Tomorrow, President Trump is expected to sign an executive order enacting a 30-day suspension of all visas for nationals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015. Six Iranians, six Sudanese, two Somalis, two Iraqis, and one Yemini have been convicted of attempting or carrying out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Zero Libyans or Syrians have been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during that time period.
Many other foreigners have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses that did not include planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. One list released by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) details 580 terror-related convictions since 9/11. This incomplete list probably influenced which countries are temporarily banned, and likely provided justification for another section of Trump’s executive order, which directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release all information on foreign-born terrorists going forward, and requires additional DHS reports to study foreign-born terrorism.
I exhaustively evaluated Senator Sessions’ list of convictions based on publicly available data and discovered some startling details.
First, 241 of the convictions (42 percent) were not for terrorism offenses. Senator Sessions puffed his numbers by including "terrorism-related convictions," a nebulous category that includes investigations that begin due to a terrorism tip but then end in non-terrorism convictions. My favorite examples of this are the convictions of Nasser Abuali, Hussein Abuali, and Rabi Ahmed. An informant told the FBI that the trio tried to purchase a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, but the FBI found no evidence supporting the accusation. The three individuals were instead convicted of receiving two truckloads of stolen cereal. That is a crime but it is not terrorism.
Second, only 40 of the 580 convictions (6.9 percent) were for foreigners planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Seeking to join a foreign terrorist group overseas, material support for a foreign terrorist, and seeking to commit an act of terror on foreign soil account for 180 of the 580 convictions (31 percent). Terrorism on foreign soil is a crime, should be a crime, and those convicted of these offenses should be punished severely but the government cannot claim that these convictions made America safe again because these folks were not targeting U.S. soil.
Third, 92 of the 580 convictions (16 percent) were for U.S. born citizens. No change in immigration law, visa limitations, or more rigorous security checks would have stopped them.
The executive order includes national security exemptions to be made on a case-by-case basis. The President reserves the option to ban the entry of nationals from additional countries in the future based on a national security risk report written by DHS. Furthermore, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security can recommend visa bans for nationals from additional countries at any time.
In addition to the visa restrictions above, Trump’s executive order further cuts the refugee program to 50,000 annually, indefinitely blocks all refugees from Syria, and suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days. This is a response to a phantom menace. From 1975 to the end of 2015, 20 refugees have been convicted of attempting or committing terrorism on U.S. soil, and only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees—all in the 1970s. Zero Americans have been killed by Syrian refugees in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The annual chance of an American dying in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is one in 3.6 billion. The other 17 convictions have mainly been for aiding or attempting to join foreign terrorists.
President Trump tweeted earlier this week that executive orders were intended to improve national security by reducing the terrorist threat. However, a rational evaluation of national security threats is not the basis for Trump’s orders, as the risk is fairly small but the cost is great. The measures taken here will have virtually no effect on improving U.S. national security.