Feature 01.22.2024 9 minutes

The Road from Damascus

Refugees And Migrants Heading To The Greek Borders

Time to recall the bloody history of border crossings from Syria.

While driving 100 kmh past a highway-side gas station on the outskirts of Sarajevo, I spied and accurately identified a human smuggling scene unfolding in the station parking lot: several Caucasian men, no doubt local smugglers, shepherded some 30 young Middle Eastern male immigrants and their backpacks from one set of vehicles and into another set.

“Stop, stop! Pull in there! Pull in!!” I urged my Serbian interpreter behind the wheel, who hit the brakes and turned in fast. I’d known how to spot the handoff from my experience south of the U.S.-Mexico line—the basic hallmarks are recognizable the world over. Here, on the outskirts of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital city, they have become par for the course. For weeks I have been reporting from the Balkans on a new European migration surge of magnitudes not seen in years. Its central thoroughfare is the so-called “Balkan Route,” which stretches northward from Turkey and Greece then turns westward through Croatia and Slovenia and into Germany, France, Belgium, and other wealthier E.U. nations with a reputation for welcoming immigrants.

I spilled out of the passenger seat, recording video on my iPhone, wandering among the shifting crowds of young men, smugglers, and vehicles, asking in English: “Where are you from?”

The few willing to respond answered, “Syria.” In fact, all these young, fit men hailed from Syria.

Neither they nor the burly Bosnian smugglers appreciated my curiosity, especially after I introduced myself in Serbo-Croatian as a “novinar,” or journalist, and requested interviews. First one, then another, demanded my cell phone to delete the images. I refused, knowing it was fight-or-flight time. I much preferred flight. I got back in the car and closed the door.

They followed and swung it back open, demanding the phone. I slammed it back shut just as my driver peeled out of the parking lot. So, eventually, did all the migrants.

Syrians are ubiquitous on the newly-crowded migration routes into Europe. Frontex reports that they top the list of nationalities driving the most powerful surge since a continental crisis in 2015-2016.

But Syrians pose an overlooked security threat for Europe, one worth American attention too: 538 of them were counted at the U.S.-Mexico border, which is facing its own historically unprecedented mass migration crisis.

In case the world forgot, the last time Syrians surged across Western borders, in 2015-16, there followed a bloody onslaught of terrorism that brought France, Belgium, Germany, and other E.U. countries to their knees for several years—before Europe put all that out of mind.

But whether Europeans or Americans choose to forget what happened last time, this resurgence presages an elevating threat of terrorism in 2024 and beyond. Observers on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to pay attention now.

We’ve Seen This Movie

Syrian immigrants shortly after arriving at a U.N. camp on the Macedonia border from Greece. December 2023 photo by Todd Bensman

“Irregular border crossings” into the European Union spiked to 330,700 in 2022 and then 380,000 in 2023, both years the highest since 2016, Frontex reports show. More than 245,000 of the 710,600 total for those two years used the Balkans Route from Turkey through Serbia, Bosnia, and on northwest through E.U. member states Croatia and Slovenia.

Syrians were the top nationality moving into Europe on all routes in both years, followed by immigrants from Guinea, Afghanistan, and Tunisia. Amid the influx of arrivals, a small number of dedicated violent extremists were able to slip in unnoticed. Others with ISIS-assigned kill missions also benefited from the camouflage.

According to research I published in 2019, 104 Islamo-extremist border crossers were killed or arrested in nine European nations between 2014 and 2018, either for their participation in completed or thwarted attacks, or for their illegal involvement with designated terrorist groups.

To be sure, many of the 104 hailed from Muslim-majority nations other than Syria, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisia, and some of the former Soviet Republics. But nearly half were Syrians, including 40 that ISIS dispatched from Syria with orders to pose as refugee asylum seekers.

For example, ISIS intentionally dispatched at least 27 terrorist operatives in one cell through Turkey and into the migrant flows along the Balkan Route. These went on to conduct the November 2015 strikes on six locations in Paris, which killed 130 and injured 500. The teams then conducted the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, Belgium, that killed 32 more and injured 320. Authorities would spend another two years arresting or killing members of that cell.

ISIS also sent at least 13 others along the Balkan Route from Syria to conduct more attacks in Europe, as my research showed. Quite a few of the Syrians were independent jihadists affiliated with other groups.

ISIS is, of course, defeated and probably incapable of such an expensive, complex operation today. But its cells and ideology persist in the region, its adherents still only too happy for new opportunities to get in close and attack European targets.

Europe’s Willful Amnesia

Aleksandar Nacev, retired national security intelligence officer for Macedonia on the Balkan Route. December 2023 photo by Todd Bensman

In a Skopje, Macedonia, restaurant, within eyesight of a gigantic statue of Alexander the Great, I discussed all of this with Aleksandar Nacev, a retired career national security intelligence officer for Macedonia. Nacev worked for nearly a decade through 2018, embedded with multi-nation European counterterrorism border task forces in Brussels, Belgium. This included the blood-soaked period during and after the 2015-2016 mass migration crisis.

Nacev explained in English that European governments and populations don’t remember the causes behind those gruesome episodes. Nor do they worry about terrorist border infiltrators.

“It’s not perceived as a threat here. I think people have forgotten about the dangers,” he told me over Turkish coffee. “A lot has happened in the world, with the pandemic and the energy crisis and with each country having its own problems.”

Worse, he said, over time, a once-admirable intelligence-sharing and counterterrorism collaboration, built up among 40 European and friendlier Middle Eastern governments at the height of the attacks, has fallen into neglected disrepair. Partisanship and complacency suffocated these partnerships as the pace of migrant terrorist attacks slowed after the crisis.

“Governments went from conservative to liberal, which practically stopped a lot of the programs that were in place,” lamented Nacev, who now teaches national security intelligence at a local university and stays in touch with comrades still in the business. “Today, if you have liberals in power, then you’ll probably get, ‘migrants are welcome.’ If you ask some more conservative states like Hungary or Poland, you’ll get a different kind of answer.”

The complacency, navel-gazing, and division among governments that Nacev described do not augur well for European preparedness nor willingness to stop, block, or deter the ever-growing numbers of Syrians and other nationalities from terrorist-rich nations that are pouring in.

“Things will get hot again,” Nacev predicted, because former ISIS fighters and sympathizers are out there who want to “slip through the cracks” and can, while younger jihadists are still plentiful and riled up by the Israel-Hamas war.

“If they find themselves in the right environment and can connect themselves to existing terrorist cells in western Europe, I’m sure they will get back to their old ways,” he continued. “How do you deal with people who aren’t afraid to die?”

Drilling Down

A Syrian immigrant on his way through Bosnia with smugglers. December 2023 photo by Todd Bensman

Not everyone is entirely disinterested in the phenomenon of rising Syrian immigrant traffic. The U.N.’s International Office of Migration (IOM) noticed and wanted to understand who these Syrians were and why they were now coming through the Balkans. It conducted a “Customized Survey” of 103 of the 36,360 who registered in 2023 at Serbian camps during the first ten months of 2023 on their largely unimpeded journeys through the Balkan states.

The vast majority (92 percent) are young single men. The average age was 27; most have never married and claim to be fleeing “war” for jobs in Germany and The Netherlands, although 46 percent had the money to pay smugglers.

If European intelligence services were looking for any help learning of the potentially dangerous ideologies or predictive back stories on these travelers, they’d find none from U.N. agencies with the most first contact at the helpful “rest and resupply” waystations in Bosnia and everywhere else along the Balkans Route.

“On their political views, they can have whatever,” said Drazan Rozic, IOM’s migration response coordinator for Bosnia when I reached out to him for comment. “We are not discussing those issues with them. That’s their right. I don’t think anything about that.”

Syrians are only now leading the charge up the route because of a series of largely unrelated developments, as I’ve recently reported. During and after the 2015-2016 crisis and terror attacks, external E.U. countries like Hungary, Slovenia, and Austria all but closed the whole route by erecting border fences and backing them with push-back policies. Stuck with the hot potato, Croatia and Serbia then began pushing migrants back over their own southern borders.

Hungary’s border fence against Serbia (right side of fence) significantly disrupted migration flows along the Balkans Route and still does to an extent. December 2023 photo by Todd Bensman

That all left hundreds of thousands pooled in Greece and Turkey these last four years. But then, a hole opened around Hungary’s fencing in late 2022 when a new liberal government in Slovenia decided to abandon its fence and push-back policies and welcome “asylum seekers.” The rush through Serbia and Bosnia only picked up its pace in January 2023, when Serbia eliminated visa requirements and Croatia joined the Schengen Zone’s borderless community of nations, abandoning all of its posts with Slovenia. A February 2023 earthquake in Turkey supercharged the flow, as local and international assistance for refugees got diverted to stricken Turkish citizens and politicians began threatening to send competing Syrian refugees home.

The new hole in the once-shuttered Balkan Route beckoned. And it’s still wide open for business in 2024. Both in Europe and in the U.S., we may soon learn the wages of open indifference to border security.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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