The arrest of Salah Abdeslam in a Brussels neighborhood on Friday marks the end of the pursuit of Europe’s most wanted man. Abdeslam was cornered by Belgian police and wounded in a firefight before being taken by authorities.
Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national, is the only one left alive of the 10 assailants who carried out last November’s shocking Paris terror attacks, which killed 130 people and wounded dozens more. The terrorists, all European nationals, were proxies of the Islamic State, and it’s hoped that investigators can piece together more about the plot now that Abdeslam is in custody.
The political tremors that followed the massacres in the French capital reached myriad countries in the West. In the U.S., the attacks immediately fed into the talking points of the election cycle, with Republican presidential candidates and other politicians all pointing to the horrors of Paris as justification to slam the door shut on all Syrian refugees. (Donald Trump, the front-runner, would soon thereafter call for the halting of all Muslim arrivals to the country.)
This rhetoric came despite the fact that none of the assailants themselves were identified as Syrians or refugees. To be sure, reports did point to at least some of the militants carrying fake documents ascribed to Syrian refugees, while Hungarian officials claimed to have identified Abdeslam passing through a train station in Budapest that had been waypoint for droves of Syrian refugees. A number of the assailants are known to have journeyed to Syria to join or receive training from the jihadists.
The details remain murky. So, too, were the conclusions drawn by opportunistic politicians. In the U.S., in particular, the threat of an Islamist militant arriving disguised as a refugee is minuscule; just take a look at the exhaustive and thorough process of vetting already in place for refugees being considered for American resettlement.
And the fervor against refugees also obscures the actual roots of Abdeslam’s radicalization, as well as the genuine security threats that countries in Europe face.
Born to Moroccan parents, the suspected jihadist has a familiar narrative, as my colleagues report. He liked soccer, motorcycles and videogames and was never know to be particularly devout.
“He dressed normally, didn’t show any signs of him being radicalized. It is a frustration that our family lived together without noticing what was going on,” his brother Mohamed told reporters.
What happened thereafter — the ideological transformation that must have followed — ought to be a matter of genuine concern for security officials and politicians in various countries. But it shouldn’t be conflated with the plight of Syrian refugees, whose vast number now stands near 5 million people. Hundreds of thousands have attempted the perilous journey to Europe; hundreds have already perished in the first few months of this year in their attempt to make the crossing.
“The definition of a refugee is someone fleeing oppression. They’re fleeing terrorism,” Lavinia Limón, president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told The Washington Post in November. “They’ve experienced what happened in Paris on a daily basis.”
And in the politicized aftermath of the hideous assault carried out by Abdeslam and the other Paris suspects, refugees themselves became collateral damage.