Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Positive and Negative Risks with High Uncertainty in the Context of Syrian Refugees after Paris

IWhen I first saw posts on the waves mid-east immigrants several months ago I commented, “I wonder how many ISIS and al Qaeda are among them.” I figure there are some potential threats and we need to monitor. 
The morning of the terrorist attacks in Paris I wasn’t able to sleep and ended up responding to an anti-immigration blog comment relating to terrorism. In it I wrote, “An occasional terrorist, and even attack, is basically inevitable,” and, “There will be terrorists [among mid-east refugees], but other dynamics are at play too.”[It’s a bit surreal to write that an attack is inevitable the same day one happens.]
While concern over terrorists among refugees is a valid concern, there are likely far more potentially valuable assets among them. For every terrorist, there are dozens of potential informational assets, advocates for action, people who will want to return and fight against these terrorist groups, and people who will want to earn their citizenship with military service. People who could each do far more damage to ISIS and al Qaeda than terrorists could ever do to us.
And the additional risk from mid-east refugees/immigrants is probably slight. Groups like ISIS have the finance and means to make attacks happen regardless of opening our borders. Coming along with refugees fleeing the region is risky and inefficient. Refugees would be likely to recognize and expose some insurgents. 
It is highly uncertain whether our military and intelligence communities can capitalize on this large potential resource. It is uncertain whether they can be sufficiently monitored and integrated into our communities. It also uncertain whether we are capable of welcoming them into our communities. But, leaving refugees disaffected in countries less able to receive them--or worse, sending them back to the mid-east—also seems like it may be a dangerous prospect.
The numbers are large. Concern about terrorist/potential terrorists among refugees is real. 
But it is also easy to obsess about risks and costs and be oblivious to large potential benefits. In addition, when we obsess about highly uncertain risks we can become oblivious to real, existing risks. I think attacks here and abroad are inevitable, but power dynamics are far less obvious. 
Can we play and win both the short and long game? 
Maybe we are blowing an opportunity to welcome these potential allies.

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