Tag: terrorism

Little National Security Benefit to Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

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.

Trump Towers or Trump Targets?

Donald Trump’s election ushers in a new challenge for homeland security and counterterrorism both at home and abroad. Trump owns, has a stake in, or has lent his name to scores of properties all over the United States and the world. A terrorist could decide to target a Trump Tower in Stuttgart, a Trump hotel in South Korea, or a Trump golf resort in Dubai. A terrorist might even decide to target the famous carousel in Central Park, which Trump also owns. The attraction to the terrorist is obvious: Trump’s hotels, resorts, and condominiums are vulnerable “soft targets,” without any of the serious security measures surrounding American embassies or other government buildings. Even better, most of these targets have the president’s name on them in huge letters. Clearly the symbolic damage of such an attack would be immense.

What is not clear, however, is just how great a threat this exposure represents and how the United States should deal with it.

A quick look at the list of Trump’s properties reveals that several of them are located in countries with significant serious civil unrest and instability. Trump Tower in Istanbul, for example, probably seemed like a pretty safe bet five or ten years ago as Turkey was working towards membership of the European Union. But today, thanks to spillover from the Syrian civil war, the failed military coup, and the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, the neighborhood seems much less secure than it used to.

Trump properties in Muslim-majority nations may present the greatest risk of attack, given Trump’s hardline rhetoric towards the Islamic State and towards Muslims and Islam more generally. Trump Tower Manila, for example, sits within easy striking distance of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and has a history of bombing attacks. Trump also owns high-visibility properties in Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, and India, all of which house one or more jihadist groups. Even Trump Tower in Seoul might not be safe: ISIS has recently labeled South Korea an enemy of the caliphate, attempting to incite attacks on U.S. installations in South Korea. In all of these locales, Trump Towers might prove to be an irresistible target.

Trump’s properties clearly present a new kind of Achilles heel for the United States, but what exactly should be done about the potential threat? One position might be to argue that the United States should do nothing. After all, the United States government bears no legal responsibility for providing security at these private establishments. But practically speaking it seems obvious that a major terrorist attack on one of Trump’s towers would have political and security implications that go well beyond the legal question. Attacks on American embassies from Tehran to Benghazi, for example, have always provoked anger and support for retaliation among U.S. citizens. Aware of the symbolism of an attack on a Trump Tower, Americans would likely feel similarly, putting pressure on the U.S. government to respond.

Perhaps one of the most critical aspects to consider along these lines is the reaction of the president himself. How would Trump respond if Trump Tower in Istanbul went up in smoke, killing hundreds of people? From everything we have seen since he began his presidential campaign, it seems likely that Trump would take such an act extremely personally. And given his hawkish rhetoric about dealing with terrorism, it is possible that Trump would respond emotionally, using his executive authority to take extreme measures beyond those dictated by a cool calculation of costs and benefits. Unfortunately, not only might such a response be dangerous and counterproductive for the United States, it might also play right into the hands of terrorists seeking to provoke just such an overreaction.

A second possibility is for Trump to divest from his private holdings and to begin to take the necessary steps to rename his associated properties. This would have the benefit of dramatically reducing the symbolic value of the properties as targets while simultaneously reducing the potential emotional impact on Trump himself. An attack on a hotel that “used” to bear Trump’s name is less likely to offend his ego and to provoke him to an overreaction.

If Trump is unwilling to do this, then he must come up with an alternative plan to ensure that his privately-owned properties and those bearing his name do not expose him to potential blackmail or provocation once he becomes president. Unfortunately, Trump’s reluctance to divest from his businesses, or even to acknowledge the potential for conflicts of interest, strongly suggests that he will not come up with such a plan, or even admit that such a plan is necessary. If so, Trump will be choosing to leave the United States vulnerable on a new front in the battle against terrorism.

Delete NSEERS Before Trump Takes Office

This week Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and Trump transition team adviser, told Reuters that Trump’s team had discussed his plan to restore a registry of immigrants from predominantly Arab and Muslim counties. The registry, which was part of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), operated from 2002 until 2011. The Obama administration suspended it, citing efficiency issues. Although NSEERS was suspended it could very easily be resuscitated and made worse. This is by design. A 2012 Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) report reveals that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rejected a recommendation to terminate the NSEERS program, saying that the system would allow DHS to register “a category of aliens” in the future.

In the wake of 9/11 the Department of Justice (DOJ) built NSEERS. DHS took control of the program after it was established in 2003. Under NSEERS, nonimmigrant aliens from 25 countries were fingerprinted, interviewed, photographed, and required to check in with officials at regular intervals. Twenty-four of these 25 countries were majority-Arab and Muslim (North Korea was the other country).

Although in place for almost a decade, NSEERS was ineffective as an anti-terrorism tool. Because of the inscrutable rules associated with NSEERS, thousands of men and boys were deported while the system was up and running.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that in February 2012 a DHS OIG report found that, “The NSEERS program for special registration of certain categories of aliens from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries, and the database that supports this program, is obsolete and should be terminated.”

The Terrorism Risk of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees: The Minnesota, New York, and New Jersey Terrorist Attacks

News stories are now suggesting that the Minnesota stabber Dahir Adan entered the United States as a Somali refugee when he was 2 years old.  Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspected bomber in New York and New Jersey, entered as an Afghan asylum-seeker with his parents when he was 7 years old.  The asylum and refugee systems are the bedrocks of the humanitarian immigration system and they are under intense scrutiny already because of fears over Syrian refugees.    

The vetting procedure for refugees, especially Syrians, is necessarily intense because they are overseas while they are being processed.  The security protocols have been updated and expanded for them.  This security screening should be intense.  The process for vetting asylum-seekers, who show up at American ports of entry and ask for asylum based on numerous criteria, is different.  Regardless, no vetting system will prevent or detect child asylum-seekers or child refugees from growing up and becoming terrorists any more than a child screening program for U.S.-born children will be able to prevent or detect those among us will grow up to be a terrorist. 

Adan and Rahami didn’t manage to murder anyone due to their incompetence, poor planning, potential mental health issues, luck, armed Americans, and the quick responses by law enforcement.  Regardless, some may want to stop all refugees and asylum seekers unless they are 100 percent guaranteed not to be terrorists or to ever become terrorists.  Others are more explicit in their calls for a moratorium on all immigration due to terrorism.  These folks should know that the precautionary principle is an inappropriate standard for virtually every area of public policy, even refugee screening.   

Have Terrorists Illegally Crossed the Border?

Yesterday, Cato published my policy analysis entitled “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis” where I, among other things, attempt to quantify the terrorist threat from immigrants by visa category. 

One of the best questions I received about it came from Daniel Griswold, the Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director of the Program on the American Economy and Globalization at the Mercatus Center. Full disclosure: Dan used to run Cato’s immigration and trade department and he’s been a mentor to me. Dan asked me how many of the ten illegal immigrant terrorists I identified crossed the Mexican border?

I didn’t have a good answer for Dan yesterday but now I do. 

Of the ten terrorists who entered the country illegally, three did so across the border with Mexico. Shain Duka, Britan Duka, and Eljvir Duka are ethnic Albanians from Macedonia who illegally crossed the border with Mexico as children with their parents in 1984. They were three conspirators in the incompetently planned Fort Dix plot that was foiled by the FBI in 2007, long after they became adults. They became terrorists at some point after immigrating here illegally. Nobody was killed in their failed attack.

Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, Ahmed Ressam, and Ahmed Ajaj entered illegally or tried to do so along the Canadian border. Ajaj participated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, so I counted him as responsible for one murder in a terrorist attack. Abdel Hakim Tizegha and Abdelghani Meskini both entered illegally as stowaways on a ship from Algeria. Shahawar Matin Siraj and Patrick Abraham entered as illegal immigrants but it’s unclear where or how they did so.

Based on this history, it’s fair to say that the risk of terrorists crossing the Southwest border illegally is minuscule.

Terrorism News and the 9/11 Anniversary Effect

Terrorism, I have argued previously, has hijacked much of the American foreign policy debate. Regardless of whether we are discussing Iraq, Iran, Libya, Russia, or nuclear weapons, it seems we are really talking about terrorism. But although it feels like we talk about terrorism nonstop these days, we actually talk about it a lot less than we did right after 9/11.

As Figure One shows, the news media’s attention to terrorism declined steadily through 2012. The Syrian civil war and then the emergence of the Islamic State reversed the trend. But even so there were almost 40% fewer news stories mentioning the words “terror” or “terrorism” in 2015 compared to the peak in 2002. 

 Chart of Terrorism News Trend

Of course, the one time every year when we can guarantee seeing plenty of news about terrorism is around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Figure Two compares the daily average coverage of terrorism each year to the number of stories published on September 11. We can think of the difference between the coverage on 9/11 and the daily average as the “anniversary attention effect.” The biggest anniversary effect came in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, when the major U.S. newspapers printed almost six times more articles mentioning terrorism than the daily average. The smallest anniversary effect came in 2015 when the effect only boosted coverage of terrorism by about a third. Though the trend is a bit noisy, over time it is clear that the anniversary effect is shrinking. From 2002 through 2006, anniversary coverage was an average of 2.37 times higher than the daily average, but over the last five years from 2012–2016 anniversary coverage has averaged just 1.88 times higher.

9/11 Anniversary Effect on Terrorism News

The shrinking anniversary attention effect suggests that the resonance of 9/11 may be waning as the attacks recede into history. Of course, we should not be too hasty to conclude that public fears of terrorism are also fading. As John Mueller has written here (and in greater detail here), Americans have harbored a healthy level of fear of future terrorist attacks ever since 9/11. But given how hyperbolic and utterly divorced from reality much of the terrorism rhetoric has been this election cycle, we can only hope that 9/11 is beginning to lose some of its symbolic power. Though it is important to honor friends and family we have lost to terrorism, we cannot let emotion dictate foreign policy. 

Immigration and Terrorism

Cato published a paper of mine today entitled “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis.”  I began this paper shortly after the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December last year when it became clear that few had attempted a terrorism risk analysis of immigration in general, let alone focusing on individual visa categories.  There were few studies on the immigration status of terrorists and the vast majority of them were qualitative rather than quantitative.  Inspired by the brilliant work of John Mueller and Mark Stewart, I decided to make my own.  

From 1975 through the end of 2015, 154 foreign-born terrorists murdered 3024 people on U.S. soil.  During that same time period, over 1.14 billion foreigners entered the United States legally or illegally.  About 7.4 million foreigners entered the United States for each one who ended up being a terrorist.  Startlingly, 98.6 percent of those 3024 victims were murdered on 9/11 (I did not count the terrorists as victims, obviously).  However, not every terrorist is successful.  Only 40 of those 154 foreign-born terrorists actually ended up killing anyone on U.S. soil.    

Immigrants frequently enter the United States on one visa and adjust their status to another.  Many tourists and other non-immigrants frequently enter legally and then fall out of status and become illegal immigrants.  I focused on the visas foreigners used to enter the United States because applications for that visa are when security screenings are initially performed.