Immigration & terrorismNew research on immigration, terrorism, and ideology

By Alex Nowrasteh

Published 15 May 2019

In the 43 years between 1975 and 2017, terrorists — foreign-born, native-born, and unknown – killed 3,518 Americans on U.S. soil (this includes the 9/11 attacks). During the same period, about 800,000 Americans were killed in homicides. Overall, the chance of being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist between 1975 and 2017 was about 1 in 3.8 million per year. The author of a new report says that the main lesson from the report is that there are very few terrorists of any ideology or origin who pose a threat to Americans on U.S. soil, and even fewer who manage to murder Americans. “The ideology, frequency, deadliness, and origins of terrorists are fascinating,” the author says, but these numbers are so small that it is difficult “to be overwhelmed by fear.”

Last week the Cato Institute released my latest policy analysis entitled Terrorists by Immigration Status and Nationality: A Risk Analysis, 1975-2017. Much of it is an update and expansion of my original policy analysis on this topic from 2016. I added two more years of data, estimates of the number of people injured, and a handful of non-deadly foreign-born terrorists whom I had failed to include in my original paper. The annual risk of being murdered in an attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist by visa category is very similar to my original study as there were only a handful of victims from attacks perpetrated by foreign-born terrorists in 2016 and 2017. 

Overall, the chance of being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was about 1 in 3.8 million per year during the 43-year period in which 3,037 people were murdered. Foreign-born terrorists who entered on tourist visas were the most deadly, responsible for over 96 percent of those deaths – largely because 18 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers entered on tourist visas.

The changes to this analysis mentioned above are small, but there are two major additions that you should pay attention to. The first is that I included all 788 native-born terrorists during this time by applying the same exclusion criteria that I applied to foreign-born terrorists. It took years and reading tens of thousands of pages of government documents, news stories, dissertations, reports by non-profits, and more biographies of sketchy people than I care to remember. Just for the record, there are a lot of Nazis who have been killed in shootouts with the police but most of them are not terrorists. All 788 native-born terrorists are listed in the appendix. If you think I missed somebody or included somebody I shouldn’t have, please let me know.