With arrivals at more than half-million strong and growing, is ISIS exploiting the crisis to gain a tactical advantage?
With staggering speed, the migration crisis in Europe has grown in 2015 from a steady trickle of families huddled in rickety boats to the largest refugee crisis on the continent since World War II. So far, close to half a million have made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean or on foot from Syria and the Levant to Turkey, Greece and Italy. With a few notable exceptions, most of the migrants are escaping from civil war, ethnic and religious cleansing and outright lawlessness brought on by decades of repressive regimes, especially in Syria. Add to this the partition in Iraq and the upheaval brought on by the 2003 US-led invasion and the region faces a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.
Endless debates will take place of course about who is at fault, what caused the migration, how to stem it and what to do to prevent it from taking place in the future. But an inescapable question remains and centers around the security risk posed by absorbing half a million migrants into Europe and its border-free Schengen area. That staggering number is expected to be a drop in the bucket over time and many experts predict an exodus of several million accompanied by a fundamental change in the social, economic and religious character of Europe.
So, for now, the key question for authorities in Europe (and elsewhere) is this: Are there radicalized elements, including ISIS adherents, among the masses and if so, have these adherents been dispatched or embedded into the movement with the specific intent of establishing a firmer foothold in Europe through which attacks can be facilitated?
A definitive “yes” or “no” answer at this juncture would not be possible. There are just too many migrants to process, too many documents missing, too many stories that must be verified and too few intelligence and police officials in Europe to handle the job efficiently. Still, some assumptions must be made and only properly analyzed and corroborated intelligence will verify these as accurate or lacking in veracity. Let’s take a look at a few of them:
-The civil and political strife will go on unabated for the foreseeable future in Syria and the Levant and ISIS will continue to exploit it to gain control of territory and influence the local population.
-ISIS has already indicated that it intends to hit European and American targets and given its track record, one must assume that the group will intend to make good on its promise.
-Both the European and US populations are loathe to take military action in the region-such as in Syria or Libya-other than some tactical air strikes. This lack of resolve further strengthens ISIS.
-The Schengen border-free area of Europe facilitates the movement of ISIS adherents or radicalized individuals, just as it facilitates by design the movement of people, goods, and services throughout the region. Although the UK is not part of Schengen, it is an EU member and therefore it must adopt other EU migration rules and decisions or face criticism from its neighbors and possibly legal action from the European Commission.
-Citizens of EU members and non-EU (but Schengen) members Norway and Switzerland enjoy visa-free travel to the US, under the “Visa Waiver” program. A major overhaul of immigration law in the US, even if it were to occur, would likely keep visa-free travel to the US for certain nationalities largely intact.
-Even before the migrant crisis reached a critical juncture, Europe (and the US, Canada, and Australia) were engaged in a cat and mouse game of identifying, investigating and eventually interdicting Citizens who sought to travel (or actually did travel) to ISIS or ISIS-affiliated training camps for radicalization. The arrival of potentially millions of migrants from ISIS-controlled or influenced regions of North Africa and the Middle East will make the current investigative efforts look like child’s play.
The above are but a few of the intelligence challenges faced by national governments, both individually and collectively, in trying to get a handle on and decipher just who is a refugee, an economic migrant or a potential terrorist masquerading as such. The job is made more difficult by 28 EU governments with varying histories of accepting immigrants as well as the lack of a coordinated residency/citizenship policy.
The intelligence challenges or gaps require significant analysis and abundant intelligence from a variety of sources in order to even begin to provide a reliable assessment of each. We look forward to gathering more data in order to issue analytical products on some of these gaps and we welcome the reader’s input.