To Defeat ISIS, Embrace Refugees

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Musa al-Gharbi

Cognitive sociologist affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). Readers can connect to his work and social media via his website:

In the aftermath of the series of attacks in Paris, attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), French President François Hollande has declared a three-month state of emergency. This measure enables the military and law enforcement to monitor, arrest, detain and interrogate persons, with little or no due process. These powers will be exercised primarily against France’s besieged Arab, Muslim, immigrant and refugee populations.

Meanwhile, France has closed its borders and is calling for an indefinite suspension of the EU’s open-border (“Schengen”) system. Other EU states are calling for reducing the Schengen zone to exclude those countries most effected by the refugee crisis. Throughout the EU there is growing resistance to admitting or resettling refugees from the greater Middle East.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted to halt the already stringent and meager U.S. program to resettle refugees from Iraq and Syria. Thirty-one governors have warned that would-be migrants from the Middle East are not welcome in their states, and a majority of the American public has turned against accepting more refugees. One of the frontrunner candidates for president of the United States, Donald Trump, has even called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” All of these maneuvers are playing into the hands of ISIS.

ISIS has strongly condemned refugees’ seeking asylum in Western nations, repeatedly warned would-be expatriates that Muslims will never be truly accepted in the United States and the EU (hence the importance of an “Islamic State”).  In order to render this a self-fulfilling prophecy, ISIS ensured that one of the attackers carried a fraudulent Syrian passport, which was left to be discovered at the scene of the crime before its owner detonated his suicide vest.

ISIS is counting on Western nations to turn would-be refugees back towards their “caliphate,” because this massive outpouring of asylum seekers poses a severe threat to the legitimacy and long-term viability of ISIS. Accordingly, if Western nations were truly committed to undermining ISIS, they should embrace and integrate refugees from ISIS-occupied lands.

ISIS’s Black Swan

There is a sense in which ISIS is “anti-fragile.” The organization can strike powerful blows against its adversaries but risks little exposure itself. In fact, military escalations, like the ones that followed the attacks in Paris, actually serve their interests. For this reason, ISIS has, quite literally, been begging Western nations to put boots on the ground for more than a year.

In terms of both its mythology and its organization, ISIS has planned for most contingencies. It is prepared for the death of its “caliph” and anyone else in its leadership chain. From the beginning, it has hedged against a possible uprising in its occupied territories, like the “Sunni Awakening” of 2006, or even being driven out of Iraq and Syria altogether. In the interim, like most settler states, ISIS had predicated their “caliphate” on purging or marginalizing ethnic, religious and political minorities — so they expected and encouraged these to flee.

One eventuality ISIS was clearly not prepared for, however, was a mass exodus of Sunni Arabs from the “caliphate” to Western nations, a phenomenon that has been challenging for Europe but devastating for ISIS. With oil prices at record lows and unlikely to substantially rise in the foreseeable future, ISIS is increasingly reliant on “taxation” to remain solvent. But this revenue stream is being eroded by the mass emigration. Those with the ability and resources to make it all the way to Europe tend to be wealthier, more educated and highly-skilled; ISIS not only faces a shrinking tax base, but is losing its most lucrative taxpayers.

Perhaps more important, the Islamic State needs professionals to design, build and maintain infrastructure, to competently manage its bureaucracy, and to provide critical services (like healthcare) to its citizens. Unfortunately for them, those most capable of fulfilling these roles also happen to be those with the greatest ability and desire to escape to Western nations.

This “brain drain” is a major problem for the caliphate. First, the outflow of refugees vastly outpaces the inflow of foreign recruits. In addition, the foreign recruits ISIS is getting tend to lack critical skills and experience; worse, they tend to chafe or even defect when assigned non-combat roles. This is in stark contrast to its indigenous citizens, which is why ISIS attempts to intercept would-be refugees and turn them back whenever possible.

In short, it is extremely difficult for ISIS to replenish the human capital it is losing, and the current rate of attrition is likely unsustainable in terms of governance. At the same time that ISIS is struggling with this mass emigration, they are also facing decreased recruitment and increased defections.

A continued outpouring of citizens from ISIS-occupied lands could contribute to the collapse of ISIS, both as an organization and as an ideology.

Cutting the Fuse

ISIS has declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph. Were their declaration legitimate, all capable Muslims would theoretically be obligated to migrate to the territories under his jurisdiction in order to establish a new caliphate. According to most Islamist literature, an Islamic state should be an unequivocally superior society to “decadent” Western nations or the past-due Arab autocracies. It should be just and responsive to its citizens, lacking corruption, nepotism or repression. People should be able to live freely and prosper according to their virtue and capabilities.  Meanwhile, widows and orphans — along with the sick, infirm, poor and otherwise vulnerable — should be cared for.

As the supposed vanguard of this ideal society, ISIS members portray themselves as protectors and liberators of Muslims worldwide. However, the massive influx of refugees from the “Islamic State” falsifies every component of their narrative. Muslims are fleeing en masse from the “caliphate” and to Western societies, essentially carrying out an inverse hijra (religious emigration) because the so-called Islamic State is not a nascent paradise, but a living hell. While thousands still travel every year from Western nations to Iraq and Syria, primarily new converts and the newly devout, hundreds of thousands of pious, Arabic-speaking Muslims are heading the other direction, bringing with them countless first-hand accounts of ISIS’s fundamental depravity.

Western nations are desperate to elevate the status of “moderate Muslims” condemning ISIS, and to disseminate countermessaging, particularly from former jihadists or those who suffered at the hands of extremists.  However, the most powerful and abundant resource to achieve these ends is already at their disposal: the throngs of desperate families seeking asylum in the West.

Embracing and integrating “Islamic State” expatriates could more definitively establish that there is no zero-sum “Clash of Civilizations” between Islam and liberal Western culture. Seeing these refugees thriving in an authentically pluralistic and integrated America and Europe could convince many that the Western-liberal social model may actually be better, even for Muslims, than an “Islamic State.”

If Western nations paired this welcoming attitude towards Muslims with a strategic rebalancing of their posture and relationships in the Middle East, they could actually obliterate many of the most powerful “pull factors” for international jihad.

Kill them with Kindness

Up to now, refugees have been so mistreated and spurned in Western nations that many of them are actually returning to their war-ravaged homes, viewing their situation in Iraq and Syria as marginally more tolerable than the degradation and uncertainty their families have faced in the West. Meanwhile, with winter coming on, the flow of new refugees is expected to slow down dramatically. The combination of these factors may help ISIS stave off crisis, at least through the spring. Any subsequent EU measures to turn away the migrants already at their door, or to prevent future waves of refugees from getting into Europe to begin with, will further extend ISIS’s solvency.

Conversely, there is a real opportunity to substantially weaken ISIS by working to sustain or even accelerate the flight of critical human capital from the “caliphate”: accepting and integrating as many refugees as is sensible in America and Europe while augmenting the capacity of neighboring countries to do the same (this must be a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” proposition). Accomplishing this feat will require Western nations to embrace, rather than fear, ISIS refugees and defectors.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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