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U.S. National Security Interests and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

These words, immortalized in bronze within the base of the Statue of Liberty, embody the United States’ storied tradition of welcoming refugees from warring or despotic nations. Recently, however, acceptance of refugees from war-torn Syria has been met with widespread controversy among the American public due to pronounced fear of the risk of admitting radical Islamic terrorists poised to commit acts of terror on the U.S. mainland. Is the threat imminent, and should it preclude the United States from adhering to its time-honored stance on asylum?

The Syrian refugee crisis began in 2011 with the onset of the Syrian Civil War. Nearly five years of fighting between the Syrian government, rebel forces, and radical Islamic groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have taken their toll on the populace of the beleaguered Levantine nation; recent statistics estimate that around 220,000 Syrians have been killed, and a further 4.3 million are now displaced and considered refugees. 1. Millions have fled to the surrounding countries and to the few Western nations offering asylum, but millions remain in need of safe haven. 2.

The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees among all the nations of the world, having thus far provided $4.5 billion towards relief efforts (financing medical care, food, potable water, and shelter). 3. However, U.S. authorities and the U.S. public alike have proven much more hesitant to lend help in terms of accepting refugees into the United States. Many fear that radical Islamic terrorists (particularly those under the banner of ISIL) may slip in to the United States among the waves of refugees or otherwise that some refugees may be terrorists themselves.

The most probable and imminent threat of a terror attack arises not from an influx of refugees, but rather from ISIL’s strategy of breeding “homegrown” terrorists. ISIL’s modus operandi has not been to send its fighters overseas, but rather to inspire those already radicalized in the United States and other countries to commit acts of terror. The efficacy of this strategy is unfortunately evident; of the four total ISIL-related attacks on U.S. soil thus far, all were perpetrated by self-radicalized U.S. citizens inspired by ISIL’s message. 4. The infamous and tragic attacks in France, likewise, were carried out by citizens of European Union countries. 5. This is not to say that ISIL will not send fighters among or as refugees, but rather that it is unnecessary from a strategic standpoint (and therefore less likely than a homegrown terror attack). ISIL’s publications and propaganda call for prospects to travel to the Middle East to fight, as its primary interests lie in securing its power and expanding its “caliphate” there; it urges only those who are unable to procure transport to the Middle East to commit acts of terror in their homelands instead. 6. In this way, ISIL maintains at the same time a fighting force in the Middle East and a proxy army of radicalized adherents already embedded in target countries without any pressing necessity of sending its fighters overseas.

While no attacks have yet been carried out by refugees, allowing individuals of unknown allegiance and background to enter the United States nevertheless does pose a valid security risk. Dozens of individuals were arrested in the United States for ISIL-related terror plots in the last year alone, a number of whom were indeed refugees from various countries. 7. Meanwhile, the State Department has indicated its highly controversial intention to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States over the coming year. 8. The United States should ideally be able to continue admitting refugees, but only if sufficient safeguards can be established to mitigate any potential risk; only time and trial will tell whether this can successfully be achieved.


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