UK Attacks and US Fear

Our thoughts are with the UK and London in particular after yesterday’s attacks, which represented the third major incident this year.

Despite the tragedy, it is important to rationally reflect on what has transpired, and to avoid baseless fear-mongering.

In the aftermath of this most recent attack we have seen many people, including figures of prominence, advocating for the US Immigration “Ban” to protect us from similar attacks. Our own Department of Homeland Security, Intelligence Community, and law enforcement agencies have made it clear that there are no known credible threats to the US at this time, and it is premature to blame the attacks on the UK on immigrants. (Not confirmed at the time of this writing one way or another, to my knowledge.)

If it turns out that these were immigrants, that does not mean that the threat in the US is the same. Our immigration policies differ greatly from UK and other European policies, and there is no data to support the notion that immigrants of any kind pose a significant or disproportionate threat to anyone in the US. We’ve discussed this before, so here are some relevant excerpts from previous writing.

With respect to claims underpinning the updated travel ban we wrote:

… [T]he premise that immigrants from these specific countries pose an increased national security threat as compared to citizens immigrants from other countries is not supported by facts. The administration’s claim that the ban targeting these countries is an extension of Obama-era policy is misleading, at best. There was a 2015 bill that restricted visa waiver eligibility for dual citizens or recent visitors of most of these countries due to the threat level, but did not bar admission. The restriction amounted to requiring an interview; a reasonable precaution given that some recent high-profile terror attacks of significance in Europe were carried out by people with dual citizen status. As for terror attacks in the US, a little over half have been planned, attempted and/or executed by US citizens, according to DHS as reported by AP. Business Insider reported that the odds of being killed in a terror attack committed by a foreigner either in the US or abroad is approximately 1 in 45,000, and 1 in over 46 million if your narrow the scope to refugees. The original travel ban was quickly hailed in extremist propaganda and social media for its utility in showing potential recruits that the US and the west in general is anti-Islam, as reported by CNN and other outlets. So not only does the ban not improve national security, it may actually be putting people at greater risk abroad and serve as a tool for radicalization within the US.

We also wrote on that same topic:

Trump… perceived Syrian immigrants – and all Muslim immigrants – [to be] terrorism risks. This concern is wholly unfounded. The overwhelming majority of terrorist activity in in paces such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Nigeria according to the most recent Global Terrorism Index. The odds of being injured or killed by a refugee of any kind in ridiculously minuscule, and to date I am unaware of any confirmed instances of a Syrian refugee brought in due to the current crisis being involved in any manner of terrorism. I have been particularly appalled by the continued lies by Donald Trump with regard to the vetting process for Syrian refugees specifically, in fact claiming that there is no process. (The new administration is clearly planning to perpetuate this fallacy, based on the press secretary’s statement that they “would work on the vetting process” once the new Secretary of State is confirmed.) Having worked with USICS, I can assure you all that there is a thorough vetting process, and that there is wide latitude for refusing entry. Considering that there are about 4.8 million externally displaced and 6.6 million internally displaced Syrian refugees and that our plans have been to admit them in the tens of thousands, it is intuitively obvious that we are being selective.

In discussing the original travel ban we addressed the claim that our systems in the past had issues:

It’s true that there was a major failing with regard to the individuals involved in the 11 September 2001 terror attacks here in the US, as identified by the 9-11 Commission. The problems stemmed from inability to identify fraudulent documents to a lack of follow up when individuals violated the terms of their visas (such as enrolling in flight school while on a tourist visa) or overstayed their visas. Since then, there have been both policy modifications and technological innovations that make the visa process more secure. Since the September 11 attacks, there have been no major terror incidents remotely approaching the magnitude of what transpired that day. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of thwarted and executed attacks have been due to radicalization that took place while the culprit was in the US, as opposed to entering with a clear intent to do harm.

We also provided a vignette related to deliberate misinterpretation of data, and the implication that our agencies are not suitably vigilant to protect us against potential threats:

It is factual that “numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001.” It is also true that numerous native-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001. Neither of these statements provides a proper context for assessing a potential threat.

In the not too distant past I performed analytical work (among other duties) for the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). One of my functions was to critically evaluate analytical products from the field. A memorable product (provided at the unclassified level) attempted to identify programs most associated with Homegrown Violent Extremism (HVE). There is an obvious problem with the premise; in an HVE case the subject becomes radicalized while in the US. That being the case, the method of entry is immaterial in and of itself.

The analyst further provided data points to support the analytical conclusion, which is a good thing to do when trying to convince senior leadership that there is a particular threat from a specific program. The fist data point had to do with instances of HVE over a period of time. The data was sourced to “think-tanks” – specifically the Heritage Foundation and New America – and since I can no longer access DHS data I will defer to the numbers cited and assume their relative accuracy. From September 2001 to December 2014 the number of US-based individual implicated in terrorism was 260. Of that 260, 54% -or about 140 – were US citizens at birth. That only leaves 120 foreign-born individuals over that 13-year period involved in either the plotting or execution of a terror attack.

I do not have data on the total number of immigrants and non-immigrant entries during that period. For the purpose of my rebuttal to the analysis, I focused on refugees. (This was the group that had the largest number of terror offenders for the period covered.) During the period from January 2002 to December 2014 there were 714,457 refugees admitted. During the period from September 2002 to December 2014 there were 41 refugees involved in planning or carrying out terror attacks. Obviously the two periods do not perfectly align, but they are close enough to make the point about statistical likelihood of radicalization. Running these number as they are – not accounting for the fact that the periods are slightly out of sync and that those involved in terror attacks may not have immigrated during the specific period in question – we find that 0.0057% or 1 out of every 17,426 refugees became radicalized after that fact. This is inconsistent with a presentation of a rampant problem.

The notion of vigilance in issuing visas or granting immigration benefits is itself reasonable. The implication that the US offices charged with issuing visas and granting immigration benefits are not vigilant is inaccurate, as is the direct statement that “[d]eteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States.” Terrorists may look for opportunities based on deteriorating conditions, but analysis suggests that they are unlikely to focus their efforts on infiltrating systems with long wait times and low probabilities of success.

So while we are thinking, praying, or actively providing support to the people of London, let’s be sure we revisit factual information before advocating excluding hundreds of thousands of people that mean us no harm from legally entering our country.