Nearly one-third of the FBI’s 1,000 active domestic terrorism-related investigations involve individuals who originally came to the United States as refugees, said Attorney General Jeff Sessions, offering a defense of President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning all refugees from entering the United States.
Monday’s roll out of the president’s revised order on travel and refugees came with new claims by administration officials regarding the potential danger that refugees pose to national security. The order pauses all refugee resettlement in the United States for 120 days while the refugee application and adjudication processes are evaluated to determine how they can be strengthened to ensure refugees admitted to the U.S. do not pose as security threats.
“People seeking to support or commit terrorist attacks here will try to enter through our refugee program,” said Mr. Sessions. “Today more than 300 people who came here as refugees are under FBI investigation for potential terrorism-related activities.”
Neither the Justice Department nor the FBI would provide additional details on the 300 individuals who are under investigation — including whether they are believed to have tried to exploit the refugee program to gain entry to the U.S. or are believed to have become radicalized after arriving in the U.S.
But terrorism experts say there is little indication that the U.S. refugee program is being widely exploited by potential terrorists.
“There is no reason to think the refugee program is the Achilles’ heel or the Trojan horse program used to get into the country,” said William Braniff, executive director of the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. “Instead we have seen a lot of visa overstays.”
FBI Director James Comey said in May that of nearly 1,000 active investigations in which agents are attempting to determine whether individuals are radicalized, about 80 percent involved a probe of ties to the Islamic State.
The 300 refugees under FBI investigation include individuals from all over the world, not just those from the six Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — included in Mr. Trump’s travel ban. The 90-day halt of visitors, which suspends travel to the U.S. by citizens and nationals of the six countries who do not already hold valid visas, will take full effect March 16.
To make sense of the refugee figure, Mr. Braniff said it would be helpful to know what percentage of Muslim immigrants are also refugees.
“If the refugee population is 5 percent of the Muslim population and 30 percent of the cases on the FBI’s radar, then there is something is going on there,” he said. “But are they under investigation because they are, in fact, engaged in threatening behavior or are we focusing more energy on refugees?”
The White House did offer two examples of the type of cases it was referring to involving refugees in the executive order. In one case, two Iraqi nationals admitted to the U.S. as refugees in 2009 pleaded guilty in 2013 to providing support to terrorists, namely al Qaeda in Iraq, and plotting to use improvised explosive devices to kill U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
In the second case, a Somali man who had come to the U.S. as a child was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2014 in connection with a plot to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting in Portland, Oregon.
Though the executive order emphasizes the fear that terrorists could exploit the refugee program to get to the U.S. to do harm, a recent Department of Homeland Security intelligence report obtained by MSNBC indicates that most foreign-born, U.S.-based violent extremists radicalize years after they enter the United States — a phenomenon that limits “the ability of screening and vetting officials to prevent their entry because of national security concerns.”
“We base this assessment on our findings that nearly half of the foreign-born, U.S.-based violent extremists examined in our data set were less than 16 years old when they entered the country and that the majority of foreign-born individuals resided in the United States for more than 10 years before their indictment or death,” the report states.