The Slatest

Why the Bowling Green Nonmassacre Is a Favorite Example of Refugee Opponents

Kellyanne Conway.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Kellyanne Conway, adviser to President Donald Trump, is getting some deserved mockery for referring, in an interview with Chris Matthews on Thursday night, to the involvement of Iraqi refugees in the “Bowling Green massacre”—something that never happened:

Conway clarified Friday that she was referring to the 2011 arrest of two Iraqi men on terrorism charges, though her reference to them as the “masterminds” of the massacre makes it hard to believe she just misspoke:

It’s not that surprising that Conway name-dropped Bowling Green, even if her characterization of what happened was almost completely inaccurate. Many people on the left have never heard of it, but the incident—again, not a massacre—actually gets a lot of attention from opponents of refugee resettlement. In fact, it’s arguably the main data point in support of the case that banning refugees is a necessary counterterrorism measure. So what exactly was it?

In 2011, two Iraqi men living as refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Mohanad Shareef Hammadi and Waad Ramadan Alwan, were arrested on federal terrorism charges after a two-year investigation. The two men later admitted to having used IEDs against American troops in Iraq, lying about that when applying as refugees, and attempting to send weapons and money to al-Qaida after arriving in the United States. There’s no evidence that the men were plotting attacks in the United States. Both were convicted and sentenced to life in prison and 40 years in prison, respectively. As ABC News reported in 2013, the case led to the State Department halting the processing of Iraqi refugees for six months, including at least one man who had aided American troops and was assassinated while waiting out the delay. It also led to an overhaul of the U.S. refugee screening system.

Why is this important? The Bowling Green case is the best known example of refugees who should not have been admitted to the United States slipping through the cracks, though there have been numerous changes to the refugee vetting system since then. Refugee resettlement advocates have occasionally overstated their case by suggesting that no refugee has ever been arrested on terrorism charges in recent years. There have been a handful of such cases. Bowling Green is the one that stuck in Kellyanne Conway’s mind, I guess.

Trump has also used the post–Bowling Green six-month pause on Iraqi refugee processing to suggest that his Muslim ban is not that extreme. This is misleading: The 2011 Obama review held up refugees from one specific country in response to a specific threat, some Iraqi refugees continued to be admitted during that period though a much smaller number, and the pause applied only to refugees and was not a blanket ban on all categories of visitors.

So, if the argument for admitting refugees were that there was absolutely no risk of “bad people,” as Trump puts it, entering the United States, or if people were saying that Obama had never put any restrictions on refugee admission, than yes, Bowling Green would be a counterargument. In the real world, the one in which there’s no such thing as the “Bowling Green massacre,” it’s not a particularly relevant example.