Where Do Terrorists Come From? Not the Nations Named in Trump Ban

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A Muslim women holds a sign during anti-Donald Trump travel ban protests outside Philadelphia International Airport, January 29. Charles Mostoller/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

The first sentence of President Donald Trump’s executive order to temporarily ban all visas for people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia, among other actions, is to “protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” However, the countries that Trump chose to temporarily ban are not serious terrorism risks.

I compiled a list of foreign-born people who committed or were convicted of attempting to commit a terrorist attack on U.S. soil from 1975 through 2015. Below is a table with the distribution of their countries of origin (Figure 1).

The first seven countries are those to be initially and, hopefully, temporarily denied visas. During the time period analyzed here, 17 foreign-born folks from those nations were convicted of carrying out or attempting to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and they killed zero people. Zero Libyans or Syrians intended to carry out an attack on U.S. soil during this time.

Figure 1

Foreign-Born Terrorist Country of Origin, 1975-2015

Sources: John Mueller, ed., Terrorism Since 9/11: The American Cases; RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents; National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism Global Terrorism Database; Center on National Security; Charles Kurzman, “Spreadsheet of Muslim-American Terrorism Cases from 9/11 through the End of 2015,” University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill; Department of Justice; Federal Bureau of Investigation; New America Foundation; Mother Jones; Senator Jeff Sessions; various news sources; court documents.

Attempting or committing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is not the only terrorist offense. Materially supporting foreign terrorist organizations, seeking to join a foreign terrorist group overseas, plotting or carrying out terrorist attacks in other countries and others are also terrorism offenses.

Related: Muslim ban rattles Jewish community

I excluded foreign-born people convicted of those offenses because Trump is concerned with “making America safe again,” not with making other countries safe or with a global war on terrorism. A terrorist attack in another country doesn’t kill Americans inside of the United States and these threats are not what concern American voters nearly as much as terrorism on U.S. soil. You can call this an America First weighting of terrorism offenses.

Trump’s executive order cites the “hundreds of foreign-born individuals [who] have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes” as another reason for a visa ban for these countries. He likely got the “hundreds of foreign-born individuals” from a news release and list put out by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that purportedly shows all 580 “terrorism-related” convictions since 9/11 with at least 380 of them as immigrants.

It is disturbing that Sessions’s flawed list of terrorism convictions is the basis for much of this executive order. There are at least two major problems with the list.

First, you might get the impression that all of those convictions were for terrorist attacks planned on U.S. soil, but only 40, or 6.8 percent, were.

Second, 241 of the 580 convictions, or 42 percent, were not even for terrorism offenses. Many of the investigations started based on terrorisms tips like, for instance, the suspect wanting to buy a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. However, the tip turned out to be groundless and the legal saga ended with only a mundane conviction of receiving stolen cereal. According to Sessions’s list, that cereal thief is a terrorist.  

In the little over 13 years covered in the Sessions list, there were about three convictions per year for planning or committing an attack on U.S. soil. For every one of them, there were six non-terrorism convictions counted as terrorism and 4.5 convictions for supporting, joining or planning a terrorist attack overseas. In short, the list provided by Senator Jeff Sessions does not show a daunting terrorist threat to American lives in the homeland.

Trump’s executive order goes on to argue that “deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter our country.” Presumably, the goal is to reduce American deaths from terrorism on U.S. soil, so the deadliness of terrorist attacks matters more than the number of terrorists.

For instance, 114 of the 154 foreign-born terrorists from 1975 to the end of 2015 didn’t kill anybody. The three countries where the deadliest terrorists came to the United States from were Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Together they all accounted for 94.1 percent of all American deaths in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil committed by the foreign-born. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not beset by any of the supposedly terrorism-increasing problems that are described in this order.

Egyptians account for 5.4 percent of all terrorist victims but their attacks occurred between 1993 and 2002, when Egypt was a more stable country than it is today. The only exception to this might be Lebanon, which accounts for 5.2 percent of all terrorist victims but nearly all of those were committed by Ziad Jarrah on 9/11—a single data point. Meanwhile, foreign-born people from Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Iran and Yemen have not successfully killed anybody in a U.S. terrorist attack.

Trump’s executive order goes on to say that the United States “cannot, and should not, admit into our country those who do not support the U.S. Constitution.” Virtually nobody in the world, including most Americans, supports the U.S. Constitution and it seems peculiar to block tourists who want to visit Disneyland from entering because they “do not support the U.S. Constitution.”

My guesses are that whoever wrote this executive order is either confused about the difference between immigrants and non-immigrants or it is just sloppily drafted. Temporary visitors should not have to swear allegiance or express support for the Constitution any more than an American should have to swear allegiance to or express my support for monarchy when visiting the United Kingdom.

In terms of support for the Constitution, all that matters is that immigrants who naturalize take an oath to do so—as they are currently required to under U.S. law.

The order also directs the government to find a way to identify immigrants “with the intent to cause harm, or who are at risk of causing harm subsequent to their admission.” Blocking immigrants who intend to commit crimes or terrorist attacks is a wonderful idea—so wonderful that the government already does it.

However, the line that seeks to identify those who “are at risk of causing harm subsequent to their admission” is hopelessly vague. There is a risk greater than zero that virtually anybody is a risk subsequent to their admission, so this type of broad, ill-defined dictate could theoretically screen out everybody. More likely, it will just be used to capriciously target individuals for political or personal reasons.

A later line in the executive order provides some context for the “risk of causing harm subsequent to their admission” line. It orders DHS to regularly publish “information regarding the number of foreign-born individuals in the United States who have been radicalized after entry into the United States and engaged in terrorism-related acts, or who have provided material support to terrorism-related organizations in countries that pose a threat to the United States.”

Presumably, DHS will use that information to build a detailed risk profile of immigrants to exclude those who could become radicalized. One worrying term is “terrorism-related organizations.” I couldn’t find any mentions or definition of a “terrorism-related organization” in U.S. law. There are no mentions of “terrorism-related convictions” either. If “terrorism-related organizations” is defined as broadly as “terrorism-related convictions” has been in Jeff Sessions’s terrorist list, then many non-terrorist organizations will be included for flimsy reasons. This is like the no-fly list but with far graver consequences.

The order also says there should be a “process to evaluate the applicant’s likelihood of becoming a positive contributing member of society, and the applicant’s ability to make contributions to the national interest.”

The immigration law already does the former by excluding criminals, national security threats and numerous other categories of excludable people, while the broad immigrant and non-immigrant work visas supposedly identify which foreigners are most valuable. At best this line in the executive order is redundant and at worst it signals the government’s intent to be even more involved in planning the labor market by selecting winners and losers through the immigration system.   

The seven countries temporarily banned under this executive order represent a small percentage of all green cards and entries into the United States (the latter estimated by I-94s per country). In 2015, the government issued 52,365 green cards to immigrants born in those seven countries, which amount to just 4.98 percent of all green cards issued that year and 29.4 percent of all green cards issued to nationals from Muslim countries (Table 2). In the same year, there were 86,236 non-immigrant entries from those countries, which accounted for 0.11 percent of all entries although they comprised 4.5 percent of all entries for Islamic countries (Table 2).

The economic cost of a temporary ban, or even a permanent one, is small because so few green cards and nonimmigrant visas are issued to folks from those seven countries. However, the danger of terrorism on U.S. soil committed by citizens of those countries has also been very low historically, with only 17 convictions from 1975 through 2015 and zero Americans killed in domestic attacks. Future terrorists could come from different countries than terrorists did in the past but, based on current evidence, this ban is still a net loss because it will likely stop few terrorists, prevent zero deaths and slightly reduce immigration and tourism. All minor economic pain, no gain.

Table 2

Number of Green Cards and Entries per Country, 2015

                       Green Cards   Entries (I-94)

Iran                            13,114                35,266

Iraq                            21,107               21,381

Libya                              734                2,879

Somalia                      6,796                   359

Sudan                         3,580                4,792

Syria                           3,840              16,010

Yemen                         3,194                 5,549

All Countries       1,051,031        76,638,236

Islamic Countries (OIC)

                                  178,015           1,896,383

Source: Department of Homeland Security

If President Trump was committed to banning immigrants from certain countries in order to reduce the already small risk of terrorism on U.S. soil committed by the foreign-born, then he would not just ban nationals from these seven countries. For this reason, I expect his administration to expand the list of countries banned in the near future.

Section 3, subsections c, d, e and f clarify that the president can extend these bans to other countries or make them permanent. This is a warning about additional bans on migrants and immigrants to come as well as the process by which those bans will be enacted.   

Alex Nowrasteh is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.