Syrians detained in Honduras: Are there bigger risks than the refugee program?

The Syrians are not members of a terrorist cell, Honduran officials say. But those seeking entry to the US have channels at their disposal that are potentially faster and less scrutinizing than the refugee resettlement program.

Policemen escort five Syrian men after they were detained at Toncontin international airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 18, 2015. The men were trying to reach the United States using stolen Greek passports, but there are no signs of any links to last week's attacks in Paris, police said.

When five Syrian men were detained in Honduras Tuesday, accused of using stolen Greek passports to try to reach the United States, the incident spotlighted a sobering reality: Terrorists seeking entry to the US have channels at their disposal that are potentially faster and less scrutinizing than the suddenly controversial refugee resettlement program.

This week, President Obama and mostly Republican governors and members of Congress have been heatedly sparring over the president’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year – Mr. Obama invoking American values, his critics blasting him for disregarding US security. Meanwhile, the Syrians stopped in Tegucigalpa received little attention.

But the well-worn land migration routes and established narcotics- and human-trafficking networks operating south of the US border are among the bigger challenges facing the nation in the wake of the Paris attacks and vows by the Islamic State to attack the US, many regional and counterterrorism experts say.

“We can’t afford to lose sight of the very real possibility that Daesh could seek to use the same channels to get into the US that the cartels and narco-traffickers have established to get their goods and people into this country,” says Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

“The US government has a track record of successfully resettling refugee populations without jeopardizing American security,” he adds, pointing in particular to the resettlement of 30,000 Somalis in the wake of civil war in their country. “But in the meantime, the cartels and traffickers of illicit products and people have maintained robust networks that could be accessed.”

There was no initial evidence that the Syrians detained in the Honduran capital were anything other than average desperate Syrians seeking a better life away from their country’s brutal civil war. Honduran officials said the men – four of whom were university students in Syria – were part of a larger group of seven Syrians who had acquired false documents in Brazil with plans to enter the US.

The men then continued their journey from the largely unsecured borders of the “Triple Frontier” region where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay come together – an area that US officials say is rife with illicit-trade pipelines, including for human trafficking.

Honduran officials asserted Thursday that the five detained Syrians are not members of “any terrorist cell” but were seeking to quickly reach the US. Their case nonetheless highlights one path that terrorists affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) might use to enter the US to carry out an attack.

IS operatives are well versed in using all manner of illicit international trade networks, analysts say – to arm themselves in Europe, to fill their coffers by moving oil and antiquities out of the lands they control in Syria and Iraq, to transfer trained attackers into Europe. So the organized-crime networks moving narcotics and people through the Americas would not be foreign to them.

A similar discussion – of Al Qaeda’s abilities to access the illicit drug-trade routes to gain entry to the US – followed the 9/11 attacks, says Mr. Meacham of CSIS.

“On one hand, you had people saying the cartels would place a premium on protecting their businesses and would not want to unleash the wrath of the US government on them, and so were not likely to cooperate with Al Qaeda, would not run the risk of opening their tunnels and safe houses to them,” he says. “But on the other were the people who said the cartels are all about the money and will not stop at anything if the price is right.”

That debate was never decided, Meacham says. But since then, he notes, some of Mexico’s cartels in particular adopted some of the macabre, spectacular violence that has typified IS, such as mass beheadings, public display of victims, and execution videos. “Does that tell us they might move from there to cooperation and helping Daesh target the US? That’s a question to consider,” he says.

The Syrian men attempting to reach the US through Central America and Mexico were caught because officials say they were using Greek passports that had been altered to carry their photos. But another channel that IS terrorists might use to enter the US is completely legal and involves no undue scrutiny: travel on a European passport.

Under the US Visa Waiver Program, citizens of most European Union countries are able to enter the US without a visa – and that would potentially include the thousands of French, Belgians, and other Europeans who have gone to fight for IS. Perhaps hundreds of these “foreign fighters” are believed to have returned home.

Some point out that while Syrian refugees seeking resettlement in the US undergo up to two years of background checks, interviews, and other means of screening by various federal agencies, very little stands in the way of a French foreign fighter boarding a plane for the US.

That argument made its way to the floor of the House Thursday, where members were debating a bill that would effectively halt the US resettlement program for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

“In Paris, we saw that several of the attackers were European nationals, who could enter the US without being vetted,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York in opposition to the bill. “So it is ridiculous to assert that by denying access to refugees we are making America safer.”

Representative Nadler asserted that rather than slamming the door on Syrian refugees, the US needs to focus on addressing the siren song of IS videos and social media that are luring American youths. “The real danger America faces is that ISIS, through its propaganda, can radicalize people already here and inspire them to attack the United States from within,” he said.

The House passed the refugee measure, 289 to 137, but it may have less favorable prospects in the Senate.

No matter the fate of Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, signs were only growing that desperate Syrians would continue to seek entry into the US.

After the detentions in Honduras Tuesday, US Border Patrol agents in Laredo, Texas, reported on Thursday taking into custody eight Syrians – two families comprising two men, two women, and four children.

The two families turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents, officials from the Department of Homeland Security said. They were then transferred to immigration officials.

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