scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Opinion | Robert A. Pape

Immigration reform won’t stop ISIS

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance. The Islamic State is targeting Western recruits with videos and propaganda.Militant video via AP

In the wake of the deadliest Islamic terrorist attack in Egypt’s history on Friday, coming just weeks after the deadliest terrorist attack in New York city since 9/11, many Americans are wondering whether tightening immigration controls can prevent ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups from carrying out attacks inside the United States. The Trump administration has recently renewed calls for “extreme vetting” and changes to other immigration programs. Will these work?

At first glance, it is understandable why immigration might appear to be at the center of the domestic terrorist threat by overseas Islamic groups. The alleged perpetrator of the New York attack, Sayfullo Saipov, is a citizen of Uzbekistan, who legally immigrated into the United States in 2010, and immigrants have been implicated in ISIS terrorist attacks before.


However, a closer look at who becomes an ISIS terrorist in the United States casts significant doubt on the idea that reforming America’s immigration system would have stopped the New York City attack. Indeed, they could make us less safe.

The nature of the terrorist threat inside the United States has changed fundamentally since 9/11. On that tragic day 16 years ago, the 19 hijackers were all foreign born, radicalized overseas, and crept into the United States using (mainly) legal holes in our immigration system that, even at the time, should have raised numerous red-flags.

Today, the threat is different. Since March 2014, over 170 individuals have carried out attacks in the United States in the name of ISIS or were prosecuted in US courts for ISIS-related offenses. Nearly two-thirds — 64 percent — were born in the United States. Like Saipov, the other one third are immigrants living in the United States for years, some for decades. None are Syrian refugees.

ISIS is not trying to break through holes in the US immigration system. It is recruiting individuals who are already here.


Looking at the actual pattern of the American face of ISIS we can see that even extreme tightening immigration controls would do little reduce domestic terrorist attacks by Islamic groups, and may even make matters worse.

First, the focus on immigration takes our eye off the game that ISIS and other Islamic groups are actually playing. US immigration controls are vastly tighter than on 9/11. Islamic terrorist groups know this and are adapting to the new reality. Instead of trying to punch operatives through a now extremely tight system, terrorist groups are using the internet to infiltrate video and other propaganda directly into our homes. Over 80 percent of ISIS terrorists in Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and many other American cities watched Jihadi videos, according to US court documents, perhaps the most striking thing they nearly all have in common.

Second, many ISIS terrorists in the United States do not come from established Muslim communities. Over a third — 36 percent — are converts to Islam, some as recently as months prior to committing their offense. Since anyone can convert to Islam, this means ISIS terrorists are not limited to Muslims.

Third, ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups now use sophisticated propaganda messages, targeted to specific audiences. Gone are the days when major Islamic groups relied only on a single, uniform message — sometimes called the “Islamic narrative” — for all audiences, with speakers lecturing in stylized, monotonic tones about what duties that would-be attackers should perform. Today, Islamic groups rely on videos and other social media that audiences can more readily identify with. There are separate ISIS videos specifically targeting Canada and North America, France, Germany, Australia, Indonesia, Russia, Uzbekistan and other countries. These targeted videos have speakers from the local country, discuss local politics as well as what’s happening in the Middle East, and so seek to establish an affinity with specific audiences as they make the case to join the terrorists’ cause.


Fourth, today’s propaganda by Islamic groups often stresses the idea that local law enforcement authorities are already in the process of causing harm to Muslims in local communities. To be sure, this propaganda inflates and spins facts. However, this spinning is also quite sophisticated, often linking images of abused Muslims to other images of abused minorities going back centuries. Al Shabaab has already produced a video linking this history to candidate Trump’s call for a Muslim ban. Going further and tightening US immigration controls to the detriment of Muslims would only amplify Islamic propaganda.

Given today’s terrorist threat, immigration reform would do little good. Even if we banned all Muslims from immigrating to the United States, this would do little to counter-act ISIS’s internet-centered propaganda efforts to target multiple sub-sets of people already inside the United States. Instead, we need more sophisticated efforts to map ISIS propaganda as it targets specific sub-populations, to inform local communities about the specific messages sent their way and develop more community-centered responses.


Terrorist groups are recruiting locally, even if for global ambitions. We need to act locally too.

Robert A. Pape is professor of political science and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. He is the author of “The American Face of ISIS” a study of all ISIS terrorists in the United States since March 2014.