On Sunday evening, the Governors of Michigan and Alabama announced that they would not accept Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks. By Tuesday, 26 others had followed suit. While such knee-jerking might get politicians a temporary bump in the polls, they won't make Americans any safer. In fact in the long run, such polemics may have the opposite effect.
ISIS uses violence as a recruiting tool. The attack on Paris marked a fundamental shift in who the Islamic State targets for violence, but not its aims. By making Muslims in Europe feel socially or economically isolated, ISIS hopes to win their support. If we see the Syrian refugee crisis as a source of ISIS violence rather than a symptom of it, we obscure the reasoning behind the attacks in Paris and concede ISIS an additional strategic advantage.
The flow of Syrian refugees into Europe certainly opens avenues for ISIS operatives to enter the continent. But the Islamic State's primary concern has never been how to get fighters into Europe; it was how to get them out. From its earliest days, ISIS doggedly encouraged Muslims to migrate to Syria to populate their new Caliphate. They firmly denounced any Muslims who left the territories under their control as traitors. Young Europeans answered this call for foreign fighters en masse, including nearly 1,200 French nationals - a higher total than any other European nation. Like many of these previous recruits, the perpetrators of Friday's brutal attacks were not migrants, but themselves French and Belgian citizens. While the media has devoted considerable attention to the (potentially forged) Syrian passport found at the scene of one of the bombings, hard evidence has not yet emerged to tie the Paris attackers to Syrian migrants residing in France - many of whom are themselves fleeing Islamic State violence.
If one group stands to benefit from the polemics surrounding Muslim refugees in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it is ISIS. In fact, they are counting on it. The Islamic State has long targeted what they label the "grey zone" - Muslims living in the West who don't support ISIS - for recruitment. By escalating the tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, they hope to force Muslims worldwide to either embrace the Islamic State or renounce their religion. By provoking the legal repression or social isolation of Muslim individuals and communities, ISIS aims to drive them into the arms of the Islamic State.
Videos of spectacular violence served as an effective motor of recruitment before - not only amongst European Muslims, but disaffected youth in general. But by the start of the year, ISIS appeared to be losing steam. Foreign recruits dwindled and YouTube clips of beheadings garnered less press. The brutal assault on Paris marks a transformation of ISIS tactics, but it serves the same strategy. Paris, Beirut, and the Sinai are all attempts by the Islamic State to regain the initiative and reignite its recruitment efforts abroad. If we isolate Syrian refugees or treat Muslims in general as a threat out of fear, we help create conditions which favor the Islamic State's recruitment efforts.
But why attack France, when other nations like the United States or Britain have been more deeply involved in the fight against ISIS? The answer is again strategic: Paris constitutes a point of maximum impact. Paris is highly visible, widely loved, and frequently stands at the center of bitter debates on the place of Islam within Europe. It is an exceptional destination for tourists and many expats, which means that events in the city provoke reactions far beyond France.
French politics also make Paris an ideal target. The Charlie Hebdo shootings in January inflamed this already-contentious debate about the place of Muslims within French society and beyond. The far-right National Front party, which draws support in part through its anti-immigrant policies and thinly-veiled anti-Islamic rhetoric, has profited electorally. Like politicians in the United States, the National Front recognizes that it stands to benefit politically from staking a hard stance on terror. Its leader, Marine le Pen, has already seized on the event to call authorities to ban Islamist organizations and deport illegal immigrants. The party will undoubtedly see yet another bump in the polls in the French regional elections in December - a fact unlikely to have escaped the planners of the complex and methodical attacks in Paris last Friday. For better or worse, other European leaders often look to France as a model for legislation on issues like the headscarf because of its deep historical links to the Muslim world. A profound shift in French policy could have wide-ranging effects, and ISIS is likely hoping to benefit from the increased tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
By announcing their unwillingness to accept Syrian refugees, state governments aren't just missing the Islamic State's ploy, they're taking the bait - hook, line and sinker. The brutal attacks that took 129 lives in Paris and wounded hundreds more clearly represent a new stage in the conflict against ISIS that will require new measures. Likewise, the Syrian migration crisis presents security challenges that must be taken into serious consideration. Any effective response to ISIS, however, must begin by addressing the intelligence and security failures which allowed the Paris attackers to organize and execute such a complex assault undetected. But perhaps more importantly, it must also refuse the Islamic State the collateral damage - ideological or actual - that it relies on to recruit new fighters. The current focus on Syrian refugees does neither.