The discussions revolving around the U.S.’s (and others’) role in aiding refugees has generated heated discussions. Arguments of American values and national security have dominated debates. However, one topic has strangely eluded public discourse – the role refugees play in defeating ISIS.
What Does ISIS Want?
First off, in order to properly combat an enemy, one must understand the objectives of said enemy. ISIS, for example, is not like other terrorist groups. They principally aim to create a state (i.e. caliphate) rooted in 18th century Wahhabi fundamentalism, and they employ terrorist tactics to gain followers, land, capital, and most importantly, legitimacy.
Legitimacy remains key for ISIS. If they truly wish to create and develop their own government, they must establish themselves as a competent entity that receives civilian support in exchange for basic goods and services. In other words, ISIS seeks to instate their own version of a social contract.
To do this, though, ISIS must have a civilian population – a skilled one at that. Hence, online recruitment, forced subjugation, and retention all serve as vital components to their grand vision. These measures will allow ISIS to have the human capital needed to provide security, healthcare, sanitation, utilities, and overall basic governance.
Selling the grand vision may not be as difficult as some might expect. Their multilingual magazines highlight the advances the group has made thus far. Their extremely graphic images and videos can serve to increase their legitimacy by exemplifying their audacity and seriousness.
In addition, “good governance” is a relative term. Residents have the option of living in areas with poor governance and high personal security risks (Iraq and Syria) versus an authoritarian state with stability and basic essentials (ISIS). For those unable to escape, it does not seem surprising that many will choose the latter.
However, some have a third option: flee to the western world or a neighboring country.
ISIS Needs Refugees
This option terrifies ISIS for multiple reasons. One, as stated earlier, ISIS desperately needs a highly-skilled civilian population. When refugees flee captured territories, the pseudo-state loses accountants, administrators, police officers, soldiers, and more. Not only that, but refugees fleeing from non-captured territories also pose a threat to legitimacy. Should ISIS continue to expand, their gains will see much less people, and hence human capital.
This means that not only do refugees directly undermine ISIS in captured areas, they also undermine any potential territories ISIS may obtain in the future.
Aside from human capital, refugees also provide a huge source of finances. Many might believe that oil serves as their chief source of revenue. While this is true, it does not serve as a stable source, especially as oil prices continue to drop and fields get bombed. Furthermore, the lack of skilled human capital makes it much more difficult to properly extract and illegally transport oil in an efficient manner.
As such, taxation serves as a major reliable source of income for ISIS – $360 million+ a year. When refugees flee, not only does it lower financial capital for ISIS, but it forces a reallocation of resources in a way that could also undermine the state.
For example, the lack of tax money could force ISIS to choose between offering healthcare or education (military will most likely never see cuts). Since greed often arises with authoritarianism, leaders may continue to provide for themselves at the expense of civilians and promote inequality. These situations would lower the prospects of ISIS becoming a viable alternative to Syria and Iraq, and hence promote more civilians escaping, creating a vicious cycle for ISIS.
Lastly, the United States cannot abandon the potential information refugees can provide regarding ISIS and their rule. Understanding how they manage their resources will no doubt assist nations combating ISIS.
What About Security?
Of course, some may fear potential attacks/crimes on U.S. soil by terrorists posing as refugees, as Germany has witnessed. However, the U.S. is not Europe. America has a highly arduous vetting process that can take 2 years for refugees to enter. It would be incredibly difficult and inefficient for ISIS to plan an attack on the U.S. through these means.
However, “incredibly difficult” implies it can still happen, which might be enough for some to dismiss the refugees outright. Logically, though, this mentality makes little sense. Any group can pose a security risk, including legal immigrants. The debate should not create a false dichotomy of perfect vetting and no refugees at all. It should instead weigh the benefits refugees can offer (hurt ISIS) against the cost (very low security risk).
Editor's note: This article originally published on the American Security Project's blog.