Opinion

opinion | Seth Moulton

Syrian refugees are not the problem in ISIS fight

Syrian refugees waited to register their names at the Al Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan earlier this month.

REUTERS

Syrian refugees waited to register their names at the Al Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan earlier this month.

ISIS wants to murder more Americans, and it hopes to attack us here at home. Its threats in the aftermath of the Paris carnage made that clear. The question now is how we protect ourselves and, ultimately, defeat this brutal and sophisticated terrorist organization.

Our refugee policy has important implications for our strategy. The congressional furor over accepting Syrian refugees is handing ISIS a propaganda victory while distracting attention from their most likely avenue of attack.

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ISIS operates differently from older terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. Traditionally, terrorist groups have recruited and trained operatives in terror safe havens overseas, such as Syria today and Afghanistan before September 11. When these terror recruits are ready, they are dispatched to infiltrate and attack innocent civilians in other countries.

But that is not the ISIS approach. It mostly recruits over the Internet, using social media to try to radicalize people already embedded in the societies it wishes to target. ISIS has taken this approach even in Europe, where refugees flow freely across borders, meaning that foreign fighters can enter with relative ease.

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In the United States, there is no such ease of entry. Here, refugees undergo the strictest screening of any travelers to the country. The process is so exhaustive that it often takes more than two years. So, given a choice between attempting to infiltrate this country by navigating its way through a vigorous and extended vetting process or working to radicalize those already in the United States, where do you think ISIS is concentrating its efforts?

That is why, along with a comprehensive political and military strategy to defeat extremism abroad, our focus must be on preventing ISIS from recruiting to its cause people already on American soil. We need to prevent the radicalization of Americans like the Boston Marathon bombers, who came to the United States as children and lived here for many years before making a violent and abhorrent turn toward extremism.

I voted against the Republican bill to pause the lawful immigration of Syrian refugees for two reasons. First, it did nothing substantive to improve the screening process. Even the director of the FBI opposed it. Second, the legislation completely ignores the greatest threat ISIS poses to America: recruiting terrorists from right under our noses.

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Singling out Muslims or Syrians — the very victims of ISIS’s reign of terror — or suggesting that American values apply to them only with caveats, gives ISIS a propaganda tool it can use to recruit more foot soldiers. In other words, “pausing” refugee immigration will not help our national security. Instead, that overreaction might well harm our antiterror efforts.

Although ISIS disciples act like medieval thugs, we must not underestimate them. That means recognizing that they innovate and adapt to our efforts to stop them. Which is why, counterintuitive though it may seem, the reactionary policies some think will protect us could actually put us all at greater risk.

We should not let ISIS win by giving in to fearmongering and changing our values. We must remain steadfast and resolute in who we are as a people and a nation: a beacon of hope for all those “yearning to breathe free.” That is who we have long been. To turn our backs on our heritage and history now is to give ISIS exactly what it wants.

Seth Moulton is a US congressman who represents Massachusetts’ Sixth Congressional District.
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