By Gabriela Billini, AIC Research Fellow
MYTH: Iranians are likely to carry out terror attacks against the United States, and are properly included in the Trump administration’s travel ban.
FACT: Iranians are not likely to carry out terror attacks against the United States. Indeed, this myth has no factual basis whatsoever. More than any of our other Myth vs. Fact articles, this is an extremely serious charge and it requires an even more in-depth look into the factors that are contributing to this misperception. We hope this article will be informative and widely shared.
Who is a terrorist?
Before analyzing the misperception that Iranians are likely to be terrorists, it is worth considering the concept of terrorism more generally and identifying who is properly categorized as a terrorist. A terrorist is any individual or group with a political aim. Terrorists will attack targets (including civilians) with the purpose of frightening people into adhering to their particular agenda. They can live anywhere in the world, come from any religious group and have a variety of views that they are looking to impose on the world. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the world has, perhaps understandably, focused its attention on terrorists with the aim of attacking in the name of Islam. However, as a result of this intense focus on groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, it has unfortunately become more common for Americans to conflate terrorism and Islam, and be more likely to believe that Muslims have anti-American views, and/or that Muslims are more prone to terror activities.
Who carries out terror attacks in the name of Islam?
First and foremost, it is worth noting for the purpose of this Myth vs. Fact that no Iranians have been involved in a terror attack on the U.S. homeland.
The extremely small number of Muslims of other nationalities who have attacked the U.S. using Islam as a purpose have tended to be aligned with extremist groups such as ISIS or al Qaeda. While these groups do not represent Islam and deviate from the most basic principles of peace and love that underlie all religions, including Islam, these groups nonetheless purport to follow a Sunni branch of Islam called Wahhabism. Wahhabism is a movement created by Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab in the 18th century, who preached against deviations from the literal understanding of the Qur’an. He formed an alliance with the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, where his beliefs are still strongly encouraged. Wahhabism states that (Sunni) Muslims are to pledge allegiance to a Muslim leader that will guide the community in the proper path of Islam and ensure that the people lead their lives in the embodiment of God’s laws. The obedience ensures the Muslim’s redemption after death.
It should be noted that ISIS and al Qaeda - two of the terror groups that Westerners are perhaps most familiar with - are just as eager to attack Iran, a Shi’a country, as they are to attack the United States. There is a deep and strong historical division between Shi’a and Sunni groups, which - as with all things - becomes magnified and distorted in the context of terror. Members of ISIS and al Qaeda view Shiism as an impure form of Islam and also disapprove of Iran’s involvement in neighboring states, and its attempts to bring Shi’a groups into political power, such as in Yemen and Lebanon.
If there is no past evidence of Iranians committing terror attacks, why is Iran on the list?
The Executive Order temporarily banning immigration from Iran and six other Muslim majority countries, states that the purpose of the ban is to protect the nation from terrorists, such as those who attacked the United States on September 11th, 2001. The reality is that no Iranian or Iranian-American had anything to do with the attacks on 9/11, nor were they nationals of most of the nations included in the travel ban. In fact, 15 of the 19 the attackers were from Saudi Arabia, a nation that is not included in the ban. The UAE, Egypt and Turkey were also notably excluded from the ban, as well as Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. What is more, from the years 1975 to 2015, not a single American was killed in a US terrorist attack from nationals of any of the seven nations, and as stated above, not a single domestic terror attack has been carried out by Iranians.
While vocal supporters of the travel ban argue that Iranians have nonetheless been convicted of terror-related activities, an examination of the cases they cite shows that not one of these was directed towards harming the American people. The most serious case was an individual who plotted to kill the Saudi Ambassador on US soil; the others were primarily convictions of material support - one which was later overturned when a court determined that the government had improperly prosecuted a tax fraud case as terrorism. The only case of an Iranian-born individual aiming to harm Americans on US soil was a lone, non-deadly incident in 2006 by a naturalized citizen who had moved to the US at the age of two.
Given the lack of evidence that Iranians are likely to commit acts of terror on the US homeland, we can speculate that the ban on Iranians is due primarily to the fact that the country of Iran is often considered the world’s biggest state sponsor of terror. This is due to Iranian government support of armed militias such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the al-Quds force. We consider some of these groups below -- what they are, their aims, why they are considered terror organizations, and whether they represent the same type of threat to the Unites States as al Qaeda or ISIS.
Hezbollah is a political and militant group active mostly in Lebanon. It was founded there by powerful clerics for the basic purpose of fighting Israel after it invaded southern Lebanon in 1982. Throughout history, Hezbollah has maintained its objective to militarily challenge Israel, as well as oppose Western intervention in the Middle East. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps substantially helped fund and train Hezbollah at its beginning, when it was comprised of disenfranchised Shi’a Lebanese people looking to reintegrate themselves into the political sphere during the Lebanese Civil War, and fight against the Israeli attacks.
Hezbollah is a violent group that has carried out attacks on four continents, including against Americans at the Beirut Embassy and Marine Corps barracks in 1983. Today, Hezbollah is critical to Iran’s desires of regional dominance. For example, Hezbollah is actively involved in the Syrian Civil War and protecting the Assad regime. While Hezbollah has been labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department since 1997, the group’s activities remain regional and it has not demonstrated significant ambitions to attack within the U.S.
Hamas was formed in 1987 during the start of the First Intifada and aims to fight Israel in order to liberate the state of Palestine. Since this goal can at times coincide with that of Hezbollah, Iran has provided Hamas financial support and training. Historically, Iran has offered financial support for the political arm of Hamas as well, however this support has since waned due to Hamas criticizing Iran’s involvement in the Yemeni Civil War. Now, Iran exclusively funds its military arm. Because of its objectives, attacks are exclusively geared toward issues relevant to the Middle East and have not been made on U.S. soil.
The al-Quds force is a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council. It is an elite militia charged with the task of carrying out military missions, seen as terror attacks, outside of Iran. These missions have the sole purpose of exporting the Revolution to the Middle East. For example, the al-Quds force initially played a major role in establishing an alliance with Iraqi Kurds when the minority Shi’a population was not yet in power and Iran sought leverage in the nation. The U.S. State Department has named the al-Quds force a supporter of terrorism since 2007. As with the other groups listed above, the force has not attacked on U.S. soil and their objectives are primarily regional.
In conclusion, Iranians appear to be included in the Trump administration’s travel ban as a result of their government’s support of terror, not due to any past action of the Iranian people. Conflating government action with that of a country’s people is clearly inappropriate and ineffective in determining the inclusion of any population for a nationality-based blanket travel ban. However, even if such conflation were appropriate, the Iranian government supports groups that have minimal desire to attack on U.S. soil; and, moreover, terror organizations that seek to carry out attacks on U.S. soil such as ISIS and al Qaeda are threats to Iran as well.
There is no reason for Iran to be included on the list of banned countries, and the Iranian people are in no way a threat to the U.S. The myth that Iranians are likely to be terrorists is false - period.