Refugees and the Risk of 'Sleeper' Terrorists

Grandstanding politicians fan fear, but don't know what they are talking about



In the wake of the Paris atrocities, the murderous thugs that run the hellhole they style as the "Islamic State" have now threatened to attack Washington and New York City.

The threats appeared around the same time a fake Syrian passport surfaced near the body one of the suicide bombers who blew himself up outside the soccer stadium in Paris. This discovery has prompted 31 governors to say they do not want Syrian refugees to be located into their states. The House of Representatives also passed legislation aiming to block the arrival of Syrian refugees without more stringent vetting.

Which brings us to the question of whether banning Syrian refugees is all that an effective way to protect Americans against terrorism. Earlier in the week, I wrote that not one single act of terrorism in the United States has been caused by a refugee. Let's just say that my claim got some pushback.

So let's delve further into the data. Surprisingly, there is very little scholarly research on how refugees and terrorism might be related. The most relevant study is "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Refugees, Humanitarian Aid, and Terrorism," published in the journal Conflict Management and Peace Science in 2013. In that article, two political scientists—Seung-Whan Choi of the University of Illinois and Idean Salehyan of the University of North Texas—look at terrorism data from 154 countries between 1970 and 2007. They found "evidence that countries with many refugees are more likely to experience both domestic and international terrorism."

Alarming? Maybe not.

The countries they're discussing are mostly poor, mostly close to the conflicts that produced the refugees, and mostly given to putting the refugees in camps. Militants will attack camps to punish rivals. They will use the despondency in the camps to recruit. They will plunder camps for their stocks of humanitarian aid. And the camps tend to provoke a backlash among the natives. When rich countries host significant numbers of refugees, they do experience a very slight uptick in terrorism, but not of the ISIS-sleeper-agent variety; it's mostly attacks on refugees' political rivals and nativist backlashes.

And my claim that no refugees have committed terrorism in the United States? How does that hold up?

The researchers at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) have found three cases where refugees admitted after 9/11 have been arrested on terrorism charges. In May 2011, the FBI arrested two Iraqis living in Bowling Green, Kentucky—Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi—for plotting to supply weapons and other material to Al Qaeda in Iraq. As the FBI noted, neither was "charged with plotting attacks within the United States." Both were convicted and are serving long prison terms.

The third arrestee is Fazliddin Kurbanov of Uzbekistan, convicted earlier this year for possession of unregistered explosives and for efforts to provide computer support and money to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. There were also charges involving an alleged plot to carry out an attack in the U.S., but he was acquitted of those.

Kurbanov and his parents, incidentally, had converted to Orthodox Christianity; they were admitted as refugees because they were being persecuted as Christians in Uzbekistan. Kurbanov later met some of other Uzbeks in the U.S. who evidently persuaded him to reconvert to Islam. There would have been no "red flags" to suggest to immigration officials that he might later become involved with terrorism.

What about the Boston Marathon bombers—the Tsarnaev brothers? The MPI does not count them in its analysis because they were not admitted as refugees. Instead they entered the country as minor children who were covered by their parents' grant of asylum. The distinction between refugees and asylees is not just a legal technicality. Aslyees are self-selected—they show up at or within the border and apply for asylum. As long as the asylum application is pending, they cannot be thrown out of the country. In contrast, refugees are generally designated as such by U.N. officials, and they usually live in refugee camps. They go through a vetting process that takes up to two or three years.

There is also the 2010 case of the would-be Portland Christmas bomber, Mohamed Osman Mohamud. His parents, according to their Church of Brethren sponsors, were "offered asylum" while still refugees in Kenya. By State Department definitions they would have been refugees, not asylees. In any case their son's status was dependent on theirs when he came to U.S. at age 5 years. He was caught after his father alerted the FBI that he was concerned his son was being brainwashed by online Al Qaeda contacts.

In June 24, 2015, testimony before the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow, at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, cites three other migrants who became terrorists in the U.S. These are Mir Qasi, who killed two people at the CIA headquarters gate in 1993, and Omar Abdel Rahman and Ramzi Yousef, who perpetrated the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. These were neither refugees or asylees. Qasi entered on false passport and later purchased a fake green card. The World Trade Center bombers applied for asylum but were never granted it; they did, however, abuse the asylum process, which at the time allowed any migrant to remain in the country and work while their claim was pending. That process has since been changed.

Most recent is the case of six Bosnian immigrants, four of whom have been naturalized as American citizens. A husband and wife, Ramiz and Sedina Hodzic, were apparently admitted as refugees; the other four are evidently regular immigrants. All six were indicted in February for allegedly supplying money and material to Islamic State fighters outside of the U.S. They have pled not guilty.

So what to make this rogue's gallery of would-be terrorists? Two things. First: As I wrote, none of the ones who were refugees committed a terrorist act on American soil. Second, and more important: None of these people, be they refugees or anything else, were sleeper agents who intentionally remained inactive for a long period, established a secure position, and then struck. None, in other words, fit the scenario being bandied about to justify keeping the Syrians out.

Critics of refugee resettlement like to argue that no system of vetting—certainly none run by a government agency—is guaranteed to catch everyone. That's obviously true, but it's also beside the point. The system isn't perfect, but it's so long and cumbersome that there are simply faster, easier approaches at a terrorist's disposal. If the Islamic State wants to send goons to blow up or shoot up venues in Washington or New York, they could send European Union nationals with legally unobjectionable passports. They could obtain student or tourist visas. They could simply use fake identification.

Small wonder that, as the Migration Policy Institute's Kathleen Newland concludes, "The record of the U.S. refugee resettlement program does not support the fear of security threats. This record is cause not for complacency but for confidence."

NEXT: Conservatives Really Want to Believe Hillary Clinton's Campaign Threatened a Comedy Club Owner

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Sounds like we should ban all Muslims from entering the US until they solve this terrorist problem of theirs.

    1. Irish and Italians too, and Japan has Yakuza. Heck, don’t let any American come back after a vacation overseas until they figure out what Timothy McVeigh was up to.

      1. I’m making $86 an hour working from home. I was shocked when my neighbour told me she was averaging $95 but I see how it works now.I feel so much freedom now that I’m my own boss.go to this site home tab for more detai….

  2. I’m skeptical about these “threats.” When was the last time a terrorist attack was conducted after the target was threatened? Did they threaten to rap airplanes and run them into buildings? Did they threaten to take down the WTC prior to the bombings in ’93? Did they threaten to kill those at Charlie Hebdo? Paris? Benghazi? I’m thinking, if it is the idiomic state making these threats, I think it’s either to test and observe our precautions so they know which will be more successful softer targets, or they are using misdirection.

    1. Seriously?

      Charlie Hebdo had numerous legitimate threats made against it before it was attacked. The attack on Benghazi was no surprise either; a number of threats were registered against it in the weeks prior. Islamic terrorists have been threatening Paris and London basically nonstop for the last twenty years.

      What the hell are you talking about?

      1. Yea, you may be right, some were threatened, some weren’t. What I meant was the direct threat, “we are going to attack….” prior to the actual attack, like, we are going to kill everyone at Charlie Hebdo, We are going take down the WTC. Threats like what they say are being made now that they will burn DC. The threats are implied, just by the radical-ness of the particular religion and those in it. I think a better plan is to openly threaten an area and see what happens, what kind of “precautions” are made to protect that area, how does that affect other areas. A kind of dry run so to speak.

  3. I especially like all the comments making the point that no aggression has been levied upon the US by any refugee, which must mean, the no aggression will ever be implemented upon us by any refugee. But as I type this, it comes to mind that no terrorist willing to engage in mass harm to us is in fact a refugee. He/she is not fleeing aggression, but fleeing to cause aggression. I could say that France has never been attacked by a refugee, they have been attacked by those saying they are, but no real refugee. If you are healthy male between the ages of 17 and 30 and you’re fleeing your country instead of fighting for it, then you probably don’t like your country, you would rather be a citizen of another country, or a coward. Or it could be, that you don’t support the Assad regime, or believe the groups fighting assad are just as bad if not worst. Like if the nazis and japanese were fighting for control of the US during WWII, who would I want to win? The nazis or the japs, neither one, I am outta here.

    1. p: Not everybody knows their family history, but do you happen to know at what ages your immigrant forebears decided to quit their home countries to come here?

      1. I especially like all the comments making the point that no aggression has been levied upon the US by any refugeepronomian, which must mean, the no aggression will ever be implemented upon us by any refugeepronomian.

        I see what you mean, in spite of your funky grammar which marks you as suspicious and in need of further investigation.

        1. Oops! Sorry, RB, wrong “reply” button!

        2. I type with funky gram-mar white boy…. Everyone, sing along….

        3. I probably am under further investigation. I used to make it a point to use certain words that trigger NSA surveillance in my emails and when I used to be on Facebook. Sometimes I’d just post to may FB page a bunch of trigger words for no apparent reason. Still waiting for the denalis to show up, won’t know if I’m on the no fly list until May (As an ex air traffic controller and an instructor at the academy, I’m more worried about these newb controller trainees the FAA keeps passing than I am about terrorists on planes).

      2. No, but when they did they either didn’t like their country, wanted to be a US citizen of were cowards.

  4. What percentage of the refugees will be the darling children you have on this article? How many are young men(I think it is 72%)?

    1. b-m: They would be whatever percentage that U.S. Homeland Security and immigration officials want them to be when taking into consideration their claims to have a well-founded fears of persecution.

      1. What percentage of Syrian refugees are “fighting age” male? Come on Ron, you know what I’m asking. And please don’t tell me they “left their families back in Syria until they get refugee status”, like I’ve seen posted before.

        1. As Matt Welch has noted, you’d expect people fleeing a war zone to include a disproportionate share of military-aged men. But in the U.S., as opposed to Europe, the numbers look like this:

          I searched between March 1, 2011, and Sept. 30, 2015, and found the following stats about the 1,849 admitted refugees during that time period:

          52.5% are male, 47.5% are female

          30% are between the ages of 21 and 40, 42.4% are under 14

          As for the people currently lined up, I have no idea.

      2. F.Y.I. I believe in this country and in legal immigration. But I only want people that believe in the same: this country. I don’t want incentives and hand outs to be given to people that do not want our way of life. Their motivations are from a death cult bent on making the whole world theirs, we can’t close our eyes from reality just to prove how principled we are. For fuck’s sake there was a story of a boat load of refugees where the Muslims threw the Christians overboard!

        1. I only want people that believe in the same

          I find it amazing that anyone claiming to be libertarian would want the government deciding what that sameness is, and what degree of fidelity applies to every person.

          You want these self-same bureaucrats judging your fidelity to the US and whether you get to stay here?

          1. “…judging your fidelity to the US and whether you get to stay here…”

            Scarecrow goes strawman.

            The desperation and dishonesty of the open borders/shall not speak the name radical Islam crowd is at least edifying.

      3. Well founded fears of persecution is the standard?

        Explain this…..-sam-boot/

      4. Such faith you have in our Homeland Security bureaucracy all of a sudden!

  5. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  6. It’s unlikely that there will be any sleeper agents yet (though that may change soon), but there will be plenty who are willing to join in the fun. And there will be plenty of others who will bring their cultural attitudes based on Shariah law. How many Muslims do you want in your neighborhood who believe that blasphemy and apostasy should be punished by death, that women should dress with extreme modesty lest they tempt those Muslims incapable of resisting sexual temptation — and if they don’t, whatever happens (such as rape) is their fault. How many honor killings are you willing to accept? (There was a case a few years back — committed by a Buffalo Muslim who was a big supporter of moderation until his daughter decided to do as she wished instead of as he wished.) How many Rotherhams do you want in America?

  7. Which brings us to the question of whether banning Syrian refugees is all that an effective way to protect Americans against terrorism.

    No, but it is an effective way of protecting Americans against a new generation social justice warriors and recipients of government services.

    1. They are already here.
      Actually a population of people who have faced actual persecution may be helpful to the education of those who think wearing a matador costume on Halloween is a genocidal act.

      1. Actually a population of people who have faced actual persecution may be helpful to the education of those who think wearing a matador costume on Halloween is a genocidal act.

        I doubt most refugees have “faced actual persecution”; they are likely are coming because their homes have been destroyed and their neighborhoods aren’t safe. And many people who have suffered under totalitarian regimes don’t see the problem with big government, they just want government that gives them more stuff for free than their old government gave them.

  8. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  9. Do not let any Muslims into our world and deport all that are here. They are radical about beliefs totally counter to our Democratic and especially “civilized” beliefs. Feel sorry for their children because they will be indoctrinated with the insane beliefs. Google “Noor Almaleki”. That’s one of thousands of instances of their crazy beliefs that played out on our soil, supposedly protected. We have enough of our own nuts to deal with. The question of already grown terrorists infiltrating is a minuscule problem, in comparison.

  10. Can anyone tell em why a refugee from Syria deserves government assistance – but a homeless mentally ill American doesn’t?

  11. Still trying to square a circle, eh, Ron?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.