President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order on Thursday temporarily blocking people from several countries from entering the US on visas. The list of countries reportedly includes Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — all Muslim-majority countries.
Trump peddled this policy throughout the campaign, arguing that it would protect American people from the threat of terrorism.
If he does end up only banning people from those seven specific countries (and to be clear, we don’t yet know for sure what he’s actually going to do), the move wouldn’t necessarily make the US any safer. But it would show that the new president is serious about putting the Islamophobia that was a central part of his campaign into practice.
That’s because none of the perpetrators of the major US terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam in the past 15 years have come from the nations on that list. In fact, the country home to the biggest number of terrorists who have carried out successful attacks inside the US is the US itself.
Trump picked the wrong countries
Set aside the question of whether imposing blanket bans on entire countries’ populations because of the actions of a few evil individuals is justified either morally or on human rights grounds. The bigger problem is that it also isn’t likely to do much to reduce the terrorism threat.
The San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people was carried out by an American-born US citizen of Pakistani descent and a lawful permanent US resident of Pakistani descent. The Orlando nightclub shooter who murdered 49 people was an American-born US citizen of Afghan descent. The Boston marathon bombers, who identified as ethnic Chechen, came to the US from Kyrgyzstan and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before carrying out attacks that left three dead. The militant who killed four Marines during a shooting spree in Tennessee was a Kuwaiti-born US citizen whose parents were Palestinian and Jordanian.
Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber, was Pakistani-American. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the infamous “underwear bomber,” was Nigerian. Richard Reid, whose 2001 attempt to blow up an airplane with explosives hidden in his shoes is the reason we still have to stand barefoot in the TSA line more than 15 years later, was born in the UK to a white English mother and a mixed-race Jamaican immigrant father. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009, was born in Virginia to Palestinian parents.
And the 9/11 hijackers? Fifteen were from Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Lebanon, and one was Egyptian. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, and his top deputies — including the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were Egyptian.
Literally not a single one of those countries is on Trump’s list, and the ones that do show up repeatedly — especially Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt — aren’t on the list.
Including Iran makes even less sense. The Iranians are most definitely one of the largest state sponsors of terrorism, but they prefer to arm and train Arabs in places like Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen to do their work for them. The only terrorist attack an Iranian has tried to carry out in the US was a bizarre foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador as he dined at an upscale restaurant in Washington, DC, in 2011.
There was one terror attack in Minnesota in 2016 carried out by a 20-year-old Somali immigrant, in which 10 people were injured (but no one died). And a few Somali Americans have in recent years been arrested and prosecuted for attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS, but even then, they wanted to leave the US to commit terror attacks, not carry them out here.
And as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written, the average likelihood of an American being killed in a terrorist attack in which an immigrant participated in any given year is one in 3.6 million — even including the 9/11 deaths. The average American is more likely to die from their own clothing or a toddler with a gun than an immigrant terrorist. But we’re not banning guns and T-shirts from coming into the country.
Some of the countries on the list are terrorism hot spots — but the terrorists there aren’t the ones carrying out the attacks in the US
Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya are all embroiled in bloody civil wars and overflowing with jihadists affiliated with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other groups. Some of those groups very much want to attack the United States.
And it’s definitely possible that ISIS could send an American who’d flown to Iraq to fight back to the US to carry out a domestic attack. The US government estimates that, as of March 2015, at least 250 Americans had either joined or attempted to join ISIS overseas.
But the primary threat to Americans emanating from those places is not really from the fighters themselves who are on the ground — because most of them are too busy fighting in those local civil wars. The leaders are there, but as with most things in life, the leaders rarely if ever do the dirty work themselves. Rather, the threat comes primarily from their propaganda, which they use to spread their ideology and radicalize young men already living in the West. The FBI says that as of September 2016, approximately 1,000 “potential homegrown violent extremists” were under surveillance across all 50 states.
Why? Because it’s a whole lot easier that way.
If you’re Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, why would you take a local Iraqi fighter who is currently defending your makeshift caliphate in Iraq and send him halfway around the world to try to sneak into the United States, acquire weapons in a country where he doesn’t even speak the language, and carry out an attack — all without being caught — when you could just pump out some propaganda and inspire an American to grab a gun and go shoot up the local mall?
Indeed, the Obama administration’s extraordinary decision to kill Anwar al-Awlaki — a US citizen living in Yemen who was al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s top English-language propagandist — in a drone strike in 2011 shows just how seriously the US takes the threat of online terrorist propaganda. A number of terrorists who have launched attacks in the US — including the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino shooters — were inspired by Awlaki’s propaganda.
But the bottom line is that adopting extremist views and committing horrendous acts of violence in the name of some “righteous” cause, be it religion or politics or just plain old hatred, isn’t something that only Muslims, or Arabs, or immigrants do; between 2001 and 2015, more Americans were killed by homegrown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists. Banning people from a few Muslim-majority nations won’t reduce the terror threat. And it definitely won’t eliminate it.