Migration, Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Myths and Realities

This is perhaps the most electrifying question in Europe today, as policymakers consider resettling significant numbers of refugees from the Middle East. Dr Khalid Koser and Amy E. Cunningham from the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) examine the myths and realities of migration, violent extremism and terrorism.

As evidenced by the findings and analysis of the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, violent extremism has become a universal crisis. This year, the publication of the index coincides with another ongoing emergency, that of refugees and migration. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports the highest number of displaced persons ever recorded. The statistics are sobering: one in three Syrians has been forced to abandon their home, Europe is facing unprecedented arrivals of asylum seekers and refugees, and thousands of migrants have lost their lives in the Mediterranean alone.

Inevitably, linkages are being drawn between these two crises. For a start, the rise in terrorism is one reason why more people are leaving their homes. What is more, experts suggest that displaced populations, especially those in a protracted situation, may be especially susceptible to radicalization to violent extremist agendas. More controversially, it has been suggested by some leading politicians and commentators across a range of European countries that violent extremist and terrorist groups may be infiltrating migrant and asylum flows.

Extreme caution is required in drawing these correlations. It is always an analytical challenge to discern individual motivations for migration and displacement. It is important to guard against generalizations – refugee camps can be sites of innovation and enterprise, not just hopelessness and despair. Anecdote is no replacement for evidence. In particular, there is a risk of fueling anti-immigration sentiment when unsubstantiated assertions are made about migration as a threat to national security.

Anecdote is no replacement for evidence. In particular, there is a risk of fueling anti-immigration sentiment when unsubstantiated assertions are made about migration as a threat to national security.

Are the displaced vulnerable to recruitment to violent extremism?

The clearest example of displaced people becoming vulnerable to terrorist groups is the recent siege of Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp, situated mere kilometers from Damascus, which housed some 18,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrian internally displaced persons (IDPs). The consequences of the April 2015 takeover by ISIL and other violent extremist militants were felt immediately. Despite warnings of a potential massacre, it was days before humanitarian actors were granted sufficient access to the camp. As the emergency unfolded, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon implored the international community to intervene, saying, “In the horror that is Syria, the Yarmouk refugee camp is the deepest circle of hell. ... A refugee camp is beginning to resemble a death camp. The residents of Yarmouk – including 3,500 children -- are being turned into human shields.” At the time, left out of the conversation were the arguments suggesting that another consequence may be the radicalization (of those besieged) to ISIL’s agenda, the very same argument politicians and commentators are making today in response to the steady stream of asylum seekers entering Europe.

At the moment, it is the prospect of displaced people becoming radicalized to the agendas of violent extremists that is of growing concern in Europe, and this concern applies not just to displaced Syrians and Iraqis, but also to transit migrants moving from sub-Saharan Africa. The need for caution is worth reiterating – in the majority of situations providing security for the displaced is far more important than securing our states from them. Nevertheless there have been examples where some IDP and refugee camps have become recruiting grounds for violent militant groups – as evidenced in certain Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan (including Jalozai near Peshawar, for example), or in Somali refugee camps in Kharaz in Yemen.

While specific examples are unusual, there is a more general risk that unless they are better managed, IDP and refugee camps can generate the conditions conducive to allow for radicalization to violent extremism to occur. Existing literature specifically highlights three conditions that allow for this – poor education (especially where the gap is filled by violent extremist education), a lack of work, and the absence of freedom of movement.  These conditions are most likely in protracted situations, where refugees spend considerable periods of time in camps; and unfortunately, the proportion of refugees worldwide existing in protracted situations is growing.

Should we fear terrorist groups will infiltrate asylum flows?

This is perhaps the most electrifying question in Europe today, as policymakers consider resettling significant numbers of refugees from the Middle East. As if their journey hasn’t been arduous enough, in a number of countries security screening is proving a significant obstacle to their resettlement. Also hampering the efforts of these desperate men, women, and children in pursuit of safety or opportunity, are what seems to be, a growing number of overly cautious European leaders.

If you were to believe the statements offered by some politicians, the conclusion is clear: Migrants and asylum seekers pose a serious risk to the security of Europe. President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic recently warned of “sleeper cells” coming to Europe; Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico predicted that the current flow of migrants includes people connected to terrorist groups; and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni opined that there is a “considerable risk” of terrorists infiltrating immigration routes.

But in fact there is virtually no evidence to support such assertions. 

But in fact there is virtually no evidence to support such assertions. Several smugglers were interviewed last year by BuzzFeed and reported having transported ISIL recruits. One smuggler attested to having sent at least ten ISIL fighters posing as refugees to Europe, and affirmed that the fighters, once settled, were awaiting their orders to launch an attack on European soil. Two smugglers interviewed in Turkey also reported transporting fighters across the Mediterranean Sea. Without underestimating how vital it is to manage any such risk, we would observe that smugglers may not be the most trusted source of information, and in almost all other contexts are routinely described as criminals and liars by politicians and policymakers.

The ongoing European refugee crisis is, in any case, too current to permit a credible assessment in this regard. In most countries data on terrorist activities is confidential. However, where it is available, analyzing prior waves of asylum seekers suggests that there is very little evidence that during their journey, their routes had been infiltrated or their psyches co-opted by terrorists. The Migration Policy Institute, for example, reported this month that of 745,000 refugees resettled in the United States of America since 9/11, only two have been arrested on terrorism charges. What is unclear however, is whether these individuals were already radicalized to violent extremism when they arrived, became radicalized subsequently, or whether they were deliberately sent to the United States by terrorist groups.

Continue reading (page 83) 

This is an excerpt from Khalid Koser and Amy E. Cunningham’s essay Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Myths and Realities, published in the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, page 83.

Dr Khalid Koser is the Executive Director of GCERF, Amy E. Cunningham is an Advisor for GCERF 

Continue reading


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