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Refugees and Terrorism: the Real Threat

https://global-strategy.org/refugees-and-terrorism-the-real-threat/ Refugees and Terrorism: the Real Threat 2019-10-21 20:13:00 Juan Carlos Antúnez Blog post Políticas de Seguridad Terrorismo
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Abstract: The exponential increase of mainly Muslim asylum seekers to the European Union in 2014-2016 (which concurred with a dramatic intensification of religious inspired terrorist activities) raised numerous security concerns and countless questions about the link between refugees and terrorism and amplified xenophobic feelings and Islamophobia in some sectors of the European societies.

The author of this article affirms that refugees should not be perceived as directly increasing the risk of terrorism and denies the possibility of radical Islamist militants posing as refugees. However, refugees living a difficult political and legal situation and socio-economic hardship are vulnerable to experience religious radicalization (meaning the process of committing to political-religious ideologies that espouse change through violence). This article tries to examine the prospect of long term refugee radicalization, paying special attention to ideological and identity issues and providing some recommendations to avoid this process.


Globalization and Migration

Globalization is not a new process. It is an acceleration of changes induced by the post-industrial revolution in transport and communication (Richmond, 2002). However, globalization has introduced important modifications in the social, political and economic realms of life. Those transformations have provoked perturbing and turbulent effects (Moghadam, 2008). Movements of people are a crucial element in global integration (Castles, 2013). The rapid growth of population in less developed countries combines with a reduction in barriers to migration from formerly authoritarian regimes to induce mobility. Economic inequality combines with demographic pressures and environmental crises to generate ethnic conflict and terrorist threats (Richmond, 2002). 

A major cause of migration is the growing inequality in incomes and human security between more- and less-developed countries. Further driving factors include uneven economic development; rapid demographic transitions; and technological advances in transport and communications. Increasingly migrants do not shift their social existence from one society to another, but maintain transnational connections (Castles, 2013). Globalization tends to create a more unified and yet more fragmented world (Thomas, 2010). Wealthier countries are placing restrictions on the admission of those seeking to improve their economic prospects and/or to escape persecution. Most destination countries favor entry of the highly skilled, but restrict entry of lower-skilled workers, asylum seekers and refugees (Castles, 2013). Despite the number of asylum seekers in Europe and North America, African and Asian countries bear the greatest burden of refugees (Richmond, 2002).

Nevertheless, the exodus of more than 4 million refugees from Syria since 2011 raised questions about whether Syrian refugee concentrations will become incubators for violent extremist groups (Sude, Stebbins & Weilant, 2015) and European politicians become so alarmed and, in some cases, downright apocalyptic at the rise of asylum seekers in 2014–16 (Lucassen, 2018). The worsening conditions in Middle East forced many refugees towards Europe and, since the refugee crisis began, a part of European media showed Iraqi and Syrian refugees as outsiders, whose values and culture supposedly oppose European values and culture. In this context, many Europeans, including journalists, have widely generalized about the massive amount of information about the refugees, Muslim immigrants, oversimplified conceptions, opinions, or images and regurgitated an incomplete narrative to the larger population (Antunez Moreno, 2016). Refugees were blamed for providing a “convenient cover” for Islamic State (IS) militants, who wish to sneak through European Union’s (E.U).” However, IS militants posing as refugees constitute only a small fraction of the jihadi militants that have attacked Western countries (Eleftheriadou, 2018).

The European Reaction: Anti-Asylum Rhetoric

The cognitive link between terrorism and Islam is strong and negative attitudes towards Muslims are the strongest determinant of fear of terrorism and totally mediate all other effects (Andersen and Mayerl, 2018). Attitudes toward Muslims and refugees have influenced the European political debate, and this is reflected in current public opinion. For some Europeans, negative attitudes toward Muslims are tied to a belief that Muslims do not wish to participate in the broader society. The dominant view is that Muslims want to be distinct from the rest of society rather than adopt the nation’s customs and way of life. Most Europeans also think that the surge of refugees could lead to more terrorism (Wike, Stokes & Simmons, 2016).

Anti-immigration rhetoric increasingly goes hand-in-hand with another terrible 21st century phenomenon – Islamophobia (Sloan, 2014). Some commentators attribute this surprising and sudden wave of anti-Islamic sentiment and anti-refugee hatred to rising defensive nationalism and a sense of insecurity in a Europe because traditional stability appears to be under threat (Culik, 2015). The crisis of the refugees also activated a good amount of latent xenophobia, leading to anti-Islam protests, attacks on asylum centres and other violent actions. Some governments in Eastern Europe even specifically indicated they do not want to accommodate non-Christian refugees, out of supposed fear over the ability of Muslims to integrate into Western society and concerns refugees would increase domestic terrorism. (Tharoor, 2018).

In 2014 and 2015, a “perfect storm” developed, bringing together factors that in the past had been largely unrelated and then converged with new ones. The analysis of societal discontent with migrants and refugees has revealed five necessary and sufficient conditions: discomfort with immigration and integration of colonial and labour migrants from North Africa and Turkey (1970–80s); growing social inequality and widespread pessimism about globalization (1980s–); a growing discomfort with Islam (1990s–); religious motivated terrorism (2000s–); and the rise of radical right populist parties (2000s) (Lucassen, 2018).

Some political leaders have been applauding and manipulating a growing nationalistic sentiment in many places, which is generated by due to economic woes, unemployment and frustration.  At times, this nationalistic sentiment is being used to target against other religious communities and breed religious intolerance.  Religious intolerance is a fertile recruitment ground for radical movements and entices lone wolf attacks (Antunez, 2016).

Radicalization Processes: Identity

The cascading hardships of the refugees experience and state policies and restraints may generate a more explosive baggage of grievances that might give rise to radical expressions in the future (Eleftheriadou, 2018). Identity plays a central role in this process.  

Ashley Mackenzie for NPR

What mainly draws young people in Western countries to jihadi violence is mainly a search for something difficult to define: they look for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. The real starting point for the making of a home-grown jihadist is not radicalization but this kind of social disconnection, a sense of estrangement from, resentment of, society. It is because they have already rejected mainstream culture, ideas, and norms that some Muslims search for an alternative vision of the world (Malik, 2015). Issues of identity have long been recognized as being central to radicalization and are not unique to Muslims.  The underlying ingredients are always the same: righteous indignation, defiance, a sense of persecution and a refusal to conform (Maher, 2015). Radicalization grows out of three contexts: the “local” (events and conflict in the country of origin); the “global” (the global jihad against the perceived enemies of Islam); and the “diaspora” context (grievances born out of the experience of being a diaspora in Europe) (Nesser, 2004). The study of the motivations of jihadi militants in Europe at the turn of the century has shown that the combination of “diaspora” and “global motivations” was more important than “local motivations” (Eleftheriadou, 2018).

Some Muslim immigrants are not integrating well in Christian-Heritage societies (Adida, Laitin & Valfort, January 2016). As a result, Europe is creating a class of under-employed immigrants who feel little or no connection with their host societies (Adida, Laitin & Valfort, April, 2016). In many Western countries, some young Muslims residents or citizens from Asian-African origin also face a crisis of identity, and they identify neither with the hosting society nor with their families’ country of origin. For them, to turn to radical ideas, which underscores religious universality, is a way to differentiate from both societies, providing them a new identity (Mazzar, 2014). They are an easy target for radical groups.  Their parents are frequently unable to provide cultural or spiritual guidance, while their communities may lack Imams with a modern, democratic orientation. This create a “lost generation” or “generation in transition” as these youths don’t fit in with the culture their parents left behind, and yet don’t fit in with the culture of the host country. Disconnected from the tolerant traditions of their families’ original homelands, these teenagers are susceptible to foreign propaganda and sermons that preach narrow and hateful interpretations of Islam (Antunez & Tellidis, 2013).  In this context, the experiences of the refugees fleeing to Europe have more in common with those of the first-generation jihadi militants. Hence, local motivations are expected to play a more prominent role in radicalization. Contrary though to first-generation jihadists, Europe today is not considered a temporary sanctuary, but a permanent new home. Thus, the interplay between “local” and “diaspora” contexts is highly significant (Eleftheriadou, 2018).

Marginalization among some immigrant communities appears to have played a role in the radicalization process. Quite a large number of young Muslims from Europe who became terrorists have a criminal record in their home country and may have spent time in prison Watts, 2016). Some have been taking illicit narcotic drugs and they wish to leave a bad past behind. To those alienated youngsters, radical groups offer an attractive alternative of belonging, purpose, adventure and respect. Radical groups offers them a new identity that is less determined by their past than by their potential contribution in the future (The Soufan Group, 2015). Radical groups gave the disfranchised a new home, purpose and direction (Watts, 2016). In order to do this, they have created an intricate network of connections between brothers, school friends, gang members, prison comrades, and an older generation of mentors (Klausen & Johnson, 2016).  They contribute in different phases of the radicalization process, which are reportedly very short (Van Ginkel & Entenmann, 2016), with the whole process generally taking weeks rather than months (The Soufan Group, 2015).

We are not only confronting organizations and doctrines, but also a highly seductive subculture, which we can define as cool jihad. Music, rituals and customs may be as important to jihadi recruitment as theological treatises and political arguments. In short, jihadism offers its adherents a rich cultural universe in which they can immerse themselves. This is probably a key source of its attraction (Hegghammer, 2015). Furthermore, some terrorist groups offer the possibility of conjoining jihad and counterculture activity.

With regard to the place of residence, most radicalized people, between 90% and 100%, originate from large metropolitan areas or peripheral suburbs. Many originate from the same neighbourhood, which seems to indicate that there are pre-existing (extremist) networks operating in these areas, which a circle of friends radicalize as a group (Van Ginkel & Entenmann, 2016).

Ghettoized areas with close connected groups of youngsters, often lacking a sense of purpose or belonging outside their own circle, have proved to generate a momentum of recruitment that spreads through personal contacts from group to group. In the countries with the largest flows, radical recruitment has become more focused and localized in specific areas, with, family and friends are playing a greater role (The Soufan Group, 2015).  Youngsters are radicalized within a small group of “buddies” who met in particular place: neighbourhood, prison, sport club; they recreate a “family”, a brotherhood (Roy, 2016). Refugees also face the effects of ghettoization.  

While the power of social media outreach is undeniable, it appears more often to prepare the ground for persuasion, rather than to force the decision. As hotbeds develop, recruitment through social media becomes less important than via direct human contact, as clusters of friends and neighbours persuade each other to join a radical group (The Soufan Group, 2015).   In this context, justification for extremist action is either developed or greatly intensified by group dynamics: the group, which provides camaraderie and a sense of significance, become extremely cohesive under isolation and threat (Kershaw, 2010). Youth populations are most vulnerable to succumbing to violent ideologies since adolescence is an extremely formative period for identity. Living in poor social conditions can weaken links with socially inclusive networks, making way for new spheres of influence. Ideologically driven groups associated with violent radicalization often monopolize on this opportunity to offer an alienated member of society the chance to belong (Abdou, 2019).

Furthermore, there are important factors in refugee radicalization that are absent in traditional radicalization models, such as the cause of refugees’ flight, their prior political organization, and the presence of militants among civilians (Eleftheriadou, 2018). Risks grew with a package of factors: the geographic place and legal status of the refugees, the level of social and economic support for local populations in those locations, the preexistence of militant groups in refugee areas, and – perhaps more critical- the policies and actions of the receiving country, including its acceptance of militant organizations and its ability to provide security (Sude, Stebbins & Weilant, 2015).

The Ideology: Salafism

An ideology and a narrative that can inspire are particularly dangerous in the hands of a skilled field operator who can punch up the message to make punch up the message to make it spread farther and more powerfully and thereby expand the pool of recruits and sympathizers (Antunez Moreno, 2016).

This ideology can be defined as a radical interpretation of Salafism, according to which Islamic rule must be established by violent Jihad that can include terror and terrorist acts (Kepel, 2006). Salafism is viewed by a large number of Muslims worldwide, from immigrants in Western countries to those living in the metropolis of the Middle East, as a way to renew Islam in the face of modern times. It is attractive because of its claims of authenticity and its textual associations and because it offers an emotional and puritan alternative to other interpretations. In Western countries, many younger Muslims face a crisis of identity, and they identify neither with the hosting society nor with their families’ country of origin (Antunez Moreno, 2017). For them, Salafism, which underscores Islam’s universality, is a way to differentiate from both societies, providing them a new identity. In Muslim countries, Salafism is appropriating secularism’s traditional role of defending the socially and politically weak against the powerful Antunez &Tellidis, 2013). They provide the followers (the true believers) with an idea of their “true purpose” and a sense of belonging to a transnational community in which he or she is unconditionally accepted (Heinke & Persson, 2016).

(Data from Jones, 2014, Figure 3.1)

Salafism is a minority faction within Islam, and most of its adherents are nonviolent. But this ideology is prone to radicalization and some of the Salafist doctrines can be exploited and used to justify the extremism found in terrorist groups in the Islamic world. Some terrorist groups identify with a movement in Islamic political thought known as Jihadi-Salafism, or Jihadism for short. The group’s leaders explicitly adhere to this movement. Jihadi-Salafism is a distinct ideological movement in Sunni Islam. It encompasses a global network of scholars, websites, media outlets, and, most recently, countless supporters on social media (Antunez Moreno, 2017).

Similar to other ideologies, the Salafi-jihad sharply distinguishes between its adherents and those who reject its doctrines (Moghadam, 2008). Their core narrative of “us” (the Ummah, community, or Ummat al-Mu’minin, the community of believers) defending against “them” (the non-believers conducting an alleged “War against Islam”) secures a strong bond among the followers while alienating them from both Western citizens and other Muslim believers (Heinke & Persson, 2016). However, the Ummah is at best a pious wish and at worst an illusion: in fact nowadays conflicts are first and foremost among Muslims themselves (Roy, 2017).

Westerners are commonly described as infidels, while moderate Muslims and Arabs are labelled apostates. To the most extreme Salafi-jihadists, Muslims who reject the tenets of Salafi-jihad are tantamount to infidels, thus deserving of death (Moghadam, 2008).

Ideology is critical to terrorist groups for a number of reasons including the roles it plays in recruitment and in the ongoing motivation of fighters and other adherents and sympathizers. They make efforts to “shape society”; and to distribute propaganda that speaks directly to local circumstances, in Europe or in the Middle East. From their perspective, the goal is to grow the movement and further extend its global reach while maintaining an appreciation of site-specific context needs, and parameters of operation. Such skilful adaptation to local circumstances has served the adversary well over time (Cardash, Cilluffo, & Marret, 2013).

The Salafi-jihadists’ goal is to raise awareness among Muslims that their religion has been on the wane. Whereas Islam used to be at its peak during the first centuries of its existence, Salafi-jihadists urge Muslims to understand that the tide has turned, and that Islam is in a constant state of decline in religious, political, military, economic and cultural terms (Moghadam, 2008). They can continue with this “ideologization” by strengthening the perception of global Muslim suppression; the picture of Islam under threat, triggering the belief that the Muslim community and the radicalized individual exists in a state of permanent self-defence (Heinke & Persson, 2016).

Attackers in Western countries can be only terrorist “sympathisers”, prompted by a sense of shared community, political disagreement, feelings of injustice over poverty and life in the dole, loyalties to another country and oppressed brethren. They may not have contact with a terrorist organization, may not have trained in foreign lands and may not, in fact, ever leave their home soil. And with each new act of violence inspired by or committed in the name of any terrorist group, radicalization and polarization of the society rages on (Burton, 2005). Terrorist  attackers can be “idealists”, identified with the suffering of Muslims (real or perceived), “Respondents”, who react to the experiences of their own religious group, and, last but not least, “lost souls, who are adrift, isolated and perhaps ostracised, and find purpose with a radical group. The lost souls are “ripe for the plucking” by recruiters (Kershaw, 2010). Refugees living in a difficult political and legal situation and socio-economic hardship are perfect targets for those recruiters.

Refugees and Terrorism

Immigration and asylum are key political issues in the European Union. Yet the policies of states and supranational bodies seem to have had little success in preventing unwanted flows and effectively managing immigration and integration (Castles, 2004).

It is possible to assess that there are three types of reasons for immigration and integration policy failure: factors arising from the social dynamics of the migratory process; factors linked to globalization and the North-South divide; and factors arising within political systems (Castles, 2004).

It is important to highlight, as an example, which the majority of terror attacks that took place in 2014 occurred in only five countries. And they happen to be the home countries of the refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Terrorism and the refugee crisis are linked but not how we might think: mass violence and instability in a few countries are forcing residents to flee for their lives (Murphy, 2015).

Migrants and refugees should not be perceived as increasing the risk of terrorism, as has been asserted by media and politicians in many countries (Gafarova, 2018). However, they can be a target for religious radicalization and terrorist recruitment.

A United Nations expert on counter-terrorism and human rights underscored in a 2016 report that there is no evidence that migration leads to increased terrorist activity. Furthermore the Special Rapporteur assured that migration policies that lead to restricted access to safe territory and increased covert movements of people, particularly by traffickers, “may ultimately assist terrorists and lead to increased terrorist activity (Emmerson, 2016).”

Among the main factors that make migrants and refugees vulnerable to the influence of extremist organisations, we can highlight the social environment, problems of identity, discrimination, economic conditions, cultural marginalisation and influence of the country of origin (Gafarova, 2018).

Refugees are a part of society in every country. Global interconnectivity has provided refugees more opportunities to escape the persecution they have experienced in their home countries. However, that same interconnectivity doesn’t always extend to the small communities where the refugees end up living. Isolation and poverty can sometimes lead to desperation and radicalization in refugees (Abdou, 2019).

Factors such as overcrowding, hunger, poverty, and local crime risk refugee alienation and can increase general violence, but specific combinations of factors can be more relevant for predicting the conditions most likely to contribute to radicalization: actions of the receiving country and its citizens, the refugees’ loss of personal opportunities in prolonged crises, and lack of integrated programs (Sude, Stebbins & Weilant, 2015).

Many factors exist that can undermine social cohesion, including both social and economic isolation as well as discrimination. Marginalized members of society, specifically refugees and immigrants, are most commonly impacted. These populations often arrive in their host countries not able to speak the language and with limited support systems.  Social isolation frequently leads to economic isolation, meaning that refugees and immigrants are at a higher risk of falling into poverty. Moreover, discrimination often faced by marginalized communities can further undermine social cohesion and is commonly linked with poorer health and unemployment. The negative impacts not only hurt these members but prevent them from contributing to the economy, affecting the community as a whole (Abdou, 2019). This social and economic isolation is frequently a trigger for radicalization processes.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Migration policies might be more successful if they were explicitly linked to long-term political agendas concerned with trade, development and conflict prevention. Reducing North-South inequality is the real key to effective migration management (Castles, 2004).

States must recognize that the vast majority of refugees fleeing Middle East and other affected regions are victims of terrorism, and should not be stigmatized as potential terrorists themselves (Emmerson, 2016). Thus far, most counterterrorism efforts have put an emphasis on the criminal justice system. This means focusing almost exclusively on those who are already planning on committing a crime and not on prevention. Not only may this partial focus be inhibiting success, but in some cases, it has further encouraged radicalization in refugees by singling out specific religious groups (Abdou, 2019).

Radicalization risk can be mitigated if the main stakeholders adopt comprehensive policies that extend beyond immediate life-saving needs and address such issues as the refugee’s impact on the countries that host them (Sude, Stebbins & Weilant, 2015).

Measures to prevent radicalisation must ensure a balance between the security of the population and respect for the fundamental rights of those at risk from, or who are already subject to, radicalisation. Policies for the prevention of radicalisation and violent extremism should focus on ensuring that migrants feel secure in host countries and socially included in societies without being forced to abandon their own cultural identities (Gafarova, 2018).

Policies which respect human rights, justice, and accountability, and that manifest the values on which democracy is founded, are an essential element of effective counterterrorism policies (Emmerson, 2016).

Greater local social and economic inclusion, could reduce the alienation of persons subjects to potential radicalization, it is ultimately no match for the theological pull of the radical narrative. Radicalization is a multidimensional phenomenon “transversal” to different fields of expertise. Anti-radicalization strategies must include families and local communities and be designed by teams with multi-disciplinary capabilities, including among others sociologists, psychologists, and religious leaders and scholars.

A new-wave of counterterrorism efforts can offer a new perspective on how to prevent violent threats through better comprehension of human complexity. Focusing on understanding individuals’ demographics, stories and culture in order to better employ protective factors, like social support programs, would be monumental. Furthermore, crafting programs that promote trust and integration is key. By creating safe environments for all demographics and cultures, risk factors for violent radicalization in refugees can be reduced and, hopefully, eradicated (Abdou, 2019).

Policies adopted by host states at an early stage largely predetermine future radicalization. Another implication is that the possibility of refugee radicalization is not the same for every refugee population and in every (European) country. Each presents different characteristics and challenges. Thus, the policies adopted by the E.U. or member-states should be tailored to the specific needs of each community or state (Eleftheriadou, 2018).

In the case of Middle East refugees, the international community has the right ideas to address many of the major risk factors, but comprehensive programs, rare in the historical cases, remain difficult to implement or sustain today (Sude, Stebbins & Weilant, 2015).


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Juan Carlos Antúnez

Oficial del Ejército de Tierra español. Analista Sociocultural en NATO Allied Joint Force Command (JFC) Brunssum. Doctor en Filología Árabe

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Juan Carlos Antúnez