Compassion and Security in the War against the Islamic State

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was once referred to by President Obama as the “jayvee team.” More recently the president said that ISIS has been “contained.” The reality is ISIS has become the apex terrorist movement on the planet – claiming responsibility for bringing down a Russian airliner, bombing major cities from Turkey to Lebanon, and killing 130 people in multiple simultaneous attacks in Paris – all within roughly the last 30 days.

Now the president that completely underestimated the threat from ISIS wants Americans to rest assured that there is little to worry about concerning the admission to the United States of at least ten thousand refugees from the ISIS dominated Iraq and Syria war zones. Unfortunately, we have much to be concerned about, and Congress should take action to pause the refugee program.

While President Obama may believe the refugees are no more dangerous than your average tourist, his Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, warned some weeks ago that, “As they descend on Europe, one of the obvious issues that we worry about, and in turn as we bring refugees into this country, is exactly, what’s their background? We don’t obviously put it past the likes of ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] to infiltrate operatives among these refugees.”

Mr. Clapper was not speculating. ISIS publicly proclaimed it had already infiltrated the refugees with its operatives. Federal security agencies have also warned Congress repeatedly that screening people coming from the war zones in Iraq, and especially Syria, is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The reason screening the refugees is so difficult is simple: conducting a background check requires confirmation of identity, and access to data sources that can confirm the information the individual provides. This involves name searches through various databases, interviews with friends, employers, co-workers, neighbors, classmates, etc., and direct interviews with the person who is the subject of the background investigation.

Screening someone when you don’t even know if they have given you their real name is a daunting task. While the U.S. Intelligence Community has tremendous capabilities, the sheer number of refugees involved in the current crisis has overwhelmed government resources. Indeed, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said back in October that, “We are not going to know a whole lot about the Syrians that come forth in this process.”

Knowing all of this, it is reckless to bring so many people from the Iraq and Syria war zones into America. Preliminary reports out of Europe are that at least one, and perhaps as many as two or more, of the ISIS terrorists in Paris entered Europe with the refugees, and that other terrorists used the refugee crisis as cover to conceal their cross-border movements.

Supporters of the refugee program argue that only a dozen refugees admitted to the United States since 9/11 have been arrested or removed on terrorism charges. While this might be true, it conveniently carves out the dozens of other migrants, who, though not technically “refugees,” nonetheless sought to engage in Islamist terrorism, even though many underwent a rigorous background check as required under post-9/11 security improvements.

The fact that several of the migrants became radicalized after they came into the United States only further complicates the security situation. This has been a major problem in Minnesota among the Somali population where the U.S. Attorney there admitted in April that they have a “terror recruiting problem” in that state. Moreover, past performance of refugees is not a guarantee of future results, and the ISIS situation is different given the group’s stated goal of using the refugees as cover.

The House of Representatives on Thursday wisely voted with a bi-partisan veto proof majority to require enhanced screening of refugees from Iraq and Syria. This de facto pause will allow the American people to more fully understand the nature of the threat, and the limitations in the current refugee screening process. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill.

Regarding that threat, the FBI is investigating potential ISIS links in all 50 states. In fact, the threat from ISIS has grown so large, and so quickly, that the FBI was recently forced to publicly request help from state and local law enforcement around the nation to track potential ISIS sympathizers and operatives. Adding potentially thousands of young Muslim men from Iraq and Syria to the mix could overwhelm the limited law enforcement resources in place to manage the threats we already face.

It is a false choice to claim the United States must intake Middle Eastern refugees or leave them to the slaughter. American charitable organizations and the federal government can and should help ensure the safety of innocents, especially the minority Christians that are being specifically targeted by ISIS for rape, torture and murder. Unlike their Muslim counterparts, the Christian refugees have far fewer options for resettlement in the region as a growing number of majority Muslim countries turn on their Christian inhabitants. Accounting for this fact is not religious or ethnic discrimination, but rather a requirement long ensconced in federal law.

The United States should be working with our allies in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere to find safe havens in countries close to the refugees’ homes so the refugees can more easily return there when the fighting stops. Above all, the best way to protect the refugees, and the American people, is for the Obama Administration to develop a strategy with NATO and our Sunni Muslim allies to destroy ISIS, both physically and ideologically, and help end the civil war in Syria.

Anyone who thought that radical Islam was on the decline in the post-Osama bin Laden era should have been disabused of such a notion after the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. Those bombings were carried out by two brothers who came to the U.S. as innocent children of asylum seekers. That attack and the rise of ISIS are stark reminders that our compassion can be exploited by a cunning and ruthless enemy.

Joshua Filler

About Joshua Filler

Joshua D. Filler is the president of Filler Security Strategies, a homeland security and emergency preparedness consulting firm in Falmouth that works with public safety responders from across the country. An attorney, Josh has served in several senior positions at the federal and local level, including as the first Director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as Director of Local Affairs at the White House Office of Homeland Security, and in the cabinet of Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York City. Josh has testified before Congress, written several articles for major newspapers, and given speeches and lectures on homeland security and emergency preparedness around the nation.