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The viral claim that ‘not one’ refugee resettled since 9/11 has been ‘arrested on domestic terrorism charges’

Rep. Xavier Becerra (right) (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Along the lines of being a nation of immigrants, we must underscore that we respect and understand the need to be accepting of refugees into our country — people who by definition as refugees must show that they fear death or persecution in order to have an opportunity to come into this country; 750,000 refugees have been resettled in America since 9/11. Not a one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges in the United States of America.”

–Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), news briefing, Nov. 17, 2015

In calling for immigration reform, the House Democratic Caucus chairman cited a claim that has been circulated widely on social media in the wake of the Paris attacks: no resettled refugee has been arrested on “domestic terrorism” charges. As the debate unfolds over whether the refugee resettlement program poses a domestic threat, critics of the program have disputed this claim — noting initial reports that the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon bombing entered the United States as refugees, and pointing to reports of other refugees who were arrested on terrorism charges.

This is a complex web of semantics and technical differences, so we will untangle it here.

The Facts

Becerra’s spokeswoman said he was citing information in this widely shared social card:

The claim is based on an Economist article by Vandeline Von Bredow published on Oct. 17, 2015, which cites information compiled by Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

MPI analyzed the number of refugees resettled through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and found just three people were arrested on terrorism charges. Two were Iraqi refugees arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., in 2011 on suspicion of plotting to send weapons to insurgents to kill American soldiers abroad. The third is an Uzbek refugee who was arrested in 2013 in Boise, Idaho, accused of conspiring to support a terrorist organization, gathering explosive materials, and plotting to carry out an attack on U.S. soil.

After the Kentucky case, the FBI’s director of Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center told ABC News that there were dozens of counterterrorism investigations into resettled refugees.

The purpose of Newland’s analysis was to show the resettlement system’s track record, which suggests effective screening and protection systems are in place, said MPI spokeswoman Michelle Mittelstadt. The vetting protocol is a major point in the debate over whether refugees — from Syria and beyond — pose a threat to national security. (Check out this primer for more on how the United States resettles Syrian refugees.)

MPI did not distinguish whether the three cases posed direct or indirect threats to the U.S. homeland. The distinction using the term “domestic terrorism” appears to have been made only in the tweet by the Economist.

In an article on Oct. 18, 2015, the Economist further explained: “If a potential terrorist is determined to enter America to do harm, there are easier and faster ways to get there than by going through the complex refugee resettlement process. Of the almost 750,000 refugees who have been admitted to America since 9/11, only two Iraqis have arrested on terrorist charges; they had not planned an attack in America, but aided al-Qaeda at home.”

The FBI describes “domestic terrorism” in the post-9/11 era as “Americans attacking Americans based on U.S.-based extremist ideologies.” The FBI’s examples of domestic terrorism include eco-terrorists and animal rights extremists, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber and the sovereign citizens movement.

So this is an incorrect term employed in the tweet and by Becerra. Some critics view this as an arbitrary distinction, arguing that aiding a terrorist organization abroad (especially al-Qaeda or the Islamic State) also poses threats to the U.S. homeland.

The Economist’s Von Bredow told The Fact Checker that the Uzbek was acquitted of charges specifically relating to his alleged plot to carry out an attack in the U.S. (He was convicted of conspiring and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and possessing an unregistered firearm/destructive device.)

Newland, the MPI analyst, wrote on the think tank’s Web site that the Uzbek was the only one out of the three refugees who “boasted about potential attacks in the United States, but had no credible plans. All were detected by skillful intelligence operations before any plot could be carried out. One Iraqi would-be perpetrator is now serving a life sentence, the other 40 years in prison; the Uzbek is appealing his conviction from prison.”

But the tweet and Becerra’s statement used the word “arrest,” not convictions, and didn’t mention the credibility of any threats.

A State Department spokesperson said of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program since 9/11, “only about a dozen — a tiny fraction of one percent of admitted refugees — have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S.  None of them were Syrian.” The spokesperson declined to specify what exactly the security concerns were, how many of the dozen were arrested, and for what charges.

Another important technical distinction made here is how a “refugee” is defined — whether it’s anyone who ultimately obtains refugee status, whether it includes children of refugees, or if it’s limited to a person admitted through the resettlement program.

Refugees are screened outside of the United States, and are referred for resettlement mainly by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Asylum-seekers apply for asylum once they are in the United States or at the border. Asylum status is available to people who meet the definition of a refugee; successful asylum-seekers obtain refugee status, though the screening protocol is different.

The Tsarnaev brothers initially were described as refugees in news reports. But later, it was revealed that the brothers ended up in the United States as minors because their father applied for asylum. So they are not counted in the MPI’s analysis.

The means through which a certain refugee entered the United States is not readily available to the public. The distinction is not always made in news coverage or court records. There are other individuals identified as refugees who were arrested on terrorism charges since 9/11, but whose means of obtaining refugee status remains unclear publicly.

Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, testified to Congress in June 2015:

“The threat to the U.S. homeland from refugees has been relatively low. Almost none of the major terrorist plots since 9/11 have involved refugees.  Even in those cases where refugees were arrested on terrorism-related charges, years and even decades often transpired between their entry into the United States and their involvement in terrorism. In most instances, a would-be terrorist’s refugee status had little or nothing to do with their radicalization and shift to terrorism.”

Terrorist groups have multiple options to attack the U.S. homeland, and refugees occasionally have been involved in certain types of plots, he testified. For example, terrorist groups can infiltrate members through the refugee or asylum-seeker process into the United States to conduct attacks or recruit operatives from U.S. communities.

Jones, who reviewed the cases while he served on the 9/11 Review Commission, listed 10 occasions since 2009 when refugees were arrested on terrorism-related charges in the United States. His research did not specify how the person obtained refugee status, and he looked at cases where a refugee within the U.S. border was in contact with, or provided support (financial, materials or any other assistance), to known terrorist groups or entities.

“Whether they’re coming as asylum-seekers or refugees, or coming into Canada as refugees or as asylum-seekers and coming into the U.S. through the northern border, I think anybody who provides assistance to [known terrorist] groups is obviously a concern,” Jones told The Fact Checker.

One case he listed was the arrest of two Bosnian refugees who immigrated the United States, and gathered money to purchase U.S. military uniforms and tactical gear. They intended to transfer the materials to people fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and were charged with conspiring to provide material support and resources to terrorists.

Another case in Jones’s testimony involved a different Uzbek refugee whom federal officials identified as a resettled refugee. A federal grand jury indicted him with conspiring and attempting to provide material support of a foreign terrorist organization.

The Pinocchio Test

As we say repeatedly at The Fact Checker: Be careful of what you see, retweet or share on social media.

This is a highly technical issue with various definitions and distinctions, mainly: how an individual obtained refugee status and whether their terrorism charge posed a threat posed to the U.S. homeland. The latter, in particular, is a subjective call.

Becerra’s statement, based on the tweet, goes a step further than the Economist article on which it was based or the underlying analysis by the Migration Policy Institute; the article never uses the phrase “domestic terrorism,” which is a technical term that does not necessarily apply here. Further, depending on how one defines “refugee,” and the types of terrorism charges they include, this number changes.

We award Becerra — and whoever made this social card in the first place — Two Pinocchios for using technical terminology that is not clear to the public, and creates a misleading impression.

Two Pinocchios

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