Treating Syrian Refugees as a National Security Threat:

Do the Means Fit the End?

Donald Kerwin
Executive Director
Center for Migration Studies

Treating Syrian Refugees as a National Security Threat: Do the Means Fit the End?

Syrians represent one in five of the world’s nearly 60 million forcibly displaced persons. In November 2015, 13.5 million Syrian residents needed humanitarian aid, 6.5 million were internally displaced and almost 400,000 lived in besieged regions. More than 4.6 million Syrians have been registered as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, where most live, at best, in a kind of holding pattern and, at worst, in survival mode. With a combined gross domestic product of roughly $1.4 trillion, these nations cannot accommodate populations of this size and need, and United Nations (UN) appeals for Syrian refugees have been grossly underfunded. Not surprisingly, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have embarked on perilous journeys to Europe. Europe’s chaotic and divided response to them has shaken the very foundations of the European Union.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in the spring of 2011, the United States has provided more than $4.5 billion in humanitarian funding for Syrians, resettled roughly 2,500 Syrian refugees, recognized the asylum claims of a few thousand additional Syrians, and designated and twice re-designated Syria for Temporary Protected Status. Despite harsh opposition, the Obama Administration has not wavered from its commitment to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in FY 2016.[1] The Administration has also devoted diplomatic capital to resolving the Syrian crisis. To that end, on December 18, 2015, nearly five years after the onset of the Syrian civil war, the UN Security Council approved a resolution that outlines a peace process for Syria. Any process to end the Syrian conflict faces substantial obstacles. However, a level of peace and stability will be crucial to the safe return home of displaced Syrians and to resolving the Syrian refugee crisis.

Instead of insisting that the United States take a leadership role in responding to the world’s largest and perhaps most daunting refugee crisis since World War II, Congress has turned its attention to curbing the admission of Syrian, Iraqi and other refugees. On November 19, 2015, the House passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015. The Act requires that the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Director of National Intelligence certify to 12 different Congressional committees that each Syrian and Iraqi refugee seeking admission, as well as each refugee who recently passed through or resided in these states, does not constitute a threat to the United States. If the Act were to prevent these high-level officials from delegating responsibility for certifications, it would bring the admission of Syrian, Iraqi, and other refugees to a virtual halt, stranding thousands of well-vetted refugees in desperate circumstances. If the United States were to regain interest in their cases in the future, the long and arduous refugee screening process would begin anew for them. The US Senate is scheduled to vote on this bill on January 20, 2015. However, President Obama has vowed to veto the SAFE Act if it passes Congress.

At a December 18, 2015 event at the Council on Foreign Relations, Robert Bonner, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection in the George W. Bush Administration, characterized proposals to target refugees as “another example of overreaction in our country which we see after every terrorist attack….It’s axiomatic.” Bonner continued: “There’s certainly the opportunity to make sure that the refugees that we do admit do not pose a security threat to our country.”

On a state level, 31 governors have expressed opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. The Refugee Act of 1980, which established the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), affords states a consultative role on refugee sponsorship and distribution issues. The federal government partners with states, localities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in administering USRAP. However, it enjoys the ultimate authority over this program and can opt – in the absence of state cooperation – to contract with NGOs to administer benefits in particular states.

Congressional and state opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees come in the midst of proposals by Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump to deny admission to the United States of all non-US citizen Muslims, to increase surveillance of mosques, and to waterboard suspected terrorists. Other presidential candidates have expressed support for admitting only or mostly Christian refugees from the Middle East. The world has largely turned an indifferent eye to the extirpation of Christians and other religious minorities from areas of the Middle East where they have lived for centuries. At the same time, Muslims have suffered the bulk of terrorist violence in the Middle-East and globally, and many have no other viable option than resettlement. 

These anti-refugee measures and proposals come on the heels of the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the December 2, 2015 murders of 14 persons at a center for developmentally disabled persons in San Bernardino, California, and the January 6, 2016 indictment of two Iraqi nationals, Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab and Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, who entered the United States as refugees.[2] 

US leadership has been crucial in addressing past refugee crises of the magnitude of the Syrian crisis, particularly following World War II and the Vietnam War, and US leadership will be necessary to resolve the Syrian crisis. In offering a few principles and insights drawn from counterterror experts and the US response to the 9/11 attacks, this essay seeks to move the nation’s debate on the twin imperatives of national security and refugee protection beyond the current politically-charged and misguided dialogue on Syrian refugees. 

Security-driven proposals to exclude or target persons on the basis of their religion, race or national origin undermine national security

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) views the flight of refugees from territories that it controls as a major challenge to the legitimacy of its caliphate.” As a result, it has regularly appealed to Syrian refugees to return, arguing that they will be abused and forced to convert in the host nations of the “infidels.” 

In a December 1, 2015 letter to Congress, a “who’s who” of former high-level, US diplomatic, intelligence, military and homeland security officials, including Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, David Petraeus, Condoleeza Rice and Brent Scowcroft, argued that: “Categorically refusing to take them [Syrian and Iraqi refugees] only feeds the narrative of ISIS that there is a war between Islam and the West, that Muslims are not welcome in the United States and Europe, and that the ISIS caliphate is their true home.” The letter opposes “proposals that would effectively halt the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees” on the grounds that they “would be contrary to our nation’s traditions of openness and inclusivity, and would undermine our core objective of combatting terrorism.” It further argues that “resettlement initiatives help advance US national security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large number of refugees.”

Failing to stem the outflow of refugees and migrants, ISIL seeks to create “a backlash against Syrian refugees in Europe or the United States, which would then allow militant organizations to recruit them from within the ranks of disaffected refugee populations.” If so, then to treat refugees with hostility or to discriminate against them based on fear of their possible radicalization could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one commentator has put it: “Perhaps one of the most persuasive arguments against equating refugees with terrorists is simple: It’s exactly what the Islamic State wants.”    

US political, religious and civic leaders should take pains to avoid conflating terrorists and Muslims

Following 9/11, many elected officials, counterterror and law enforcement experts decried the conflation of terrorists with particular religious or ethnic groups. Less than a week after the attacks, President George W. Bush famously said:

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.

When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race – out of every race.

America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) also made this point clearly: “Islam is not the enemy. It is not synonymous with terror. Nor does Islam teach terror. America and its friends oppose a perversion of Islam, not the great world faith itself.” In recent years, President Obama has likewise regularly sounded this theme.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner James W. Ziglar repeatedly distinguished between terrorists and immigrants. On February 12, 2002, he testified:

The terrorist attacks of September 11 were caused by evil, not by immigration. These tragic events have forced us to re-evaluate the way we live and think, and the way we function as a government. We can and will protect ourselves against people who seek to harm the United States, but we cannot judge immigrants – or refugees – by the actions of terrorists. Our Nation must continue its great tradition of offering a safe haven to the oppressed and persecuted.

Michael Hayden, the former Director of Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, recently argued that anti-Muslim rhetoric and discriminatory proposals play into the extremist narrative that Muslims “are born into a world of unrelenting hostility towards Islam from the Judeo-Christian West.” Hayden called it “doubly stupid when we say things that reinforce that incredibly false narrative.” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson affirmed that this approach “‘would burn bridges to American Muslims when we’re trying to go in the exact opposite direction.’”

Safe repatriation to a stable and secure nation represents the best “durable” solution for most forcibly displaced Syrians

Fewer than one percent of refugees are ultimately resettled in third-countries. Resettlement complements the other, more widely applicable “durable” options for refugees, safe repatriation and settlement in host communities. The Refugee Act of 1980 located resettlement within a broader response to “the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including, where appropriate, humanitarian assistance for their care and maintenance in asylum areas” and “efforts to promote opportunities for resettlement or voluntary repatriation.”

Most refugees want and ultimately need to return home. Others will put down permanent roots in the host nations of neighboring states. For a minority of refugees, however, voluntary repatriation is such a remote or untenable possibility that third-country resettlement constitutes their only viable option. US refugee “priority” cases fit within this category. Former DHS Secretaries Janet Napolitano and Michael Chertoff describe Syrian refugees as “the most vulnerable – particularly survivors of violence and torture, those with severe medical conditions, and women and children.” Priority cases also include persons who worked at great peril with Americans and US institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to whom the nation has a substantial responsibility. 

Terrorism-related killings have not occurred in large numbers on US soil since 9/11

According to a US State Department-commissioned report, terrorists carried out 13,463 attacks in 2014 which resulted in 32,727 deaths, including of 6,200 perpetrators. Sixty percent of the attacks occurred in five nations (Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria) and 78 percent of the fatalities in a slightly different group of nations (Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria). 

By contrast, the New America Foundation reports that 45 persons were killed in nine jihadist terrorist attacks on US soil between 2002 and 2015, compared to 18 attacks and 48 killings by “far right” extremist groups. These figures do not constitute cause for celebration or complacency: 45 jihadist murders represent 45 too many. Moreover, ISIL, al Qaeda and other groups will continue to try to inflict catastrophic damage to the United States. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission warned that al Qaeda had been trying to secure “weapons of mass destruction” for at least a decade and viewed the United States as a “prime target.” At present, ISIL, which counterterror expert Bruce Hoffman describes as “more brutal, lethal, unconstrained and adaptable than perhaps any substate actor since Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge,” presents the greatest terrorist threat to the United States. However, the figures on jihadist attacks in the United States help to contextualize the threat of a terrorist attack by a refugee.   

The radicalization of US citizens and non-citizens represents an immense security challenge, but not a refugee admissions issue

Countering violent extremism (CVE) constitutes one of the nation’s most pressing homeland security challenges. According to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, ISIL relentlessly uses the internet and social media to identify persons who are vulnerable to recruitment and radicalization, to create an echo chamber and virtual community in support of its ideas, and to encourage recruits to join ISIL fighters abroad or to commit attacks in the United States. Many thousand Americans access ISIL’s on-line propaganda each day. Its recruits are diverse and their motivations “defy easy analysis.” As of the fall of 2015, there were 900 active investigations of ISIS sympathizers in the United States.

Between March 2014 and December 2015, 71 persons were charged with ISIL-related activities, more than one-fourth for plots to commit attacks on US soil. Of the 71 charged, 58 percent were US citizens and six lawful permanent residents. Radicalization post-admission cannot be prevented by the refugee screening process. Moreover, this threat is not specific to refugees. The  US State Department reports that “‘only about a dozen” of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted since 9/11 have been “‘arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S.” Small numbers of persons admitted as refugees have, however, subsequently engaged in terrorist acts or been convicted for terrorism-related crimes. 

Bruce Hoffman argues that “while the threat of homegrown violent extremism inspired by either ISIS or Al Qaeda is now accepted as fact, there is still surprisingly little consensus on the potentially far greater danger posed by radicalized foreign fighters trained by ISIS, returning to their native or adopted homelands in the West, ready to carry out terrorist actions….” Although a lesser problem in the United States than in many European states, FBI Director James B. Comey has reported that 250 US citizens are known to have travelled or attempted to travel to Syria to fight.

Refugees are the most exhaustively vetted persons seeking admission to the United States

As has been repeatedly explained by DHS officials in Congressional testimony, refugees are the nation’s most exhaustively vetted candidates for admission. A prime security advantage of USRAP is that refugees, unlike European asylum-seekers, are vetted and screened outside the country, a process that takes up to two years. The 9/11 Commission recommended that the United States adopt a multi-layered approach to the security of its immigration system because no “single security measure is foolproof.” The US refugee screening and vetting program represents the best example of this approach.

In a November 19, 2015 letter to President Obama, former DHS Secretaries Janet Napolitano and Michael Chertoff wrote that the “highest priority of our government is to keep American’s safe” and “we can achieve this mission in a manner that is consistent with American values of openness and inclusiveness.” Napolitano and Chertoff argued that the United States could “admit the most vulnerable of these refugees into this country safely as long as we do not compromise the already established protections.” 

Counterterrorism is not a hard science. Thus, the rare terrorist breach of USRAP should not be cause for panic or a moratorium on the admission of desperate people. Rather, it should lead to an immediate assessment of the individual case in order to ensure that officials rigorously followed all the steps in the screening process. If not, better quality control and oversight must be put in place. If the entry, however, resulted from a previously unrecognized vulnerability, the problem needs to be aggressively addressed, which federal intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security agencies are fully committed to doing.

Far larger immigration programs (than USRAP) for non-immigrant tourists, business people, and students have not received nearly the same level of scrutiny and suspicion. One explanation may be that, while the refugee program has brought an array of benefits to the United States,[3] its underlying rationale is humanitarian, not economic. By contrast, many non-immigrant visa programs bring immediate economic and social benefits that would be diminished if screening became lengthier and substantially more burdensome. Visitors to the United States, for example, spent $220.8 billion and created 7.9 million jobs in 2014. The nearly one million international students in US colleges and universities in 2014/15 contributed an estimated $30.8 billion to the US economy. 

A risk management approach to national security seeks to minimize terrorist atrocities

The 9/11 attacks highlighted the need for a risk management approach to national security. Risk management does not connote a lack of vigilance or indifference to a certain acceptable level of terrorist atrocities. Rather, it seeks to minimize terrorist predations by allocating necessarily limited resources based on the severity and likelihood of threats. As the 9/11 Commission concluded:

America can be attacked in many ways and has many vulnerabilities. No defenses are perfect. But risks must be calculated; hard choices must be made about allocating resources.

Risk management unsettles politicians, pundits and members of the public who do not want to acknowledge the potential for terrorist attacks, the limits of counterterror strategies or the need for any trade-offs in the use of limited law enforcement and intelligence resources. It also allows for political grandstanding when terrorist events occur. However, the alternative is to devote insufficient resources to the greatest risks and disproportionate resources to less severe and likely threats. 

It is a hard and unpleasant fact that terrorists will seek to enter the United States in whatever way might be open to them, the less burdensome, the better, as exemplified by the entry of one of the two San Bernardino killers on an F-1 (fiancée) visa. Absolute security cannot be guaranteed for any immigration program. Moreover, even the most exhaustive screening processes must be adjusted based on new intelligence, field experience and breaches of existing systems. That said, USRAP represents a relatively small and secure program.   

Not every immigration-related enforcement strategy furthers national security

Many post-9/11 immigration-related security strategies were initially characterized as national security imperatives, but have since been discredited as counterterror tools. Most prominently, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) led to the registration of 83,519 men from 25 nations and the arrest and detention of thousands of non-citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, with little actionable intelligence to show for it. Counterterror experts warned that these initiatives could alienate and drive underground populations in which terrorists might try to hide, diminishing their cooperation with law enforcement agencies.

The post-9/11 era also witnessed dubious and exaggerated security claims for measures as diverse as the interdiction and detention of Haitian boat people, the indefinite detention of immigrants who had been ordered removed but could not be returned home, and the US-Canada safe-third country asylum agreement. Of all the terrorism-related risks faced by the United States, a program that exhaustively vets vulnerable persons, who have fled violence and persecution, constitutes an extremely low risk.

Dysfunctional Congressional oversight of DHS risks distracting DHS from its core responsibilities

The 9/11 Commission urged Congress to “create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security.” On the tenth anniversary of the attacks, the National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG), which is comprised of 9/11 Commission members, reported that dysfunctional Congressional oversight of DHS had created gross inefficiencies and potential security vulnerabilities. The NSPG found that DHS responded to “the inquiries of more than 100 committees and subcommittees” and “provided more than 3,900 briefings and DHS witnesses testified more than 285 times” in 2009 and 2010. It lamented the resulting “unclear security policies,” duplication of effort, “conflicting guidance,” and lack of integration between DHS’s constituent parts. The NSPG also criticized DHS’s lack of progress in establishing a unified command structure to respond to terrorist attacks and other catastrophic events that would necessarily implicate multiple jurisdictions and agencies. 

James Ziglar says that “the failure of Congress to have a focused oversight strategy for DHS actually endangers our national security interests by forcing DHS to respond to the policy and political interests of hundreds of Members of Congress (and committees), as well as the increased risk of disclosure of confidential and classified information in the hands of so many Members.” [4] He argues that DHS’s responsibilities “are as important as those of US intelligence agencies, yet the Congress refuses to manage the oversight of DHS with the same seriousness as it does with the intelligence agencies.” Congress should move with alacrity to streamline its oversight of the nation’s homeland security agency. As it stands, it is decidedly not in a better position than DHS to identify and address security-related challenges in USRAP.

Closing Thoughts

In their December 1, 2015 letter to Congress, the former, high-level US officials made an obvious point that has nonetheless been obscured by the recent debate on Syrian refugees; that is, that refugees “are victims, not perpetrators, of terrorism.” They seek a level of human security and opportunity that has been denied them. Refugees do not threaten the United States, but continually renew it.

USRAP reflects and projects US values to “all nations,” including respect for religious liberty.  It has an overwhelmingly humanitarian thrust, to promote “the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.”[5] Apart from the manifold contributions of refugees and their children, USRAP has advanced US geopolitical interests, allowing the United States to define itself in relation to rival states and to appeal to global public opinion. Refugees have also served as a continuous, living reminder of the nation’s foundational values and its core contributions to the international community. 

In his 1961 speech, titled Love, Law and Civil Disobedience,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “For in the long run, we must see that the end represents the means in process and the idea in the making.” The nation’s security represents an important end, but to deny protection to particularly vulnerable refugees, themselves the victims of violence and terrorism, does not advance this end: indeed, it undermines it.


[1] This figure constitutes less than one-fourth of one percent of Syrian refugees.

[2] Al-Jayab allegedly left the United States to fight with terrorist groups in Syria between November 2013 and January 2014 and Al Hardan, who was apparently radicalized after his arrival, reportedly sought to commit terrorist acts in the United States and to fight abroad.

[3] The long list of prominent US refugees includes Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Elie Weisel, Madeleine Albright, Andrew Grove, Sergey Brin and Viet Dinh.

[4] Interview by author with James Ziglar (Dec. 29, 2015).

[5] Refugee Act of 1980, Pub. L. No. 96-212, 94 Stat. 102 (1980), § 101 (a).

Author Names

Donald Kerwin

Date of Publication January 18, 2016