BUDAPEST, Hungary – The alleged ISIS commander charged here last week with taking part in 20 beheadings obtained a special refugee passport in Greece that gave him air travel access to much of Europe, according to Gyorgy Bakondi, a senior advisor to Hungary's prime minister's office.
The revelation about the bestowal of such refugee benefits on an accused ISIS commander raises questions about terrorist exploitation of the so-called refugee "right to travel" embossed in a 1951 international treaty, allowing those approved for refugee status to move about freely in Europe and elsewhere.
It remains unclear exactly which refugee passport program might have been used by "F. Hassan," as the Hungarian government has dubbed the 27-year-old Syrian now under arrest in Budapest. Bakondi wasn't sure.
New United Nations-European Union Passports for Refugees Program in Greece
But Hassan likely was a beneficiary of the new "European Qualifications for Passports for Refugees" program, which the United Nations Human Rights Commission and European Union's Council of Europe implemented in Greece in late 2017 and expanded last year. According to its website, the program enables passport recipients to travel to eight countries in Europe and also Canada; the United States is not among the listed countries.
Recipients are chosen based on education levels, language proficiency, and work experience as a means to improve chances to match such candidates to specialized employment.
A Reuters news report quoted Hungarian prosecutors as saying that Hassan traveled to a number of European countries prior to landing in Hungary, although those countries were not identified and his activities in them were not detailed.
Bakondi told PJ Media the suspect did use his real name to apply for refugee status after traveling to Greece among migrants leaving Turkey. But he almost certainly too would have been required to truthfully state on refugee applications whether he had been involved with terrorist groups or fought in Syria.
Greek authorities eventually granted Hassan refugee status, which entitles migrants to obtain refugee travel documents. Hassan eventually landed at the airport in Budapest last December with an unidentified woman whom Hungarian authorities found to be carrying a false passport, Bakondi said.
The woman was deported to Greece because of the false passport, but Hassan was prosecuted and convicted of human smuggling, given a suspended 18-month sentence, and ordered expelled for three years.
While he was awaiting deportation in a Hungarian center, Belgian intelligence provided Hungary with informant-based information that Hassan had committed atrocities as an "emir" on behalf of ISIS, to include personally cutting off the heads of victims, Bakondi said.
How did Hassan Evade United States-Assisted Vetting in Greece?
The arrest of Hassan also raises the question of whether Greece, as a key refugee transit country, is properly vetting higher risk migrants for potential ties to ISIS before granting refugee status and conferring its benefits. The United States has reportedly been assisting Greece, to some extent, in vetting incoming migrants and refugees to determine whether any are terrorists.
Starting in 2014, hundreds of thousands of migrants from 103 countries began pouring into Greece on their way to more prosperous EU countries, often along the so-called "Balkan Route" that leads from Greece to Hungary. U.S. homeland security agencies, starting in 2018, provided equipment and training to Greek security agencies to begin collecting biometrics information such as fingerprints and retinal scans at at least 30 common points of refugee entry.
In 2015, Hungary closed its borders and built fencing, prompting other countries in the region to do the same, effectively reducing the overland migration flow along the route to a trickle. But its airports would remain vulnerable to those given lawful refugee status.
On Global Guard for Escaping ISIS Fighters and Sympathizers
The global intelligence community and Western law enforcement have been on heightened alert since the collapse of the ISIS quasi-state in Syria and Iraq sent tens of thousands of fighters and sympathizers fleeing, many to Europe, where some have committed a number of terror attacks.
Kurdish rebels and Iraqi forces have been capturing thousands of ISIS fighters and their families as the caliphate succumbed to brute military encirclements before and since the October 2017 fall of Raqqa, the putative capital. Others are presumed to be holed up in remnant pockets surrounded by hostile paramilitary forces.
A few senior leaders have been caught in intelligence dragnets or killed in airstrikes; others are presumed to have escaped to places farther away while the getting was still good. Some ISIS commanders were recently caught posing as war refugees about to embark on a rickety boat to Greece.
Todd Bensman is a Texas-based senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. For nearly a decade, Bensman led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.