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Scapegoating Refugees for the Paris Attacks Is for Idiots

The knee-jerk assumption that refugees are responsible for the terror in France is moronic and disturbing.

Police on the streets of Paris. Photo by VICE News/Etienne Roullion

Not long after the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi was found washed up against a beach in Turkey, unleashing a vast tide of sympathy across Europe, strange stories started appearing in the press. The Islamic State, it was claimed, was using the mass movement of refugees to smuggle its fighters into Europe; those people struggling—and often dying—in the hope of reaching somewhere safe for themselves and their families were actually carrying with them a virulent evil, disguising itself as hopelessness. Any generosity from the people of Europe would only end up destroying them; we had to be callous, and close the gates, or we would die. For a long time, this could easily be dismissed as baseless and premature, or as a sick fantasy of the heartless Right. Now, it's not so easy. After last week's massacre in Paris, police found a Syrian passport near where a suicide bomber had detonated his vest by the Stade de France, identifying its holder as Ahmad al-Mohammad, born in Idlib. Not just that—someone holding an identical passport had been rescued from a capsized boat in the Aegean.


The response was swift, and no less dangerous for its utter incoherency. The German neo-fascist group Pegida began holding rallies of thousands rather than hundreds. The government of Poland announced that it would not be taking in any Syrian refugees under an EU quota system, without security guarantees. Several states in the US followed suit, with governors announcing that they are against accepting Syrian refugees—despite the fact that the federal government has the final say about this. It's easy to see why the idea that Syrian refugees were responsible for the atrocities in Paris is so attractive: it means we no longer have to think about what's happening within our own societies. We don't have to wonder why people who grew up in one of the most prosperous societies on Earth would choose fanaticism and death. Our only fault is our own softness, kindness, and generosity; if we believe this, then we have license to be cruel. But the story that's being told—a plot to sneak terrorists into Europe, unmasked by the discovery of that passport—isn't just almost certainly untrue. It doesn't even make any sense.

To begin with the passport itself: if we were to accept the anti-migrant narrative, we'd have to believe that a Syrian ISIS fighter posing as a refugee (who would, it must be assumed, want to keep the route he took into Europe concealed, so others could follow him) would have gone out to commit a terrorist attack, and accidentally slipped up by bringing his passport along with him. Maybe it was force of habit. Then there's the fact that the passport survived the blast almost entirely intact. Did he drop it by accident? Was he still a good citizen, who wanted to be helpful to the police and their enquiries even as he tried to murder the spectators at a soccer game? Weird coincidences can and do happen, but it all seems pretty implausible. It seems more likely that the reason that passport was found was because the attacker wanted it to be found—something which the German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere has suggested.


There are plenty of reasons why ISIS might want Western governments to turn their hatred and violence on refugees. In Dabiq, the group's English-language online magazine, an article announces its intention to "bring division into the world and destroy the grey zone." Here they're in full agreement with George W Bush: you're either with us, or you're with the Crusaders. For Muslims to be seeking refuge in the West is unacceptable: not only does it reveal the lie of their propaganda of a utopian caliphate, it disturbs their binary division of the world. They write: "Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilafah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands." ISIS commanders and European racists are in full agreement: the movement of refugees must be stopped at all costs.

This doesn't mean that it's entirely impossible that ISIS would be smuggling fighters into Europe disguised as refugees, but it is unlikely. It's a strategy that stokes the fears of the right-wing, but it would serve no practical purpose whatsoever. All of the identified perpetrators of the attacks in Paris have been French or Belgian citizens: ISIS has a sizable pool of sympathizers in Western countries (although it is, it must be stressed, minuscule in comparison to the actual Muslim population), and it's more efficient to train European nationals in Syria and then send them home on their European passports than to bring Syrians into Europe on the slow and dangerous migrant routes. There's no advantage in importing Syrians: unlike European jihadis, they'd have no knowledge of the local terrain, and little understanding of the language. At a time when ISIS is steadily losing ground in the Middle East—to the Iraqi and Syrian governments, the Peshmerga, and the YPG—sacrificing its fighters on the ground for a symbolic attack in Europe is unlikely to be a worthwhile trade if any other option presents itself.

And what we know about the passport seems to bear this out. It was likely to be a forgery—other passports, bearing the exact same details but with different photographs, have been found in Serbia and Greece. Many Syrian refugees have reported the theft of their passports by European gangs, who can sell them on to other migrants hoping for a faster route to asylum. (There are also fairly legitimate reasons why a genuine Syrian refugee might be holding a forged passport—not everyone in the country had one to begin with, and many have children who were born in refugee camps outside the country.) It's entirely possible that the attacker could have bought or stolen the passport within Paris. There have been reports that fingerprints taken from the Stade de France match those recorded by Greek authorities on the island of Leros, but the trajectory is confused—Serbian records have the same individual crossing into their territory on October 7, while Greece reports that he was on a ferry to the mainland on that same day (it has also been reported that he was on the ferry on October 5). In any case, despite the fingerprints, the European Commission's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Federica Mogherini, has insisted that all the attackers were European nationals, and "it is an issue of internal domestic security."

Of course, there's still a chance that the fearmongers are right, and ISIS fighters are indeed coming into Europe: simply crossing an international border doesn't confer any automatic moral virtue. But there's another possibility, slight but still present, that's even more horrifying. Immediately after the attacks, there were reports that an Egyptian passport had also been found near the Stade de France, prompting immediate speculation of an international Middle-Eastern conspiracy. In the end, the Egyptian embassy in France confirmed that one of its passports had been found, but it belonged to Waleed Abdel-Razzak, a football fan who had been lining up to buy tickets when a suicide bomb was detonated, and who was in critical condition at a hospital in Clichy. It might yet be the case that nativist fanatics are trying to victimize some of the most vulnerable people in Europe, not because one of the refugees perpetrated an atrocity, but because one of the refugees had the temerity to be a victim.

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