Refugees and the Risk of 'Sleeper' Terrorists
Grandstanding politicians fan fear, but don't know what they are talking about
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."