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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher February 7, 2017

Were the 7 nations identified in Donald Trump's travel ban named by Barack Obama as terror hotbeds?

Two days after President Donald Trump temporarily banned certain groups of people from entering the United States, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, defended the executive order by directing attention to terrorism and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

The protest-triggering order has been criticized as a "Muslim ban" (it is and it isn’t, we found). But Trump refutes that, asserting that the part of the order targeting seven Muslim-majority countries is aimed at fighting terrorism.

Priebus, a Wisconsin native, appeared Jan. 29, 2017 on NBC’s "Meet the Press" and said:

Here’s the deal: If you're coming in and out of one of those seven countries -- by the way, identified by the Obama administration as the seven most dangerous countries in the world in regard to harboring terrorists and affirmed by Congress multiple times -- then you're going to be subjected temporarily with more questioning until a better program is put in place over the next several months.

As we noted in our Muslim ban article, the large majority of jihadists committing acts of terror in America have been American citizens or legal residents.

And since 9/11, no one in the United States has been killed in a terrorist attack by someone from the seven countries, though there have been at least three non-deadly cases in which the perpetrator was connected to Iran or Somalia.

So, were the seven nations that are identified in Trump's travel ban pegged by the Obama administration as the "seven most dangerous countries in the world in regard to harboring terrorists"?

Not quite in that way, but Priebus has a point.

Trump’s order

Trump’s executive order has two major components. It suspended entry of all refugees -- those who want to resettle in the United States -- for 120 days and barred refugees from Syria indefinitely. It also prohibits nearly all citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.

That travel part of the order is a Muslim ban in the sense that most residents of those seven countries are Muslim. But it’s not a ban, in the sense that the vast majority of Muslims in the world don’t live in those countries and thus are not affected by the order.

A week after the order, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order, lifting the ban, although more court action followed.

The Obama connection

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The travel part of Trump’s order does target the same seven countries that were singled out with a law Obama signed in December 2015.

The Obama-signed law contains provisions that restrict travel to the United States for people who lived in or visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria since March 2011. They must have a visa to enter the United States; they can’t use what is known as the Visa Waiver Program, which allows 90-day U.S. visits to other foreign visitors.

The law was soon expanded by Obama’s Department of Homeland Security to cover Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. They were identified in the agency’s announcement as "countries of concern," a phrase used in the law.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told us Priebus’ claim is not misleading, but that the law Obama signed doesn’t define the seven countries as the most dangerous in terms of harboring terrorists. There are other countries where terrorists are active but could have been left off the Obama list for other reasons, he said.

There are countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and others, where militants have significant space to operate, but there could be a variety of reasons why they were not included with countries where travel without visas is restricted by Obama law, he said. For instance, the U.S. government has a delicate relationship with the Pakistani government and there might be a desire on the part of the United States not to restrict travel from people in certain countries.

Two notes before we close that don’t directly bear on Priebus’ claim, but shed light on the seven countries:

  • Iran (added in 1984), Sudan (1993) and Syria (1979) are the only countries on the U.S. State Department’s list of "state sponsors of terrorism." They were determined by the secretary of state to have "repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism."

  • Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen are on the State Department’s list of "terrorist safe havens" -- where terrorists operate "in relative security." But nine other countries or regions are on the safe havens list, too.

Our rating

Priebus said Trump's executive order that temporarily bans nearly all travel to the United States from seven nations were "identified by the Obama administration as the seven most dangerous countries in the world in regard to harboring terrorists."

Prompted by concerns about terrorism, the Obama administration did put those seven countries -- Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen -- on a list that makes travel into the United States somewhat more difficult.

But that list doesn’t necessarily identify the seven as being the most dangerous.

For a statement is partially accurate but takes things out of context, our rating is Half True.

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Half True
The seven nations identified in Donald Trump's travel ban were "identified by the Obama administration as the seven most dangerous countries in the world in regard to harboring terrorists."
In an interview
Sunday, January 29, 2017

Our Sources

NBC, "Meet the Press" interview of Reince Priebus, Jan. 29, 2017

USA Today, "What you need to know about Trump's immigration plan," Jan. 28, 2017

Interview, Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Feb. 3, 2017

The Atlantic, "What Trump's Executive Order on Immigration Does—and Doesn't Do," Jan. 30, 2017

U.S. State Department, "Visa Waiver Program," accessed Feb. 1, 2017

Email, George Mason University policy and government professor and Cato Institute senior fellow Trevor Thrall, Feb. 2, 2017

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, news release, Feb. 18, 2016

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, news release, Jan. 21, 2016

Email, New America International Security Program policy analyst David Sterman, Feb. 3, 2017

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Is Donald Trump's executive order a 'Muslim ban'?" Feb. 3, 2017

U.S. State Department, "state sponsors of terrorism," accessed Feb. 3, 2017  

U. S. State Department, "Country Reports on Terrorism 2015 -- Chapter 5: Terrorist Safe Havens"

PunditFact, "Glenn Beck says Barack Obama took Iran, Hamas off U.S. terror list," March 20, 2015

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Tom Kertscher

Were the 7 nations identified in Donald Trump's travel ban named by Barack Obama as terror hotbeds?

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