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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Lawmakers Chastised for Trying to Bar Refugees

This is the first part of a series on U.S. strategy against the Islamic State.

Future installments will look in greater detail at the Syrian refugee issue in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

WASHINGTON (CN) - Efforts to shut out Syrian refugees are "irresponsible" and will only embolden the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's recruiting arm, experts told two separate House committees on Wednesday.

The testimony came a day after six House Republicans, led by Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, moved to draft legislation to "pause" the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States, and after 31 state governors expressed opposition to resettling Syrian refugees after terror attacks in Paris last week killed 129 people and injured hundreds more.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 attacks, and initial news reports indicated that several of the attackers might have pretended to be refugees, claims based on reports of a Syrian passport found near one of the attack sites.

Subsequent investigations have determined that all of the identified attackers were European Union nationals or legal residents, and the Syrian passport was likely fake. However, those revelations have not hampered the political firestorm that ensued over the Obama administration's plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees next year.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane with the Institute for the Study of War chided those calling for exclusion of Syrian refugees. The United States bears some responsibility to them for failing to implement a strategy over the last four years to stop the Syrian civil war, he said.

"I don't know how the United States of America can possibly say no to people who are pouring out of that country, given the horror of what's taken place and given our contribution to that horror," Keane said.

Though Keane told members of the House Homeland Security Committee during a hearing on the rise of radicalism that he supports the congressional push to "pause" the resettlement program to ensure safety, he called recent statements like those made by Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush to admit only Christian refugees "irresponsible," and "horrific."

Those voices, "are playing right into ISIL's hands," Keane said.

A "key strategy" for ISIL to grow its movement requires the creation of "fragmentation between Muslims and non-Muslims," Keane testified. The Islamic State intends to accomplish this by "isolating Muslims in the world from non-Muslims," he said.

"I guarantee you that they have picked up on some of the statements that have been made in this town in the last few days and those things are running all over their social media," Keane testified.

"Come on, this is America," Keane said. "We're smart enough to figure out how to bring thousands of people into this country and make sure they're not gonna to hurt us."

Other experts echoed those sentiments in a separate House Armed Services Committee hearing on the strategy for Iraq and Syria Wednesday afternoon.

Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Syria, told the committee that keeping refugees out of Europe and the United States will feed the ISIL narrative that Western countries are the successors of the crusaders, and that only ISIL can defend Islam.

He added that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's declaration that Syrian refugees would be welcome in Germany threw ISIL for a loop.


"They saw it as a threat," he said.

John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, concurred. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant would like Muslims to think they are only welcome in ISIL's caliphate, he said.

Rather than fret over refugees Matthew Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the House Homeland Security Committee that Congress should focus more on foreign fighters returning from Syria.

Estimates place the current number of Western fighters from visa-waiver countries who have travelled to Syria at about 4,000, Olsen said. Only about 250 foreign fighters have come from the United States.

"The visa-waiver program is not a free pass," Olsen said. "There is information vetting that takes place." However, Olsen said there are questions about whether that information is being shared adequately between visa-waiver nations, and whether the vetting protocols are being followed.

"It is an area of potential vulnerability," he said, adding that committee oversight was a good idea.

Peter Bergen, the vice president of New America, advised the committee to consider creating a database of foreign fighters. While noting that Interpol has a database of about 5,000 foreign fighters, he said there could be as many as 30,000.

However, Bergen said returning American fighters do not pose a great threat to the United States, but that testimony was buried in his written statement.

"There has only been one case of a fighter returning from Syria and allegedly plotting an attack," he said in written testimony.

Naming 22-year-old Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, of Columbus, Ohio, Bergen said Mohamud left to fight in Syria in April 2014 but returned two months later. The government alleges that a Syrian cleric instructed Mohamud to commit an act of terror upon his return to the United States, Bergen wrote.

Mohamud allegedly discussed a plan to kill American soldiers at a military base in Texas with an informant, but pleaded "not guilty to a charge of providing material support to a terrorist group," Bergen's written testimony said.

The United States is not an easy target for ISIL recruits because of layered defenses that "make returning and plotting a sophisticated attack undetected quite difficult," he added.

"Almost half of the 330 individuals accused of jihadist terrorism-related crimes since 9/11 have been monitored by an informant," he wrote. Adding to that, Muslim communities and family members have assisted law enforcement in nearly 30 percent of those 330 cases, Bergen said.

Other Western foreign fighters and Americans inspired by ISIL through its propaganda arm, but with no direct connection to it, are a more worrisome threat, Bergen said.

He also recalled the downing of the Russian A321 airliner last month over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that killed 224 people, telling the committee that more than 200 international airports with U.S.-bound flights could be vulnerable to similar attacks.

Expert witnesses also debated what shape U.S. strategy should take in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Keane said ISIL will not be defeated until the Syrian civil war ends, and called for unleashing, "a devastating air campaign without the imposed restrictions of the last 15 months." The Obama administration has a zero-tolerance policy for civilian casualties, Keane said, which greatly limits the rules of engagement.

Keane did not say address what impact a "devastating air campaign" could have on civilians, or what efforts such a campaign should take to avoid civilian casualties.

Crocker told the House Armed Services Committee that there are no quick fixes - including a military solution - but said ramping up an air campaign could help create conditions for a political solution to emerge.

Crocker also advised the committee to dig into the root issues of Sunni disenfranchisement, and stressed a need to persuade them that life under the Iraqi government will be better than it is under ISIL's rule.

"Given the sectarian nature of the Iraqi government now, that's a hard case to make," he said.

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