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What the Data Tells Us About Immigration and Terrorism

The claim that immigrants have a greater propensity to commit terrorism and limiting their travel into the United States on this basis will have a positive impact on national security, is yet another 'alternative fact.'

  • Andrew Lindsay
February 17, 2017

On Janu­ary 27, Pres­id­ent Donald Trump signed an exec­ut­ive order enact­ing a 90-day suspen­sion of all visas for nation­als of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somali, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The asser­ted purpose of the order is to protect the United States from “terror­ist attacks by nation­als” under the pretext that “numer­ous foreign-born indi­vidu­als have been convicted or implic­ated in terror­ism-related crimes since Septem­ber 11, 2001.”  This claim under­lies the order’s indef­in­ite bar on Syrian refugee admit­tance, 120-day bar of other refugees, and the 90-day travel ban affect­ing nation­als from the seven Muslim coun­tries listed above. An earlier version of the order which was leaked to the press stated that “hundreds of foreign-born indi­vidu­als have been convicted or implic­ated in terror­ism-related crimes since Septem­ber 11, 2001.”

Both the leaked draft and the order suggest that there is a horde of terror­ists who are bypassing the screen­ing process employed by U.S. consu­lates around the world. But as the CATO Insti­tute has demon­strated, Amer­ic­ans face a de minimis risk of death from terror­ism at home: 1 in 3.6 million. The false asser­tion that domestic terror­ism is a largely Muslim prob­lem is more a reflec­tion of the Pres­id­ent’s misguided belief in Muslim conspir­acies and an inter­con­nec­ted web of “global jihad” than actual empir­ical evid­ence. Fram­ing poten­tial terror­ism as foreign, undif­fer­en­ti­ated, and uniquely Muslim serves no other purpose than to deepen fears of an immig­rant “other” in order to increase exec­ut­ive power.

The appar­ent basis for this focus on foreign born terror­ists seems to be a 2016 analysis released by Attor­ney General Jeff Sessions, which invest­ig­ated a Depart­ment of Justice list of 580 terror­ism and terror­ism-related convic­tions. The analysis concluded that at least 380 convic­tions were of foreign-born indi­vidu­als. Earlier that year, the then-Senator decried “the danger­ous and costly status quo” asso­ci­ated with invest­ig­at­ing “immig­rant suspects in the United States” while admit­ting “680,000 migrants from Muslim coun­tries [into the U.S.] every five years.” Sessions claims that the immig­ra­tion of people from Muslim-major­ity coun­tries repres­ents a fail­ure of costly coun­terter­ror­ism efforts. But a close analysis of the data under­mines this conclu­sion.

First, in what seems like an attempt to inflate numbers, Sessions’ analysis lumps together terror­ism convic­tions and cases in which indi­vidu­als were implic­ated in terror­ism, two very differ­ent things. Sessions’ analysis came on the heels of three letters sent to the Depart­ments of Justice, Home­land Secur­ity and State demand­ing “immig­ra­tion histor­ies of indi­vidu­als implic­ated in terror­ism since early 2014.” Accord­ing to Sessions, “implic­ated” is a very broad stand­ard that could include any convic­tions result­ing from a terror­ism invest­ig­a­tion, even those without defin­it­ive links to inter­na­tional terror­ism. In fact, only 194 of the 380 foreign-born convic­tions iden­ti­fied by Sessions (51 percent) were prosec­uted for terror­ism offenses. But this does not mean that 194 people were convicted of terror­ist attacks. Rather, the vast major­ity of these indi­vidu­als (68 percent) were charged with “mater­ial support” of terror­ism, which are cases where money, goods or other resources were provided to someone asso­ci­ated with a U.S. desig­nated terror­ist group. This result closely matches find­ings from a recent Ford­ham Univer­sity study of all ISIS-related convic­tions from May 2014 to June 2016. The study revealed that 70 out of 101 charges (69 percent) were for “mater­ial support” of terror­ism. Under the mater­ial support law, there is no require­ment that the assist­ance provided was inten­ded to, or assisted in any viol­ent act.

An egre­gious example of mater­ial support is the case of the Holy Land Found­a­tion for Relief and Devel­op­ment (HLF), formerly one of the largest Muslim char­it­ies in the United States. The five defend­ants, all lead­ers in the organ­iz­a­tion, were convicted of 108 crim­inal counts, includ­ing mater­ial support of terror­ism, money laun­der­ing, and tax fraud. HLF, now defunct, was convicted of provid­ing mater­ial support to Hamas, a desig­nated foreign terror­ist organ­iz­a­tion in the Palestinian territ­or­ies. The prosec­u­tion did not assert that “HLF was fund­ing Hamas directly or that its money was used (or was inten­ded to be used) to support suicide bomb­ings or other sorts of viol­ence.” Only that the govern­ment main­tained that Hamas controlled the local organ­iz­a­tions HLF funded thus help­ing “Hamas win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Palestinian people.” This claim was under­mined by the fact that the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tional Devel­op­ment provided funds to the same organ­iz­a­tions for at least three years after the govern­ment closed HLF. An attor­ney for one of the defend­ants, Nancy Hollander summed the prob­lem with this case best, “the govern­ment traced every penny from the Holy Land Found­a­tion directly to char­ity. No guns, no suicide belts, no explos­ives. Yet, because this char­ity went to famil­ies in Palestine, it was a crime.” The five defend­ants were sentenced to a combined total of 180 years in prison.

The other 49 percent of convic­tions – which the Sessions analysis describes as “implic­ated in terror­ism” and the Justice Depart­ment called “terror­ist-related offenses”—were actu­ally convic­tions for crimes ranging from immig­ra­tion fraud to obstruc­tion of justice. It is not possible to verify the Justice Depart­ment’s claim that these cases involved “charged viol­a­tions of a vari­ety of other stat­utes where the invest­ig­a­tion involved an iden­ti­fied link to inter­na­tional terror­ism” and may have “connec­tions to inter­na­tional terror­ism that are not appar­ent from the nature of the offenses of convic­tion them­selves.” However, the use of this category was criti­cized by the DOJ Inspector General as “inac­cur­ately repor­ted by signi­fic­ant margins” in a Septem­ber 2013 audit. Indeed, as far back as 2003, the Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office repor­ted that the “DOJ does not have suffi­cient manage­ment over­sight and internal controls in place to ensure the accur­acy and reli­ab­il­ity in its terror­ism-related convic­tions.” Although the Depart­ment was found to have “revised its proced­ures for gath­er­ing, clas­si­fy­ing, report­ing terror­ism-related stat­ist­ics based on recom­mend­a­tions” from subsequent audits, the DOJ Inspector General main­tained in 2013 that “imple­ment­a­tion of the revised proced­ures was not effect­ive to ensure that terror­ism-related stat­ist­ics were repor­ted accur­ately.”

Second, at least 75 of the total of 194 terror­ism convic­tions resul­ted from FBI sting oper­a­tions. This figure was obtained by cross-refer­en­cing a Mother Jones data­base of terror­ism-related sting oper­a­tions and the Sessions analysis. These convic­tions may not be indic­at­ive of real threats. For years, the FBI has targeted dozens of indi­vidu­als, and provided them with the inspir­a­tion, resources, and tools to carry out domestic terror­ist plots or provide mater­ial support to terror­ist groups. Many of these cases involve people who were not part of any foreign terror­ist group and may never have had the interest or capa­city to threaten national secur­ity without signi­fic­ant FBI encour­age­ment and resources.

For example, Laguerre Payen is one of four convicted in a Newburgh, NY sting oper­a­tion made infam­ous by an HBO docu­ment­ary. An FBI inform­ant recruited James Cromite, a low-level drug dealer and offered him $250,000 to recruit three other Muslims and carry out an attack. The inform­ant recruited Payen, a home­less crack addict and para­noid schizo­phrenic. When told of a trip to Flor­ida as reward, Payen said he could not go because he had no pass­port. He hardly posed the type of threat on which the govern­ment should expend resources.

Another example is Patrick Abra­ham, one of five convicted in a Miami sting oper­a­tion. An FBI inform­ant targeted a group of poor African-Amer­ican and Haitian men, offer­ing them $50,000 to join a terror plot. Subsequently, the inform­ant recor­ded Abra­ham and the other men pledging alle­gi­ance to al-Qaeda. The group, dubbed the Liberty City 7, was not even Muslim, but a sect of the Moor­ish Science Temple that called itself the “Seas of David.” Accord­ing to Mother Jones, the men were finan­cially strapped misfits who oper­ated out of a ware­house, where they had no weapons save a cere­mo­nial sword.  They were clearly misguided in seek­ing support from a purpor­ted member of a terror­ist group but not, as the govern­ment asserts, domestic al-Qaeda oper­at­ives intent on, much less capable of, commit­ting harm to the United States.

Third, the Justice Depart­ment list of foreign born terror­ism convic­tions covers a range of dispar­ate foreign terror­ist organ­iz­a­tions (FTO’s) with very differ­ent polit­ical aims. These FTO’s pose vary­ing degrees of risk to US national secur­ity. For instance, some of convic­tions involved groups such as the Cambod­ian Free­dom Fight­ers (Cambodia), the Front for the Liber­a­tion of the Enclave of Cabinda (Angola), and the Tamil Tigers or the Liber­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Sri Lanka), milit­ant polit­ical organ­iz­a­tions involved in viol­ent conflicts in their respect­ive nations, but pose no known domestic threat.

The exec­ut­ive order’s attempt to cast Amer­ica’s terror­ist threats as uniquely Muslim, inter­con­nec­ted and undif­fer­en­ti­ated belies the immense hetero­gen­eity of terror­ist organ­iz­a­tions from outside the coun­try. Empir­ical evid­ence demon­strates that Amer­ic­ans face more concrete threats from “homegrown extrem­ism” and even then, in a given year an indi­vidual is more than twice as likely to be killed by a far right extrem­ist as opposed to someone claim­ing ties to Islam.

There is no ques­tion that terror­ism is a seri­ous national secur­ity issue but the threat is complic­ated. Rely­ing on raw and undif­fer­en­ti­ated data serves to obfus­cate rather than assist the devel­op­ment of an effect­ive response. The claim that foreign-born indi­vidu­als have a greater propensity to commit terror­ism, and that limit­ing foreign-born indi­vidu­als travel into the United States on this basis will have a posit­ive impact on national secur­ity, is another example of an “altern­at­ive fact” that should have no place in the day to policy oper­a­tions of the state.