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Terrorism and Trump’s Travel Ban

Stephen Miller, a senior White House policy adviser, claimed that 72 people from the seven countries covered by President Donald Trump’s 90-day travel ban “have been implicated in terroristic activity in the United States” since the 9/11 attacks. That’s a gross exaggeration.

Miller cited an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies that covered alleged terror cases from Sept. 12, 2001, through Dec. 31, 2014. We reviewed the convictions of all 72 people included on the list, and here is what we found:

  • Most — 44 of the 72 people — were not convicted on terrorism charges. Many were swept up in terrorism investigations, but investigators failed to provide evidence of terrorism-related crimes. Prosecutors instead filed fraud, immigration and other lesser charges. One of the 44 had his conviction overturned on appeal.
  • More than a third — 28 of the 72 — were convicted of terrorism crimes or pleaded guilty to terrorism-related activity. The vast majority of these people were convicted of helping to finance terrorism outside the U.S. Only three of the 28 were convicted of plotting acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, and two of them were sting operations.
  • Four of the 72 were arrested in foreign countries and extradited to the United States for prosecution. Three of the four were convicted on terrorism charges. None of the four would have been blocked by Trump’s travel ban, since they were not attempting to enter the U.S. In fact, three of the four, including a Dutch citizen, were arrested in countries (Spain, Romania and the Netherlands) that were not covered by the travel ban.

None of the 72 people was responsible for any terrorist-related deaths in the U.S. — even though roughly 1 million citizens of the seven countries came to the U.S. during this time as refugees, immigrants or on nonimmigrant visas, according to our review of State Department data.

Defending Trump’s Travel Ban

Miller appeared on several Sunday talk shows on Feb. 12 and discussed, among other things, the president’s executive order — Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. The order imposes a 90-day travel ban on the citizens of seven predominately Muslim countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen). It also indefinitely prohibits Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., and suspends the refugee program for citizens of all other countries for 120 days.

U.S. District Judge James L. Robart on Feb. 3 issued a temporary restraining order that blocked portions of Trump’s order from taking effect, pending his full consideration of a lawsuit filed by the states of Washington and Minnesota seeking to permanently block Trump’s order. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Feb. 9 unanimously denied the Trump administration’s emergency motion to lift Robart’s temporary order.

“The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States,” the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said.

As a result of the court decisions, refugees approved for resettlement in the U.S. and visa holders of the seven countries can travel to the U.S., pending further action by the administration or the courts.

In defense of the temporary travel ban, top White House officials have cited terrorism attacks that never happened. Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, spoke of the “Bowling Green massacre” and White House spokesman Sean Spicer repeatedly listed “Atlanta” among the sites of U.S. terror attacks. (We did not write about those incidents, because both acknowledged their mistakes. We try not to play gotcha here at FactCheck.org.)

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Miller also defended the president’s travel ban, and criticized the court decisions. Host Chuck Todd asked Miller why the administration’s travel ban does not include citizens from countries that have a history of committing terrorism in the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia.

Miller, Feb. 12: First of all, 72 individuals according to the Center for Immigration Studies have been implicated in terroristic activity in the United States who hail from those seven nations.

Miller made a similar statement on ABC’s “This Week” that same day.

Miller, Feb. 12: We know there’s at least several dozen, perhaps many more than that, cases of terrorism from these countries that have happened in the United States in terms of terroristic plots, terroristic activity, material support for terrorism, supporting terrorism overseas — all different kinds of terroristic activity that’s been interdicted in the United States tracing back to these seven countries.

The Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group for low immigration, posted a blog item on Feb. 11 that said “72 individuals from the seven countries covered in President Trump’s vetting executive order have been convicted in terror cases since the 9/11 attacks.” CIS extracted the 72 names from a larger list of foreign-born suspected terrorists compiled by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration.

We reviewed the CIS list and found that not all 72 individuals from the seven countries covered by Trump’s travel ban were convicted of terrorism charges.

44 Convictions — None for Terrorism

Most of the 72 individuals referenced by Miller were not convicted on terrorism charges. Many of them were caught up in terrorism investigations in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but were either never charged or not convicted of terrorism.

For example, CIS listed 19 Iraqis convicted in terror cases. But we found that only three Iraqis were convicted on terrorism charges. Most — 11 of the 19 — were part of a terrorism investigation in Pittsburgh that ended up as a simple fraud case that had nothing to do with terrorism.

In the Pittsburgh case, Kamel Albred, Haider Alshomary, Haider Al-Tamimi, Ali Alubeidy, Alawi Al-Baraa, Mustafa Al-Aboody, Mohammed Alibrahimi (a cousin of Ali Alubeidy), Fadhil Al-Khaledy, Hatef Al-Atabi, Wathek Al-Atabi and Elmeliani Benmoumen were among 20 people arrested in the days following the 9/11 attacks on charges they illegally obtained commercial driver’s licenses and hazmat transportation permits, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Federal prosecutors feared that the men obtained the licenses in order to transport hazardous materials across the country to carry out terrorist attacks, the Post-Gazette wrote.

But the terrorism investigation fizzled.

When one of the defendants, Alawi Al-Baraa, pleaded guilty to illegally obtaining a hazmat license by bribing a state official, the Post-Gazette wrote, U.S. District Judge Robert Cindrich “took the unusual step” at the hearing of asking the federal prosecutor to make clear that Al-Baraa’s case had nothing to do with terrorism.

Post-Gazette, Dec. 14, 2001: “We have attempted through the FBI’s efforts to establish any possible connections between Mr. Al-Baraa’s activities and the events of Sept. 11,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Teitelbaum. “We have been unable to establish any link.”

Teitelbaum said there is no reason to believe Al-Baraa is anything but a truck driver who paid bribe money to get a new hazmat certification without taking the required test.

Nearly four years later, the Washington Post wrote a story about the Pittsburgh case — “The Terrorism Case That Wasn’t — and Still Is” — that quoted Cindrich as saying that he would “not continue to characterize this as a successful prosecution of a terrorism case, because it was not.”

Similarly, CIS identified 19 Yemeni citizens on its list of 72 individuals “convicted in terror cases,” but we found only four who were convicted on terrorism charges. Most of them — 10 — were initially suspected of funneling money to terrorists through illegal money transfers, but the investigations failed to support terrorism charges.

For example, federal authorities grew suspicious of a check-cashing business in California and set up a sting operation that resulted in the March 2007 arrests of three Yemen-born men, Yehia Ali Ahmed Alomari, Mohamed Al Huraibi and Saleh Mohamed Taher Saeed. The men agreed to arrange illegal overseas transfers of more than $100,000 for an undercover agent who allegedly “told the men that some of the money would go to Hezbollah, an organization linked to terrorism,” according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

However, the paper wrote, “U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa did not allow mention of Hezbollah during the trial because the criminal charges the men faced had no connection to terrorism.” Ultimately, the three each pleaded guilty to operating an illegal money-transmitting business — an outcome “authorities contended” was “fair, given the government’s evidence,” the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle wrote. The paper said that one of the jurors told the men, “I hope you go and have a good life.”

Like the Pittsburgh case we mentioned earlier, several of the terrorist investigations were launched in the days following the 9/11 attacks but terrorism charges failed to materialize:

  • Mustafa Kilfat and his father were stopped while driving in New Jersey because they were “driving a red Pontiac — a car law enforcement officials briefly believed was connected to the attacks” on Sept. 11, 2001, according to the New York Daily News. The two men had no connection to the 9/11 attacks, but Kilfat — a Syrian citizen — was convicted on one count of visa fraud.
  • Nageeb Abdul Jabar Mohamed Al-Hadi was arrested in Toronto in the hours immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was bound for Chicago using a false name, carrying three Yemeni passports and two Lufthansa uniforms, according to the Chicago Tribune. “A prosecutor in the case said Al-Hadi provided the false information because he didn’t think he would be allowed to re-enter the United States, after abandoning the legal status that he had obtained here in the 1980s through a sham marriage,” the paper wrote. Al-Hadi was convicted on one count of visa fraud.
  • Mohamed Abdi, a Somalian living in Virginia, was arrested in the days soon after the 9/11 attacks because authorities found his name and phone number written on a Washington street map inside a 1988 Toyota registered to Nawaf al Hazmi, one of the 9/11 hijackers who crashed into the Pentagon, according to CNN and the Chicago Tribune. But, as the Washington Post later reported, “authorities were unable to find any connection to terrorism.” Abdi pleaded guilty to forging rental subsidy checks.
  • Mohammed Refai became a suspect shortly after the 9/11 attacks when “federal investigators in Arkansas found documents that appeared to connect one of the terrorist hijackers, Saeed Alghamdi, with an apartment complex in Akron, Ohio,” the New York Times wrote. Refai lived in the complex. “According to newspaper accounts, investigators apparently have decided that the documents from Arkansas involved a case of mistaken identity,” the Times wrote.

Other examples of terror investigations that did not result in terrorism convictions, but were among the 72 cited by Miller:

  • Mohamed Hussein, a Somalian businessman living in Massachusetts, was “suspected of diverting money to the al-Qaeda network,” according to the Agence France Presse, but was convicted on two counts of illegal money transfers. Prosecutors presented no evidence linking Hussein to terrorists. U.S. District Judge Robert E. Keeton sentenced Hussein to 18 months, rather than the five years sought by prosecutors. “You’re trying to ask me to sentence him as a terrorist,” Keeton told a prosecutor. “It shocks my conscience that I would even be asked to do that.” (Note: Hussein’s name was misspelled on the CIS list as “Mohammed Husssein.”)
  • Pirouz Sedaghaty, who goes by the name of Pete Seda, was convicted in 2010 of two felonies related to his charity, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. Federal prosecutors accused Seda of using his organization “to send nearly $150,000 to support religious extremist militants in Chechnya,” according to the Justice Department. But he faced no terrorism charges and his conviction was overturned on appeal by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. “This is a tax fraud case that was transformed into a trial on terrorism,” Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in the court opinion.

Terrorism Convictions and Pleas

Of course, some citizens of the seven countries covered by Trump’s ban were convicted on terrorism charges. In all, there were 28 individuals who were either convicted on terrorism charges (25) or admitted to terrorism activity (three) in pleading guilty to lesser charges.

Of those 28, however, three arrests occurred abroad, and the suspects were extradited to the United States. None of them were trying to enter the U.S., so they would not have been blocked by Trump’s travel ban. Like Osama bin Laden, they were plotting attacks from other countries.

For example, Syrian arms dealer Monzer Al Kassar was extradited from Spain and later convicted on charges of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of high-powered weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to be used to kill Americans in Colombia, according to the New York Times.

Al Kassar was convicted of, among other things, providing material support to terrorists. That was true for most of the terrorism convictions, and many of them were Somalian citizens living in the U.S. In all, there were 14 Somalians convicted of helping to finance terrorism abroad, typically for al-Shabaab — a terrorist group operating in East Africa whose leaders are affiliated with al Qaeda, according to the National Counterterrorism Center.

There were only three cases during this time in which foreign-born residents of the seven countries on Trump’s temporary travel ban attempted to carry out a terrorist attack in the U.S. — two of which were not real attacks, but rather government sting operations:

  • Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia who lived in Oregon, was charged in an undercover sting operation with attempting to set off a fake bomb supplied by undercover FBI agents at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland. He was sentenced in October 2014 to 30 years in prison.
  • Yassin Aref, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, was convicted in a counterterrorism sting operation in 2006. According to the New York Times and the Albany Times Union, an undercover federal agent told Mohammed M. Hossain, Aref’s co-defendant, that he planned to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. in New York City and then sell the weapon for $50,000. The undercover agent offered to give Hossain a $50,000 loan for improvements to his pizza shop. “According to testimony, Mr. Hossain asked Mr. Aref to attend another meeting with the informant to act, by Muslim custom, as a witness to the loan,” the New York Times wrote.
  • Mansour J. Arbabsiar, an Iranian American living in Texas, was convicted on charges of “plotting to hire assassins from a Mexican drug cartel to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States,” according to the New York Times. He pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries and two counts related to murder-for-hire,” the Times said.

To sum up, we found 28, or more than a third, of the 72 people cited by Miller were convicted on terrorism charges. We found that 25 of the 28 people were in the U.S., when they were arrested. Only three of 25 were implicated in plotting a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and only one of those was aimed at U.S. citizens on U.S. soil — a government sting operation, not an actual attack.

None of the U.S. residents from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen were responsible for any attacks on U.S. soil that resulted in a loss of life. At the same time, roughly 956,000 citizens of those countries entered the U.S. as refugees and visa holders, according to State Department data.

A total of 258,508 refugees from the seven countries resettled in the U.S. from Sept. 12, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2014. Another 697,113 others obtained immigration and nonimmigration visas in fiscal years 2002 through 2014, which covers Oct. 1, 2001, to Sept. 30, 2014.

Here is the breakdown, by country:

Somalia 82,365 10,691 16
Yemen 113 60,938 4
Iraq 118,994 110,864 4
Syria 497 123,876 2
Iran 38,518 305,883 2
Libya 8 36,692 0
Sudan 18,013 48,169 0
TOTALS  258,508  697,113  28

Editor’s Note: We obtained refugee data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, and the visa holder data from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Our analysis of the Center for Immigration Studies list of 72 “terror cases” can be found in a spreadsheet that you can download here. FactCheck.org added the last three columns to the spreadsheet, which otherwise remains as it appears on the CIS website. FactCheck.org Fellows Sydney Schaedel, Ilana Nathans and Jenna Wang assisted in the research for this article.  

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Claimed that 72 people from the seven countries covered by President Donald Trump’s 90-day travel ban “have been implicated in terroristic activity in the United States” since the 9/11 attacks.

Interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press”
Sunday, February 12, 2017