What the Data Really Show About Terrorists Who “Came Here,” Part II: A Country-by-Country Analysis

By Nora Ellingsen, Lisa Daniels
Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 10:30 AM

In Part I of this series, we laid out what Justice Department data really show about how many foreign-born vs. domestic-born individuals have been convicted of crimes related to international terrorism in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. But as we noted at the end of that post, the data do not suggest that the problem of terrorism in the United States is chiefly one of foreigners entering the country; they also raise serious questions about whether the six countries covered by the revised executive order are really the core of whatever problem may exist. In this post, we explore that question.

Before we turn to that subject, however, it’s important to take a moment to explain that not all of these defendants are quite what one thinks of when one thinks of “terrorists.”

To wit, exactly one of the 43 persons from the six listed countries was convicted for plotting violence on U.S. soil. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Somalia tried to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Oregon with a (inert) device supplied by undercover federal agents.

Another individual from Somalia who entered the U.S. as a refugee told agents that he had proposed a plot to bomb a shopping mall in Columbus, Ohio. But the man, Nuradin M. Abdi, was neither charged nor convicted of that conduct.

All 41 others were convicted of conduct that had some external trajectory: namely, they were accused of funding, training with or fighting on behalf of terrorist organizations overseas. The numbers here emphasize a point one of us has made before: that the United States is actually running a trade surplus, not a deficit, in terrorists. We are a net exporter.

Keep this in mind as you read what follows: a country-by-country assessment of the six countries covered by the executive order using the cases within the dataset. We start with the countries that actually have sent the United States substantial numbers of people eventually charged with terrorist-related crimes. But note that these are not, by and large, situations in which people entered the United States plotting to do harm domestically. They are overwhelmingly situations in which people entered the United States and then committed crimes here in support of overseas activity.

Somalia (19 persons)

Eight Somali persons’ conduct involved sending funds overseas in support of terrorist organizations. In 2015, Abdinassir Mohamud Ibrahim (1) pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to al-Shabab and making false statements in an application for naturalization; Ibrahim entered the U.S. as a refugee. Ibrahim sent emails soliciting supporting for the terrorist organization and made a cash payment to one of its members. In 2013, Basaaly Saeed Moalin (2) and Ahmed Nasir Taalil Mohamud (3), both cab drivers, along with Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud (4), an imam, and Issa Doreh (5), who worked at a money transmitting business, conspired to raise money for the terrorist organization and send it to Somalia. All but Mohamud the imam are naturalized U.S. citizens.

In 2012, Nima Ali Yusuf (6), a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Shabab. She sent $1,450 to men fighting in Somalia for the group and lied to agents about doing so. Mohamud Abdi Yusuf (7) pleaded guilty in 2011 to providing material support to al-Shabab. Yusuf solicited and transferred money to al-Shabab members in Somalia. Yusuf entered the U.S. as a refugee. Omar Abdi Mohamed (8), a lawful permanent resident who entered the U.S. as a refugee, was acquitted of material-support charges but convicted of immigration offenses.

Three individuals were convicted of offenses related to planned or past activity overseas fighting or training with terrorist organizations. In 2015, Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman (9) pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to ISIL. Abdurahman, a naturalized U.S. citizen, planned to travel to Syria to join and fight with the group. In 2009, Mohammed Abdullah Warsame (10) pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaeda. Warsame attended an al-Qaeda training camp near Kabul in 2000 and met Osama bin Laden at another training camp, al Faruq. In the U.S., Warsame kept up email contact with persons associated with al-Qaeda. Warsame is a naturalized Canadian citizen and U.S. lawful permanent resident. In 2007, Nuradin M. Abdi (11) pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. Abdi had planned to travel to Ethiopia to receive training in preparation for violent jihad. According to a press release issued at the time of his indictment, Abdi and co-conspirators plotted “to blow up a Columbus area shopping mall.” Abdi entered the U.S. as a refugee.

Six persons’ convictions stemmed from “Operation Rhino,” an FBI investigation into a recruiting pipeline of Somali men from the Twin Cities to Somalia. In 2013, two women, Amina Farah Ali (12) and Hawo Hassan (13), were convicted of conspiring to provide material support to al-Shabab and making false statements to federal agents. Ali and Hassan solicited donations for charity and sent that money—more than $8,600—to al-Shabab. Both are naturalized U.S. citizens. In 2011, Omer Abdi Mohamed (14), a naturalized U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to co-conspirators who intended to murder, maim, or kidnap Ethiopian and Somali government troops. Mohamed helped Minneapolis men travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab. Abdow Munye Abdow (15) pleaded guilty in 2010 to obstructing an FBI and grand jury investigation into the recruitment of men to train and fight for al-Shabab. Abdow is a naturalized U.S. citizen. In 2009 Abdifatah Yusuf Isse (16) and Salah Osman Ahmed (17) each pleaded guilty to one count of providing material support to al-Shabab. Both participated in fundraising efforts in the U.S. to benefit al-Shabab and later traveled to Somalia to train with the terrorist group. Ahmed is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Also in 2009 and also a naturalized U.S. citizen, Kamal Said Hassan (18) pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to al-Shabab and making false statements to the FBI. Hassan traveled to an al-Shabab training camp in Somalia and participated in an ambush of Ethiopian soldiers. He later lied to the FBI about that conduct.

Only one person, Mohamed Osman Mohamud (19), had plotted to commit violence on U.S. soil. In 2013, Mohamud was convicted of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Mohamud tried to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Oregon with a (inert) device supplied by undercover federal agents. Mohamud is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Yemen (15 persons)

Twelve Yemenis’ conduct involved providing and sending funds overseas. Mohamed Al Huraibi (1), Yehia Ali Ahmed Alomari (2) and Saleh Mohamed Taher Saeed (3), all Yemeni citizens, were convicted of money laundering in 2009. According to reports, the men sent $200,000 of illegally obtained funds overseas. In 2006, Mohamed Albanna (4), a naturalized U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty to operating an unlawful money-transmitting business (18 USC 1960). The conduct involved sending more than $3 million from New York to Yemen. Saleh Alli Nasser (5), Monasser Omian (6), Sadik Omian (7) and Jarallah Wasil (8) also pleaded guilty in 2006 to operating an unlicensed money-remitting business and sending more than $9 million to Yemen. All but Nasser are naturalized U.S. citizens. In 2005, Abad Elfgeeh (9) and his nephew, Aref (10), were convicted of operating an unlicensed money-remitting business, sending more than $20 million to 20 different countries. Abad Elfgeeh is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Numan Maflahi (11) was convicted in 2004 of making false statements to federal agents. Maflahi was the driver for Sheik Abdullah Satar, a former member of the Yemeni parliament with fundraising ties to al-Qaeda. Maflahi denied helping Satar raise funds. Maflahi is a naturalized U.S. citizen. And Ahmed Aref (12) was convicted in 2004 of conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with tobacco smuggling. Prosecutors believed Aref helped fund travel for the Lackawanna Six.

Three persons were convicted of conduct connected to recruitment, overseas training and fighting. Mufid Elfgeeh (13), a naturalized U.S. citizen, was convicted of providing material support to ISIL. He recruited two individuals to travel to Syria and fight on behalf of ISIL. These individuals were cooperating with the FBI at the time. In 2004, Ibrahim Ahmed Al-Hamdi (14) pleaded guilty to firearm and weapons charges. Al-Hamdi trained at a Lashkar-e-Taiba camp in furtherance of a conspiracy to conduct military operations against India. And in 2003, Mukhtar al-Bakri (15), part of the Lackawanna Six, pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Qaeda. Al-Bakri traveled to an al-Qaeda training camp near Kandahar where he received weapons training and met Osama bin Laden. Al-Bakri is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Syria (3 persons)

Of the Syria-born persons, two were involved in fundraising activity and one was involved in overseas fighting. Mohamed Saeed Kodaimati (1), a naturalized U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty in 2015 to making false statements to federal agents. Kodaimati traveled in 2012 to Syria, where he participated in fighting against the Syrian regime and had contact with al-Nusrah. He lied about this activity during an interview with the FBI and State Department officials at the U.S. embassy in Turkey. Mohamed Mustapha Ali Masfaka (2) pleaded guilty in 2010 to making false statements under oath in a naturalization proceeding. Masfaka lied to federal officials about his involvement with the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), which provided support to Hamas. He was also ordered to be deported to Syria. And Enaam Arnaout (3) pleaded guilty to racketeering in 2003. He defrauded donors and diverted funds from his charity, the Benevolence International Foundation, to support militants in Bosnia and Chechnya. Arnaout is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Iran (2 persons)

Neither Iran-born person was convicted of a violent offense or plotting on U.S. soil. Pirouz Sedaghaty (1) was convicted in 2010 of filing a false tax return and conspiring to file a false tax return in connection with a scheme to fund extremist militants in Chechnya through the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. Zeinab Taleb-Jedi (2) was convicted in 2009 pursuant to IEEPA for providing material support to a terrorist group, Mujahedin-e Khalq. While in Iraq, she taught English to members of the group. Both Sedaghaty and Taleb-Jedi were naturalized U.S. citizens.

Libya (2 persons)

Both Libyan persons also had no involvement with violence. Ali Mohamed Bagegni (1), a board member of the Islamic American Relief Agency, pleaded guilty in 2010 to conspiring to transfer funds to Iraq in violation of U.S. sanctions. Bagegni is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Emadeddin Muntasser (2) was convicted in 2008 of making false statements to an FBI agent and conspiring to defraud the government in seeking tax-exempt status for an organization with ties to terrorism. The district court judge threw out the conviction on the latter offense, but it was reinstated by the court of appeals in 2011. Muntasser is a lawful permanent resident.

Sudan (2 persons)

Both Sudanese individuals’ conduct related to an Islamic charity, the Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA). Abel Azim El-Siddig (1), a former fundraiser for IARA, pleaded guilty in 2010 to conspiring to hire a former congressman to lobby for the Islamic charity’s removal from a Senate list of charities suspected of having ties to terrorism. El-Siddig is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Mubarak Hamed (2), former chief executive of IARA, also pleaded guilty for conspiring to illegally transfer more than $1 million to Iraq in violation of U.S. sanctions, and obstructing the administration of tax laws. Hamed is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

We have included the citizenship or immigration status of each person mentioned above. (If no status is mentioned, the person is a citizen of the country in which he or she was born.) But here are the aggregate numbers:

  • Naturalized U.S. citizens: 26
  • Lawful permanent residents: 4
  • Refugees: 3
  • Foreign citizens: 10

The data reveal that a truly insignificant number of individuals from Sudan, Libya and Iran convicted of nonviolent terrorism-related offenses has been used to justify a broad ban on entry for persons from those countries. The number from Syria is equally insignificant when compared to the total number of foreign-born persons convicted of terrorism-related offenses. And the only defendant from Syria who engaged in violent conduct did so thousands of miles away from the United States.

Somalia and Yemen are in a different category, respectively representing 8.6 percent and 6.8 percent of the total population of foreign-born defendants arrested domestically. But again, the conduct analysis reveals that only one Somali person from this sample plotted to engage in violence on U.S. soil. So even a ban on the entry of Yemenis is unsupported if one’s standard is that “one is one too many.”

The executive order’s ban on entry of persons from these six countries is premised on the argument that vetting of these persons is failing. The argument goes as follows: Screening processes in place have not stopped terrorists from entering the U.S. and committing terrorism-related offenses. But as the numbers and conduct analysis above indicate, there is only one country named in the executive order where this is arguably correct: Somalia. And even if we were looking only at the executive order’s broader finding that “unrestricted entry … of nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” we would still find that the data do not support the policy of banning nationals from most of these countries. If the administration really is concerned about threats to U.S. interests, then it’s an incredibly odd choice to target these countries that have historically posed a minuscule threat to U.S. interests at home and overseas, compared to that posed by U.S. persons themselves.

Figure 2

Figure 3

But even these numbers don’t tell the full story. So far in our analysis, after all, we’ve been treating all countries and, more importantly, their immigration levels, as equal. Individuals born in the United Kingdom, for example, account for roughly twice the number of convictions as individuals who were born in Sudan. But the United Kingdom also has roughly twice the population and far fewer immigration restrictions. So what if we adjusted things to account for the rate and likelihood that people from any given country were going to cause terrorism-related problems?

Before we explain the analysis we embarked on to help us account for different country-specific immigration levels, we must emphasize that our analysis on this point is not robust. We would need significantly more data to prove causation and be able to control for any other factor that might have contributed to an individual’s being charged with a terrorism offense. That said, the following analysis is at least suggestive.

First off, realizing that some countries may be unfairly associated with terrorism charges based largely on the fact that they send more immigrants to the United States, we looked at the rate of criminal convictions per immigrant associated with each country. Admittedly, collecting all the data from 1999 to 2015 is not a random sample by which to judge future years, but it may be informative to observe whether any of these countries' average number of charges per immigrant is significantly higher than the total average of 0.012 charges per immigrant. Only three countries' averages were high enough to imply significance above the total average at a 95 percent confidence level (roughly two standard deviations above the mean): Libya, Qatar and Tajikistan. Libya, of course, is the only one of those countries impacted by the travel ban.

We also ran a correlation analysis comparing the number of immigrants in a given year who came to the U.S. from each specific country to the total number of terrorism, or terrorism-related, charges. In addition to our general caveat above, this analysis has several limits: While the analysis was run over the time period of 1999 through 2015, there is generally a lag between when an individual enters the U.S. and when he or she begins to plot an attack. To begin to try to account for this, we ran the analysis with one-, two- and three-year delays—meaning that we analyzed the data as if an individual were in the United States for one to three years before being charged. (This also assumes, of course, that a defendant is charged shortly after planning an attack.) While our analysis doesn't account for those defendants who wait, say, 20 years, we tried to run the analysis with a couple of sensitivities to see if the results would change. They did not.

Keeping in mind all of those caveats, here’s what our admittedly preliminary analysis showed: When we ran all six affected countries, only one—Somalia—showed a statistically significant positive correlation between the number of immigrants and the number of individuals charged. In that case, accounting for a one-year lag, 42 percent of the variance in charges is associated with the change in immigration levels. Immigration levels from several countries on the list were actually negatively correlated with the numbers of charges. For example, with no time lag, when immigration levels from Syria increase, the number of individuals charged from Syria with terrorism offenses actually decreases at a statistically significant level of more than 90 percent.

We then compared the countries affected by the order to the other 59 countries on our list. As it turns out, many of the other countries have a stronger correlation between immigration levels and the number of charges: Measuring the correlations of country-specific immigration and charges, and adjusting for time lags of zero, one, two and three years, none of the six covered countries falls into the top five strongest positive correlations in any scenario. Furthermore, no more than one of the affected countries is included in the top 15 positive correlations, across the four time lags. For example, Somalia—which accounts for the greatest number of charged individuals of any affected country—had a weaker positive correlation between immigration levels and charges than at least 15 of the non-affected countries, regardless of whether we were adjusting for a time lag of zero, one, two or three years. Colombia, Lebanon and Pakistan each individually exported to the U.S. more terrorists than Somalia over the same time period.

Put simply, if the problem is the lack of reliable information from the governments of countries covered by the executive order needed for immigration screening, we see no evidence that this has caused higher rates of terrorism-related crimes from those countries, either in absolute terms or in relative terms.

The authors would like to thank Andrew Ellingsen, David Kafafian and Christopher Izant for their valuable contributions to this article.

This is Part II of a three-part series. Parts I and III are available here and here.