Is Islamic State, as many right-wing news articles have suggested, trying to encourage as many refugees as possible to sneak into Europe so that they can hide 4000 fighters among them as secret terror cells? Heck, the more radical of the claims have said not 4000, but 500.000. Is this for real?
But since a one-word answer won't do, let's look at this in a bit more detail, shall we?
(Note: Throughout this article, I will be using the term "Daesh" to refer to the group alternatively known as "Islamic State", "IS", "ISIS", "ISIL", etc. This is the preferred term among the local opposition to the group; it is an acronym for the group's Arabic name, and sounds similar to an Arabic word meaning "one who tramples". Daesh itself hates the name, and punishes anyone they catch using it).
On with the topic: the refugee crisis unfolding in Europe:
As many of you know, I live in Iceland. We're part of Europe (culturally, politically, and 50% geologically ;) ), and so the refugee crisis that is only relatively minor news in the US is regular front-page news here. Icelanders have been among those that have been highly welcoming to refugees, with over 10.000 offers of assistance (out of a population of 330.000), including many offers to house refugees. However, unlike in the case of Germany, there's not going to be a flood of people walking here, for obvious reasons. Only about 150 people make it here in a normal year to apply for asylum; this year is expected to be over 300.
However, even here there are anti-immigrant groups. And like anti-immigrant groups everywhere, they prefer to see the influx not as people fleeing the horrors that have been inflicted by Assad....
... and Daesh....
... but as an invasion to Islamify Europe. And one of the most virulent forms of this is the claim that they're actually heavily infiltrated by thousands of Daesh "sleeper cells", just waiting to inflict mass casualties all across Europe, and that they're encouraging refugees to flee to help hide their fighters. How realistic is this?
Not at all. Let's go into the reasons.
1) Daesh is discouraging, not encouraging, refugees from fleeing. While the west uses images of the drowned boy Aylan Kurdi as a symbol for how the west needs to take a more humane approach to handling refugees, Daesh uses it as a warning to people in its territory against fleeing.
They argue that those who flee not only risk death, but their souls, claiming that they'll lose their ability to speak Arabic, lose their religion altogether, and become like the infidels that they're integrating with.
The claim that Daesh is encouraging people to flee is in direct opposition to the group's official publications.
2) "4000 fighters" is a ridiculous number of fighters for an organization the size of Daesh. Daesh is estimated to have a core of only 20k-32k fighters. When you include local militias in areas under their control, less motivated conscripts, etc, the number rises to around 100k, and when you include police, border guards, etc the number could be as high as 200k; however, these are not what you would call "sleeper cells". Sending 4000 core members into Europe - up to 20% of those ideologically motivated to support them - at a time when Daesh is desperately fighting to advance toward Damascus and overthrow Assad and hold onto their assets in Iraq, is an absurdity.
3) The flow of radicals goes in the opposite direction. Counterintuitively, Daesh is much more popular in Europe than in the Middle East. Daesh's popularity in the Middle East ranges from 5% in Saudi Arabia to almost zero percent in Lebanon. Yet Daesh enjoys 7% popularity in the UK and a whopping 16% popularity in France.
Daesh has long encouraged Europeans to come to Syria to fight, and only to take part in terrorist actions in Europe if they are unable to come join them. So what exactly would be the point of encouraging people to come to Syria, while sending others back into Europe (where they'll be subject to months of delays, huge risks of being killed, huge risks of being caught, and constant scrutiny)? A bizarre game of musical chairs?
4) The source to the claim is way out of date. The recent wave of articles is just a repeat of a claim from Buzzfeed way back in January. So first off... it's been 9 months since suppoedly 4000 fighters were sent to Europe. What exactly are they doing while their organization gets bombed in Syria? Kicking back and relaxing on a beach in Ibiza?
5) Even the Buzzfeed article considers the claim, or at least the number, suspect: "At the restaurant, the operative claimed that ISIS had sent some 4,000 fighters to Europe. Given international efforts to clamp down on the group, the number seemed improbably high, and he may have cited it as an attempt to boost the group’s stature and spread fear."
6) The two Buzzfeed authors have previously written almost identical articles (example), pushing the date on these claims back even further. Interestingly enough, despite supposedly talking with different individuals, the statements made by their sources have suspiciously similar wording. Example:
An ISIS operative traveled across the Syrian border late last year, settled in a Turkish port city, and began work on a mission to sneak jihadis into Europe. It has been successful, he said, in an interview near the Turkey-Syria border: “Just wait.”
Hassan said the fighters were all Syrian or Iraqis posing as refugees. He believed they remained loyal to ISIS and were prepared to launch terrorist attacks in Europe. “They are waiting for their orders,” Hassan said. “Just wait. You will see.”
Nearly a year since that latter article, we're still waiting.
7) Europe's borders have always been porous. The influx of refugees has only increased efforts to catch people sneaking in (to either turn them back or process them through official channels), not reduced them. The act of smearing the refugee crisis with the "conduit for Daesh" concept is to connect two disjoint issues in a manner that serves only to smear the refugees.
These sort of articles, however, do spread their desired goal: introducing enough doubts into people's minds to cause them let their fear overcome their compassion. The other day I met online a woman who had previously offered to host a Syrian refugee family. However, she was freaking out after having read a bunch of right-wing articles featuring deliberately misleading pictures and videos trying to present the refugees as a bunch of violent, animalistic radicals. For example, linking the video of refugees throwing away food and water in a confrontation with police, deliberately mislabeled to hide the fact that the people in the video were actually on a hunger strike against a wide range of terrible police abuses against them, most recently, attempting to herd them off the legal train rides that they paid for into camps that look like this:
But they got her scared. Enough to go back on her offer to host a family. She told me that she'd maybe host a mother and child, but never a man, after seeing what she saw.
At the end of the day, a person can only offer what they feel comfortable with. But what they feel comfortable with is highly subject to fear-mongering. And fear-mongering is something that should be resisted wherever it's encountered.