Summer 2022Analysis2022

The Compounding Terror and Migration Crises

Madeline Field
Staff Writer 

Violent, Islamic-extremist terrorism has captured headlines around the world for much of the last two decades, with the number of deaths attributable to Islamic terrorism, sharply increasing in both the West and the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. This rise in terrorism across the Middle East has spurred a migration crisis, as desperate people flee to neighboring countries and across the sea to Europe in hopes of escaping violence, economic despair, and civil repression. 

The most recent Middle Eastern migration crisis peaked in 2015 when roughly 1.3 million migrants arrived in Europe, primarily leaving Syria due to the civil war. The 2015 migrant crisis was the culmination of many long-standing issues that were exacerbated by the instability of the post-Iranian Revolution Middle East and brought to a head by the 9/11 attacks. Compounding the crises were the Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010s, which led to increased conflict and political instability and allowed terror groups, such as ISIS, to flourish in conflict-ridden regions like Syria. 

In addition to terrorism increasing post-9/11, new, destabilizing approaches to counterterrorism by both Middle Eastern and Western nations—such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq—have created more wars and conflict, forcing millions more to flee. Counterterrorism expert Alex Schmid of the International Centre for Counter-terrorism says, “the common people [paid] the largest price” for anti-terrorism zealotry.

In retrospect, the 2015 crisis proved to be an impossibly difficult immigration and counter-terrorism problem that continues to affect involved countries today. During the crisis, security lapses occurred in several EU countries such as France, where some of the terrorists that later perpetrated the November 2015 Paris attacks took advantage of overwhelmed border security and managed to enter France legally. These lapses have diminished public support for taking in massive flows of migrants from Middle Eastern countries. Many Europeans believe that the flood of migrants is at least slightly correlated with heightened terrorism.  

Parallel widespread European fears of a ‘migrant invasion’ and concrete increases in crime and terrorism have deeply shaken Europe’s political and social order, with the European media playing a particularly influential role. Such popular hysteria, often perpetrated by British tabloids and right-wing sites, has led many experts to attribute the withdrawal of Britain from the EU as a reaction to fears sparked by influxes of migrants from non-European states. One University of Chicago study indicates that “within the EU, negative attitudes towards immigrants are also associated with higher levels of Euroscepticism” as the lack of borders and free movement associated with EU membership “increase feelings of exposure to security threats and terrorism.” 

Many European intelligence officials feared that terrorists would be able to capitalize on many European countries’ security vulnerabilities, whether crossing through established human smuggling routes, by using fake identification and passports, or simply posing as refugees in order to gain citizenship. 

Looking at ICCT data, these fears were not unfounded. During the 2015 migrant crisis, it became clear that uncontrollable numbers of disorderly migrant crossings pushed the Schengen Borders Code system, temporarily adopted by the EU, to a “de facto” breaking point. Initially generous refugee policies were soon untenable given the very apparent threat that terrorism- and in particular, the Islamic State- posed to Europe. In a little over two years, beginning in 2015, various radical Islamic-extremist groups planned and executed eight mass-casualty events in the countries most intimately involved in the migrant crisis.

The truth, however, is not as clear-cut as it appears. While large numbers of forced and voluntary migrants increase the likelihood of terrorism in host countries, the heightened numbers of migrants who flee their homes are directly correlated to increased acts of terror in their original country. Most migrants flee terrorism, only to experience it in their new homes. 

With the very notable exception of the 9/11 attacks, Western countries from 2001-2016 comprised a mere .5 percent of global terrorism fatalities, according to the ICCT. While attacks were terrifying when they did occur, such as the 2004 Madrid train bombings or the 2017 Manchester Arena bombings, they are rare. It remains unclear whether the relatively low terrorism fatality rate in the West can be attributed to stringent migrant and security policies, or the more stable socio-economic situations migrants and refugees find themselves in when they reach developed nations. 

There are steps along a migrant’s journey where radicalization and subsequent recruitment into terrorist groups are possible. Many radical groups exploit the vulnerable socio-economic situations most migrants find themselves in, indicating that European agencies should remain vigilant in accepting refugees. However, the European Institute of the Mediterranean found that the majority of European Islamic terrorists are  “homegrown” and tend to be unqualified immigrant workers, suggesting that radicalization becomes more pervasive once individuals have arrived in their countries. 

While the solution for many countries lies in better understanding the psychology of terror, many Western states and citizens fail to grasp more complex understandings of terrorism beyond traditional stereotypes on both sides of the political spectrum. These stereotypes range from the extreme right-wing point of view, which asserts that terrorists are rabid religious fanatics out to destroy Western civilization (see Samuel Huntington’s book Clash of Civilizations for a particularly troubling depiction of Islam), to those on the sympathetic left, which paints terrorists as hapless participants in an oppressive global society, itching to strike out against the forces that oppress them.

A collection of evidence collected on the reasoning for Islamic terrorism suggests that both stereotypes are largely incorrect. Primarily, “radical Islamic terrorism,” a phrase typically wielded by Western media to describe attacks perpetrated by Muslim terrorists, is much less Islamic than portrayed; the vast majority of victims of Jihadist terrorism are Muslim. According to the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), 85 percent of Islamic terrorist attacks are perpetrated in Muslim-majority countries, with many migrants themselves falling victim to terrorist activity at home. Data collected by the ICCT from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria indicates that immigration to another country is directly correlated with the number of deadly terror attacks and terrorism deaths in a migrant’s home country. 

Only 17 percent of polled Muslims see religion as the key factor in recruiting for ISIS, according to CSIS. The Quran expressly prohibits the murder of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, indicating to many Muslims that if Islamic terrorism was solely about Islam, it would be difficult to justify the killing of innocent civilians.

However, that is not to say that terrorism is the other extreme; completely religiously separated, unavoidable, or low-IQ. Researchers examining Islamic State fighters have discovered a strong corollary between the highly skilled attackers, suicide bombers, planners, and executioners that aim to further the ideological goals of their organization, and high education levels combined with either underemployment or unemployment. The Brookings Institute reports that the “frustrated expectations of individuals for economic improvement and social mobility,” or “relative deprivation” of well-educated individuals within a population pushes them to adopt radical social theories, perhaps as a means of political expression or frustration. 

This data suggests that terrorism is more politically motivated than anything else- a means by which repressed voices can make themselves heard, given the devastating effects of counter-terrorism, and the sheer number of violent, corrupt autocracies in the region which arose from a lack of civil service reform and the privatization of oil-rich lands by ruling figures following colonialism. One group of authors believe that “terrorism resembles a violent form of political engagement,” of which “educated people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in.” The surprising lack of terrorist violence in wealthy democratic countries, versus the multitude of terrorist attacks in countries that are corrupt and politically and civilly repressed (i.e. Syria), supports this evidence. 

Regardless, the whole world feels the effects of “Islamic” jihadists, and host governments must take advantage of the lull in the security situation to take concrete steps toward diminishing migrant radicalization. 

The first thing states can do is strengthen their administrative control and bureaucracy. Research indicates that in more developed countries, “stronger bureaucratic capacity, improved ability to screen refugees, and enhanced security measures” all lower radicalization rates. Weaker state governments, such as those in the MENA region where terrorism proliferates, are lacking in the aforementioned areas and thus more vulnerable. Furthermore, poor border control allows terrorists to utilize common smuggling routes for more sinister activity, increasing security vulnerability. 

Maintaining state control through a combination of both national and international funding is key to diminishing state weaknesses that terrorists can take advantage of. Increased border security measures, while unpopular, ensure that unvetted, dangerous migrants are less likely to cross into a Europe that may soon be unable to accommodate their needs. It also lowers the ability of terrorists to exploit the refugee process to slip into countries, as was the case with many of the Paris ISIS attackers. 

Another important step is maintaining clean refugee camps and intermediary homes that shelter migrants. Many host countries, left to their own devices and forced to deal with an expensive and difficult security situation without international assistance, push refugees into crowded and dangerous camps. 

A study published by RAND on refugee radicalization points at data in Kenya indicating that the further a refugee camp is from the center of state control (and thus military, state, and political control), the more likely it is to allow crime to spiral out of control. Data indicates that “the longer refugees are confined to camps and the lower the likelihood that the initiating crisis will be resolved quickly, the greater the risk of radicalization” and lowered compassion by the host state. Many states, aware of the domestic backlash that growing refugee populations will bring, limit migrants’ economic and social integration, even preventing them in some cases, as in Kenya, from owning land or obtaining a job.

Stories from the Al Hawl camp, the largest IDP camp in Northeastern Syria, emphasize the importance of this factor. ISIS members and supporters have turned a once-peaceful camp into a hub for “terrorist indoctrination, radicalization, human smuggling, document fraud, forgery and financing,” allowing its militancy to remain strong in the region despite territorial losses elsewhere.

In Europe, ghettoes, where many new migrants end up living, are, according to the IEMED, “hotbeds of jihadism” due to “unemployment rates, delinquency, and sentiments of social and geographical marginalization experienced by youth” who are then radicalized by extremist religious leaders and zealots. Ensuring that migrants are met with proper resources and access to employment upon arriving in Europe, as well as the embrace of supportive religious communities, is essential as they settle into their new lives. 

However, these points, when implemented singularly, still fail to completely address the radicalization of some migrants in Europe, leading to the final strategy: protecting migrants from discrimination and promoting their involvement and integration into society. The likelihood that migrants commit terrorism remains incredibly low. However, discrimination, according to an article published in the British Journal of Political Science, is a “powerful predicator for terrorism.” 

Quite simply, migrants, barred from traditional non-violent forms of religious, economic, and political participation, are easier to radicalize. For some migrants (particularly those who are less likely to assimilate into the host’s economic market), terrorism becomes a “means to voice dissent and achieve politico-economic relief.” One article published in the Conflict Management and Peace Science journal found that “socioeconomic discrimination against minorities is the only consistently significant and highly substantive predictor of terrorism.”

Migrants are vulnerable to terrorism in their host country if the nationals of the host country perceive them as a grave threat to their economic or social well-being. The tendency to scapegoat migrants for increased crime and civil unrest is most present among nationalist and isolationist factions of the population, ideologies which tend to proliferate with the presence of more refugees. Bettering attitudes towards migrants and lessening the impact of nationalist fear campaigns will reduce the likelihood of migrant terrorism and nationalistic backlash in countries that host them. 

Terrorism, whether manifested through direct conflict perpetrated by state and non-state actors or reduced economic opportunity and quality of life, pushes people out of their homelands and to areas that are sadly unable (and unwilling) to socially and economically accommodate heightened numbers of migrants who arrive with nothing at their doorstep. 

It is not possible to stop the continuous migrant crisis completely. However, there are steps nations around the world, and particularly those in Europe, can take to alleviate the crisis. Given the serious intersections between lack of economic opportunity, migration, and terrorism, all states need to improve attitudes surrounding migration. This can be done through creating stronger refugee integration programs, enhancing bureaucratic and national security procedures, and establishing the infrastructure to justly and equitably ensure that not only are migrants taken care of, but that the states they flee to can benefit from their presence. 

While migration regimes that affirm both the human dignity of migrants and the sovereignty and security of nations may be difficult to implement, they can go a long way in ensuring the safety of host-country citizens as well as migrants in their new homes.

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