(CNSNews.com) – The top U.S. military commander in Europe told lawmakers Tuesday that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) is infiltrating the ranks of refugees entering Europe, and that terrorists, returning foreign fighters and criminals are now part of the “daily” flow.
Asked by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) whether ISIS will continue to try to infiltrate refugee flows, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I think that they are doing that today.”
Breedlove, who is both head of U.S. European Command and NATO supreme allied commander, said that refugee flows one or two years ago were, on the whole, made up of “probably more legitimate refugees” fleeing civil wars, terrorism and other problems.
By contrast, “what we have seen growing in the past months and year is that, in that flow of refugees we see criminality, terrorism and foreign fighters.”
“This criminality, the terrorists and returning foreign fighters are clearly a daily part of the refugee flow now,” he said.
Ayotte said that situation underlined the “real risk” both to Europe and the United States, and the need to ensure proper screening – “especially with the number of refugees flowing both into Europe, and also some of them coming here, that we’re very careful about this. Would you agree with that?”
Breedlove concurred. “I think we need to be careful about all flows of these refugees.”
Under questioning from committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Breedlove agreed that both Russia and the Assad regime were actively trying to drive Syrians to become refugees, as a way of targeting the European Union.
“I’ve used the term ‘weaponization of immigration,’” Breedlove said.
He cited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of barrel bombs, an indiscriminate weapon that does not serve an effective military purpose.
“Barrel bombs are designed to terrorize, get people out of their homes, and get them on the road, and make them someone else’s problem,” he said.
“These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces – I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move, and make them someone else’s problem.”
In his written testimony, Breedlove noted that more than one million refugees or economic migrants arrived in Europe in 2015, entering primarily via Italy and Greece. The figure was expected to increase this year.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said on Tuesday that 131,724 refugees and migrants had traveled across the Mediterranean and arrived in southern Europe in January and February this year, the vast majority landing in Greece.
The agency warned of a looming humanitarian crisis, as European governments close borders and wrangle over how to respond to the influx.
Meanwhile President Obama has pledged to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. during fiscal year 2016. As of this week, a total of 942 Syrian refugees have been admitted. Of those, eight (0.8 percent) are Christians and 920 (97.6 percent) are Sunni Muslims.