Paris Attacks How Great Are the Terror Dangers Posed by Refugees?

It has now been confirmed that one of the Paris suicide bombers reached Europe disguised as a refugee. Security officials had long felt that such a scenario was unlikely. How big is the risk?
A photo of the Syrian passport found near one of the suicide bombers in Paris, as seen on the front page of the Syrian magazine Blic on Nov. 15.

A photo of the Syrian passport found near one of the suicide bombers in Paris, as seen on the front page of the Syrian magazine Blic on Nov. 15.


It hasn't taken long for the French authorities to begin learning details as to who was behind Friday night's terrorist attacks in Paris. Several of perpetrators, officials learned over the weekend, are from France, with two having most recently lived in Brussels and two more residing just outside of the French capital. Investigators believe that a 27-year-old Belgian man named Abdelhamid A. was the coordinator of the attacks, which cost the lives of at least 132 people at multiple sites in Paris on Friday evening.

One piece of news regarding the attackers, however, has received a particularly large amount of attention. Not far from the corpse of one of the suicide bombers, a Syrian passport was found. On Monday, French authorities confirmed that the attacker traveled with the passport into the European Union via Greece as a refugee.

The discovery would seem to confirm the fears of many in Germany and Europe that terrorists are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees currently streaming into Europe.

According to a report on Greek radio, a second attacker may also be suspected of having traveled to northern Europe via Turkey and Greece. Thus far, however, there hasn't been an official statement given regarding the second case.

At the moment, only the following is known: The finger prints of the attacker who blew himself up in front of the Stade de France stadium on Friday evening match those taken of the man as he traveled into Greece carrying a Syrian passport. The man, identified on the passport as Ahmad Almohammad, arrived in Greece at the beginning of October via the island of Leros, authorities say. Police officials say that the young man was registered there along with a group of 69 refugees. As part of the registration procedure, his fingerprints were taken, officials said.


Photo Gallery: Anger and Sadness in Paris

Foto: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images

On Oct. 7, the 25-year-old, who called himself Ahmad Almohammad, entered Serbia from Macedonia and continued on to Croatia and Austria. The Serbian Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that he was not armed when he traveled through Serbia. According to French justice officials, however, the passport that he was carrying was falsified and had been prepared in Turkey.

The confirmation that an attacker traveled into the EU as a refugee confirms a scenario that security officials had long thought possible, but unlikely. After all, Islamic State hardly needs to send assailants into Europe as refugees in order to carry out terrorist attacks on the Continent. Hundreds of Islamists from Germany, along with thousands from other European countries are currently in IS-held regions of Syria and Iraq of their own free will. Because they possess citizenships of European countries, they can return whenever they like. French officials said on Monday that at least three of the suspected attackers had spent time in Syria since the end of 2013 and subsequently returned to France.

In addition, there are large numbers of extremists who grew up in Europe and are prepared to take part in violent attacks here. The attacks in Paris at the beginning of this year on the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on the Jewish supermarket Hyper Casher demonstrate as much. So too does the subsequent attack in Copenhagen, which saw a jihadist who had grown up in Denmark shoot two people to death.

Intended to Mislead?

But there remain a number of open questions. The true identity of the man who traveled into Greece as a refugee with the falsified passport isn't yet known. There are many possibilities. One is that he wasn't a Syrian at all. He may have been an Islamist known to European security officials and who had joined the Islamic State in Syria. For such an Islamist, it may seem easier to enter Europe as a refugee under an assumed identity -- because Syrians who arrive in Europe are almost guaranteed of being granted refugee status.

But there are other questions as well. Why, for example, was the attacker carrying a passport at all? It looks as though Islamic State wanted the passport to be found, which would play into the hands of Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, in two ways. First, it would increase fears in the West due to the large numbers of refugees currently arriving, and it would further divide European society. Secondly, it would discredit the refugees themselves. For Islamic State, refugees are traitors for fleeing the country rather than joining Islamic State for the establishment of a Caliphate.

The passport also raises questions when it comes to the coordination of the terror attacks  as well. Most of the attackers were French, that much has become clear. As such, it wasn't a fake refugee who brought terror to Europe. The chief coordinator is thought to be a Belgian man. It is unclear how an attack could have been prepared and organized with an attacker who had only been in Europe for a few weeks. But here too, the available information is sketchy. On Monday, the French government said that the attacks appear to have been planned in Syria.

German security officials had repeatedly emphasized that they had no reliable evidence that jihadists were entering Europe as part of the inflow of refugees. At the same time, nobody was prepared to rule out such a scenario either. Currently, German officials are investigating just 10 cases of refugees who are suspected of having fought for Islamic State in Syria. The refugees are being investigated on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization. But that doesn't mean that the men came to Germany with the intention of carrying out attacks here.

There can be no complete protection against the possibility that terrorists are among the refugees. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, only a fraction of the refugees who enter Germany are processed with the help of the so-called "Fast ID," a digital system that compares fingerprints taken at the German border with those saved on German government databases. Furthermore, "normal" IS fighters cannot be discovered using this form of security check because they have almost never been previously registered as such. Checks run by German police focus more on European jihadists who are known to authorities.

For information on foreign fighters, German investigators are dependent on intelligence information -- indications gleaned by the US from emails, phone conversations or chats, for example, that a certain jihadi may have left Syria. In such instances, however, police work is necessary to find them, particularly if they are traveling on falsified documents. Simply closing Europe's or Germany's borders, as has frequently been demanded in recent weeks, wouldn't offer much protection.

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