Syrian Refugee Crisis Sparks Intense U.S. Debate

photo composition of US & Syrian flags with US capitol building by Thursday Review

Photo composition by Thursday Review

Syrian Refugee Crisis Sparks
Intense U.S. Debate

| published November 19, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


The U.S. House of Representatives today passed legislation requiring that refugees arriving to the United States from the Middle East—in particular Syria—must undergo a more thorough security check and more extensive vetting than others entering the country. Sensing that Congress might be riding a tsunami of support from Americans fearful of Paris-style terror attacks, the white House lobbied hard to blunt the bill’s language even as President Obama threatened to veto the legislation. But a large number of Democrats in the House also supported the measure which passed by a vote of 289-137, effectively ruling out a Presidential veto.

Fears of another 9/11 have fueled intense political debate over immigration and close scrutiny of the U.S. policy of allowing refugees from war-torn regions to enter the country. The recent Paris attacks have also stoked fears that U.S. leaders in states and cities are not doing enough to prevent terror attacks, and that cities (especially) may be the next target of radical groups like ISIS.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC police commissioner William Bratton say that despite a chilling warning coming from a recent ISIS video which says that the group’s recent attacks in Paris, Beirut and Egypt are just a dress rehearsal for bigger attacks on the United States, there is no credible evidence suggesting any terror plots are underway against New York City, and there is no police intelligence indicating a looming danger to New Yorkers.

The announcements came on the heels of deadly terror attacks in Paris last Friday which left 129 people dead and another 350 wounded. This week a newly produced Islamic State video suggested that New York City was next on the militant group’s target list, and the slickly-produced film included images of Times Square and other crowded, iconic venue in the Big Apple.

In the wide wake of concerns worldwide about the apparent reach of the Islamic State, law enforcement in the U.S. has been on high alert, especially in the largest U.S. cities and in those areas deemed likely targets of terrorist acts, including in and around Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities.

“There is no credible and specific threat against New York City,” de Blasio said on Wednesday in an effort to allay fears of many in the city that it is now high on the ISIS target list. De Blasio stressed that New Yorkers should “go about their business,” but that police and security should remain vigilant. Police commissioner Bratton agreed, suggesting that until a credible threat appears on the boards, citizens of the city should go about their business as usual, with the caveat that anything suspicious be reported to law enforcement.

Only hours after de Blasio’s comments, ISIS posted a newer video purporting to show militants already in training for an assault on U.S. cities. The new video also included footage of Times Square and Herald Square, as well as other street scenes familiar to residents of Manhattan.

Comments by de Blasio and Bratton also came as news reached the U.S. that border and airport officials in Honduras had detained or arrested four to five Syrian and/or Palestinian men who were attempting to travel to the United States using phony identities and fake Greek passports. Officials in Honduras say that there is no immediate evidence that the men are terrorists or have known connections to ISIS terror cells; they appear instead to be refugees seeking asylum from the long civil war in Syria.

Honduran officials, in communication with law enforcement in France and Belgium, found no links to ISIS or to the terror attack in Paris. But the incident gained vast traction in the media, and provided a clear measure of the frayed nerves and heightened concerns in many countries which are now the presumed targets of ISIS violence, and an indication of concerns in the U.S. that terrorists might pose as refugees to gain entry in the country. The five men were part of a larger contingent—some of whom are college students—who may have obtained some of the phony IDs in Brazil. According to officials in Honduras, the men were traveling by foot, by bus and by car northward, hoping to reach the U.S.  They had passed unnoticed through the lax checkpoint where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay share a common border.  Meanwhile, a Syrian family with children showed up on Thursday at a U.S. border checkpoint near Mexico, possibly the first known case of Syrian refugees attempting to enter the U.S. from the south. 

Political fights have broken out in the U.S. between some two dozen governors and legislatures—many of them Republican—and the White House over how to manage the potential flow of refugees from Syria. This week numerous governors declared that their states would not immediately accept Syrian refugees, at least not without significant vetting and thorough security checks of those entering the country. It is not clear whether states have the power to refuse certain forms of immigration. Nevertheless, President Obama lashed out at Republican lawmakers earlier in the week, telling them they “have nothing to fear from widows and orphans.” Republican governors said that the President’s comments were an insult and reflect naivety, and suggested that caution makes more sense under the extreme circumstances of an ISIS rapidly expanding its footprint.

The U.S. House of Representatives delivered a rebuke to President Obama on Thursday, passing legislation requiring tougher, more stringent screening measures for new Syrians entering the United States. The GOP-authored measure, which had wide Democratic support as well, passed by a margin of 289-137, meaning that it will withstand a veto by Obama. White House officials had earlier in the day fought feverishly to derail the bill—or water it down—but with so many Democrats in Congress fearful of voter sentiment amidst heightened terror concerns, the bill passed easily.

Democrats who opposed the legislation say that Congressional Republicans are stoking fear, and abandoning the basic American principal which says the U.S. should be s safe haven for those who flee war and violence. But Republicans—along with Democratic allies on the measure—say that ISIS presents a unique and chilling threat to the safety of Americans, and point to the apparent ease with which several of the Paris terrorists were able to travel back and forth from Syria to France and Belgium, despite being on the radar of law enforcement.

The suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, Moroccan-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who grew up in Belgian, is believed to have traveled several times from Europe to Syria and back again. In videos and in the Islamic State’s official magazine Dabiq, Abaaoud boasts of his ability to travel in plain sight despite police leaflets which showed his face in the hands of law enforcement in several countries. One other participant in the Paris terror attacks is believed to have traveled from the battlefields of Syria by embedding himself in with the waves of refugees seeking to escape the horrors of Syria’s four-year-old civil war. Police in Paris say that Abaaoud was killed this week after a police raid and military-style siege of a suburban apartment building in Saint-Denis, a battle between suspected terrorists and police which resulted in two deaths and five injuries. Abaaoud's body, severely damaged by a hail of gunfire, was identified from fingerprint records.

The newest ISIS video includes a segment showing what appears to be a militant preparing himself for a suicide bombing attack using a jacket to conceal the vest-like device. It also shows a simple handheld trigger mechanism with a wire running into the jacket. The images are juxtaposed against video and film footage of busy streets and intersections in New York City.

Terrorism experts suggest that the video is less of a “warning” to America and more of an “invitation” for would be jihadists in North America. Some security analysts and anti-terror experts say that the U.S. border controls are some of the safest in the world, and that the video—like the one released earlier in the week by ISIS—is meant to recruit individuals and small groups, presumably already in the U.S., to become self-starting cells to take action.

In the meantime, French police are still looking for additional accomplices to the Friday terror attacks, which were the worst in Europe since the 2004 bombing of a train in Madrid.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Terror Arrests Made in Paris Suburb; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; November 18, 2015.

Anonymous Hacktivists Plan to Wage Cyber War on ISIS; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; November 17, 2015.