The United States’ plans to admit 10,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war into the country has become the center of a major political controversy. The controversy began in the aftermath of the November 13 attacks in Paris by operatives of the Syria-based terrorist group ISIS that killed 130 people. The possibility that one of the attackers gained entrance to Europe posing as a Syrian refugee has provoked fears that Syrian refugees admitted to the United States may include ISIS agents ready to repeat the Paris attacks on American soil. Concern over this threat has prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill prohibiting Syrian and Iraqi refugees entrance to the United States, while governors of 31 American states have declared that they will not allow Syrian refugees into their states (1).
While fear over a possible repetition of the Paris attacks is understandable, such fear should not prevent American policymakers from welcoming those fleeing the Syrian war and providing them with a safe haven. The risk of terrorists posing as refugees is certainly real but is also relatively improbable. As contemporary history shows, terrorists have a multitude of ways of entering the United States to carry out attacks, of which pretending to be a refugee is one of the most difficult and least efficient. Terrorists infiltrating under the guise of refugees is among the less likely scenarios for attacks such as that in Paris. Barring refugees from entering the United States will not make the country significantly more protected from attack. It will, however, prevent the vast majority of Syrian refugees who are not terrorists from receiving the help they need.
To appreciate the improbability of terrorists posing as refugees, consider what is required to be admitted to the United States as a refugee. Refugees must go through an initial screening process usually administered by officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a process that involves interviews, background checks, fingerprinting, and retinal scans. If refugees pass this rigorous UN process and are referred to the United States, American authorities conduct another round of screening, involving the Department of Homeland Security and other security agencies, before the refugees are admitted to the country. The entire process, from initial screening to final entry to the United States, may take a year, two years, or even three (2).
Having to run such a bureaucratic gauntlet not only makes it more likely that terrorists or suspected terrorists will be identified, but also makes pretending to be a refugee an unappealing option for terrorists seeking to enter the United States. Being admitted as a refugee takes a long time and involves being the subject of considerable scrutiny that must be laboriously evaded.
A shrewd terrorist would seek entrance to the United States by simply coming here as a tourist or business traveler. Such an approach requires merely applying for a visa, which involves an interview and background check but takes at most a few months, sometimes far less.
Terrorists can also sneak into the United States illegally. For example, Canada has agreed to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees and has already welcomed about 1,000 into the country (3). If, as feared, agents of ISIS are hidden among them, these agents could slip across the border into the United States. American rejection of refugees entering the United States legally will not prevent this scenario, although it will prevent many innocent people from coming here.
Terrorists can get to the United States by a third method: by being born here or coming here as immigrants only later to be radicalized and embrace terrorist groups such as ISIS or al Qaeda. Blocking refugees from Syria or elsewhere cannot protect against this danger either.
This does not mean terrorists never enter the United States disguised as refugees. Two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky have been convicted of trying to send weapons to insurgents in Iraq, while an Uzbek refugee has been convicted of trying to send weapons to terrorists in Uzbekistan. Some other refugees have been arrested or deported on terrorism-related grounds, as well. The risk of terrorist infiltration is a real one (4).
Nevertheless, the refugees charged or convicted of terrorism are only a tiny handful of the roughly 750,000 refugees admitted to the United States since September 11, 2001 (5). A review of recent terrorist attacks on American soil by Islamist extremists show the various alternative origins of such fanatics:
• Of the 19 men who hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001, all entered the country on visas of one type or another (tourist, business, or student). None were admitted as refugees (6).
• Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, killed 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009. Far from being a refugee or even an immigrant, Hasan was born in Virginia and had been in the US army since the 1990s (7).
• Three men, Najibullah Zazi, Adis Medunjanin, and Zarein Ahmedzay, conspired to detonate bombs on the New York City subway during rush hour in September 2009. The men were all immigrants—Zazi and Ahmedzay are Afghans, while Medunjanin is Bosnian. They had all come to the United States in early adolescence, though, their ages at immigration ranging from around 10 to around 16. While their families might have had refugee status—Bosnia was in the midst of a civil war when Medunjanin came to the United States—the three men presumably had not been covert terrorist operatives when they were admitted to this country. Only much later did the three conspirators become radicalized and join al Qaeda (8).
• Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a native of Nigeria, attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. He was able to board the flight to the United States on a tourist visa (9).
• Faisal Shahzad attempted to blow up a car full of explosives in New York City’s Times Square in May 2010. A native of Pakistan, Shahzad had come to the United States on a student visa more than 10 years earlier and had received a bachelor’s and master’s degree, married a native-born American, and become an American citizen before carrying out this terrorist plot (10).
• Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev set off bombs at the Boston Marathon in April 2013, killing three and wounding more than 200, and later were responsible for killing a police officer. The two brothers were the children of ethnic Chechens who had a kind of refugee status: the parents had come to the United States in 2002 as tourists and subsequently been granted asylum. Tamerlan had been only about 15 and Dzhokhar about 8 years old at the time, however: like the New York subway plotters, their radicalization came after they arrived here (11).
• Husband and wife Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in a shooting rampage at an office holiday party in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015. Farook was born in Illinois and grew up in Riverside, California. Malik was from Pakistan and came to the United States in July 2014 on a visa as Farook’s fiancée (12).
Barring refugees from the United States would not prevent terrorists from entering the United States as tourists, businesspeople, or non-refugee immigrants. Nor would it prevent native-born Americans from becoming radicalized and joining terrorist groups. Nor would it prevent terrorists from entering the country illegally.