Analysis 2015/1: ISIS and the Refugee Crisis in Europe

November 21, 2015

Az Iszlám Állam kifejezett buzdítására már harmadik éve nő a dzsihádista merényletek száma a ramadán hónap alatt.

Analysis 2015/1: ISIS and the Refugee Crisis in Europe

ISIS and the Refugee Crisis in Europe

ISIS’ “foreign” fighters are now returning to Europe. Just like with a Trojan horse ISIS is trying to overpower the stronger opponent “Fortress Europe” by infiltrating its fighters under disguise.

Why Europe? Unlike Europe, the United States is only accessible through regular routes which include full background security checks. There are several reasons. ISIS wants to intimidate the strongest European members out of participation in the International US-led Coalition against ISIS. This includes but is not limited to France, Germany, or the United Kingdom. Moreover, ISIS uses attacks in Europe as a demonstration of power to attract new recruits.

The rise of ISIS and declaration of Caliphate in June 2014 took the world by surprise. ISIS is an extremist splinter group of al-Qaida. For terrorism experts specialized in Iraq, however, the rise of ISIS wasn’t a surprise. The post-US invasion sectarian conflict in Iraq and the Syrian civil war provided a fertile ground for extremist groups, like al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and later ISIS, to grow. It could be argued that there are two types of armed groups in Iraq: the first, local insurgent groups which are fighting towards regime change or demanding more ‘rights’. And second, transnational Islamist terrorist groups fighting to establish an Islamic Caliphate governed by Sharia law. The line between these two groups is often difficult to establish and as a result not fully appreciated by commentators in the field.

The link between ISIS and the refugee crisis in Europe

The causes to origins of the present refugee crisis in the Middle East are multiple and interconnected. Above all, it was prompted by the civil war in Syria and the Syrian regime indiscriminate shelling of rebel cities by barrel bombs and airstrikes. This was further exacerbated by the announcement of the Islamic State Caliphate in July 2014. It is important to remember that at present there are approximately 7 million people in Iraq and Syria under the rule of ISIS. However, The surge in numbers of refugees seeking shelter in Europe cannot be attributed solely to ISIS violence against civilians, but also to the network effect of the International Coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS. Although there are large waves of refugees fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq, reports refer to a considerable percentage of refugees[1] who are using forged Syrian/Iraqi passports to apply for asylum in Europe. Not fully known, but refugees have been identified to come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa.[2]


Paris Attacks: are refugees ISIS’s Trojan horse?

The 13th of November terrorist attacks in Paris, for which ISIS claimed responsibility within less than 24 hours, materialised fears of security threats resulting from the refugee crisis. The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said: “Some of the Paris attackers took advantage of refugee crisis to slip into Europe unnoticed…the passport-free Schengen zone is at risk if Europe fails to take responsibility over border controls.”[3] The British Home Secretary, Theresa May, further highlighted “a clear link between the EU’s external border and security within the EU”.[4]

The refugee crisis revealed EU security vulnerabilities; firstly, the European outer borders are not well-secured. And secondly, the EU Member States have limited security capacity to handle refugees roaming across European states. Europe’s reaction to the first waves of refugees coming mainly to Greece was slow and reluctant. By the time individual EU Member States started to complain about the ever increasing numbers of refugees, approximately 1.4 million[5] entered Europe.

Obviously, we cannot blame 1.4 million refugees for these vulnerabilities. It is possible that ISIS terrorists might slip into the EU territory disguised as refugees. However, evidence demonstrates that ISIS online recruitment techniques have been successful in attracting European citizens into its extreme cult even before the vast numbers of refugees seeking shelter in EU.[6]

How to address the security threats resulting from the refugee crisis?

In order to address the security vulnerabilities, the EU must make changes to its (1) internal and (2) external security policies. Firstly, the internal security approach to the present crisis is insufficient. Refugees are processed in European Member States with minimum security background checks. Admittedly the humanitarian demands of the crisis require a swift response. Nevertheless, the security concerns can no longer be overlooked and must be addressed. One way of filling in the gap of the background checks for refugees entering the territory of the EU is to encourage “proactive intelligence-sharing” among EU Member States. In addition, a centralised system of refugee registering should be established for the entirety of the EU. Only if such centralised system is set up, the data on all arrivals of refugees to the EU could be cross-referenced with the intelligence on terrorist threats. Secondly, the EU is recommended to develop a strategic plan to better secure its outer borders, and to start addressing all collective causes for the refugee crisis. The EU occupies a unique place in international diplomacy thanks to its geopolitical location. By combining military power and diplomatic “soft” power, the EU will not only promote peace in the Middle East but also safeguarding the EU from external security threats.


[2] See ibid. Refugees from countries other than Syria and Iraq are often thought to be ‘economic refugees’



[5] In 2014 and 2015 [ ]

[6] Referred to as “Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq” – and


Muhanad Seloom

London, 21st November 2015

The author is a London based Iraqi expert on terrorism, who wrote this article for the Migration Research Institute in Budapest.