian reasons and our national security. Not helping refugees resettle as quickly as possible is, in itself, a factor that can increase risk for Americans the world over.
No doubt it is important to weed out radicalized individuals seeking entry into the United States. But while the Islamic State has threatened to embed itself among refugees heading to the West, terrorists don’t need to go through the entry process to operate in our country. The Islamic State is already recruiting vulnerable, born-in-America citizens by connecting with them through social media.
Counterterrorism data is clear: Most of the terrorists on American soil do not come from the ranks of refugees but are individuals who are born here and who become vulnerable to recruitment because of mental illness, social marginalization, issues of discrimination and other factors that have nothing to do with admitting refugees into our country.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of war-torn Syrian refugees are fleeingterrorist groups. But they are at risk. Experience from many conflict zones teaches us that the longer these refugees are left to languish in despair in camps the more prone they become to radicalization. Just as gangs attract youth in inner cities, terrorists are adroit at exploiting the most vulnerable who might turn to them for security, justice and even hope. Young men, in particular, gravitate to perceived models of strength and protection. In my book “Talking to Terrorists,” I wrote about a young Chechen in a refugee camp in the Russian Republic of Ingushetia, who explained that his father had been crippled by the conflicts and the youth wanted to join the “Islamic brothers” (meaning Chechen terrorist groups) because they, unlike his father, “were real men.”
There are cases where resettled refugees have become terrorists, but the examples are very rare, and the radicalization most often happened after they entered the United States. Since 2007, a small number of Somali refugees in Minnesota joined the Shabab in response to events happening in Somalia, which played into their own traumatic memories and failure to integrate well here. It bears noting that those who became terrorists left the United States to fight for Somalia rather than attacking the country that gave them refuge.
No doubt the Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev comes to mind as a counterexample. His parents came to the United States, where they sought asylum, while Tamerlan, at the age of 16, was left behind for almost two years, waiting to join his family. He was not an extremist when he entered our country. He was radicalized primarily through Internet seduction, well after he arrived. And his first impulse, just like that of the Somalis, was to join the fighters overseas.
There are feasible ways to process refugees quickly without taking security shortcuts. In 1999, 20,000 ethnic Albanians, mostly Muslims, were not left to languish in refugee camps but instead evacuated from Kosovo to the United States, given asylum here and efficiently processed at Fort Dix, N.J. But in the case of the Syrians, there is anarchy in the region, and the United States doesn’t have in place the resources required to vet refugees fleeing the conflict.
Short of evacuating the Syrian refugees, as we did for the Albanians from Kosovo, we can commit sufficient staffing and resources in the region to process the refugees faster. Currently, refugees are vetted in multiple layers and separate screenings by the F.B.I., the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies. When similar delays held up visas for Afghans and Iraqis who had provided support for our forces in those countries and whose lives were in danger, a bipartisan push from Congress motivated the responsible agencies to speed up the process.
Yet in the current crisis, the United States foreign assistance budget to help refugees overseas remains flatlined.
With four million Syrians having fled their country, the United States has accepted only a small number to date, and many have become desperate. Our national security interest requires us to diminish the Islamic State’s recruiting grounds wherever they are. We have failed to enact efficient practices and sufficient resources to allay our fears that within the refugees’ ranks might lurk a soldier of misfortune who wishes to do us harm. Denying safe haven to thousands of suffering Syrians because of that is itself the threat — to our security, to our role as a leader in today’s complex world, and to our compassion as a nation.
Anne Speckhard, an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, is the author of “Talking to Terrorists” and “Bride of ISIS.”