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Analysis

Trump Administration’s Fuzzy Math on Terrorist Origins Is More Than Misleading – It’s Dishonest

DOJ’s report cherry picks terrorism statistics to push a nativist agenda. To any serious observer, excluding domestic terrorism completely makes its conclusions utterly useless.

January 16, 2018

Cross-posted origin­ally on Just Secur­ity

Just as the Senate Judi­ciary Commit­tee was getting ready to conduct an over­sight hear­ing today with newly appoin­ted Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity (DHS) Secret­ary Kirstjen Nielsen, her depart­ment, along with the Justice Depart­ment (DOJ) released a mislead­ing report aimed at stok­ing anti-immig­rant senti­ment. The head­line of a press release trum­pet­ing the report stated: “Three Out of Four Indi­vidu­als Convicted of Inter­na­tional Terror­ism and Terror­ism-Related Offenses were Foreign Born.” The obvi­ous goal of the report, which was issued pursu­ant to the pres­id­ent’s infam­ous Muslim ban exec­ut­ive orders, is to gin up fears of foreign­ers, espe­cially Muslims, and to support Trump’s xeno­phobic immig­ra­tion agenda. As has previ­ously been noted, publish­ing lists of crimes allegedly commit­ted by a partic­u­lar category of people – such as Jews or commun­ists – is a tried and true means of paint­ing them as a threat.

Context is, of course, key. As Shirin Sinnar argued in an earlier Just Secur­ity post, any list of terror­ism cases that excludes domestic terror­ism (such as Dylann Roof’s shoot­ing spree at an African-Amer­ican church in Char­le­ston, South Caro­lina) is funda­ment­ally mislead­ing: “If you exclude all convic­tions for ‘domestic terror­ism’ at the outset, how can you draw any over­all conclu­sions on the citizen­ship status or national origin of those convicted of terror­ism?” Indeed, accord­ing to an April 2017 Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office report, “far right wing extrem­ist groups” had perpet­rated 73 percent of deadly attacks in the U.S. Simil­arly, while 549 convic­tions for terror­ism and terror­ism-related charges may sound like a lot by itself, it is worth recall­ing that this is the total number over 15 years. In other words, there were 35.6 on aver­age per year. And even by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s own count, only 26.8 were foreign or foreign-born. These numbers are minus­cule compared to the over­all amount of crime in the United States, where the number of murders per year remains above 15,000, even in our relat­ively secure times. Simil­arly, the report claims that 1,716 aliens have been removed from the U.S. due to “national secur­ity concerns.” This is even less than the prover­bial drop in the bucket compared to the 15 million-plus people who have been depor­ted from 2001 through 2016.

Another mani­fest­a­tion of the nativ­ism that rules this admin­is­tra­tion is the insist­ence on distin­guish­ing not just between citizens and non-citizens, but also between Amer­ic­ans who were born here and those of us who were natur­al­ized. In addi­tion to high­light­ing the number of natur­al­ized citizens that it claims were involved in terror­ism, the DHS-DOJ report notes that it was unable to verify the “citizen­ship status of the parents” of the U.S. citizens on the list. It seems that invest­ig­at­ing ances­try is now cent­ral to coun­terter­ror­ism and immig­ra­tion policy – the only ques­tion is how many gener­a­tions back the admin­is­tra­tion will dig to prove its claim that immig­ra­tion poses a national secur­ity threat. The move reminds me of Trump’s insist­ence that the Indi­ana-born federal judge over­see­ing a lawsuit against Trump Univer­sity was a biased “Mexican.”

The examples picked to be show­cased in the report are clearly inten­ded to further the pres­id­ent’s partic­u­lar policy agenda. All of the examples cited are Muslim, of course, but they do not seem to have been selec­ted on the basis of the threat posed to people in the U.S., or even the sever­ity of the conduct. Not one of the examples included was born an Amer­ican. Instead, they tick other boxes. Five out of the eight came to the U.S. through rela­tion­ships with family members, or as the admin­is­tra­tion likes to call it: “chain migra­tion.” Over the same period, almost 11 million people migrated to the U.S. under this type of pref­er­ence. One of the examples listed came to the U.S. through the diversity lottery and another was the child of someone who won the diversity lottery. That’s out of almost 750,000 people who came here through the program. They even found one refugee – liter­ally one out of a million — who came to the U.S. between 2001 and 2016. The threat posed by these people is obvi­ously insig­ni­fic­ant. The intent to high­light examples that fit with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s immig­ra­tion prior­it­ies is equally obvi­ous.

While the intent behind the report is clear, the numbers it relies on are either delib­er­ately inflated or unveri­fi­able. To begin with, the report does­n’t distin­guish between indi­vidu­als who volun­tar­ily moved to the U.S. and those who were extra­dited here specific­ally to be prosec­uted and who clearly cannot be categor­ized as “immig­rants.”

The report’s analysis claims to be based on a list main­tained by DOJ’s National Secur­ity Divi­sion, which iden­ti­fies 549 indi­vidu­als convicted of “inter­na­tional terror­ism-related charges” in federal courts between Sept. 11, 2001 and Dec. 31, 2016. It closely tracks with a 2016 analysis led by Attor­ney General Jeff Sessions when he was a senator. The prob­lem is that like the Sessions analysis, today’s report by DHS and DOJ lumps together terror­ism convic­tions and the undefined category of “terror­ism-related charges.” While the DOJ list cited by the new report has not been made public, the list published just a year earlier provides a good proxy for under­stand­ing the flaws contained within the current analysis. The 2015 list included 627 indi­vidu­als, approx­im­ately half of whom were convicted for “terror­ism-related” offenses. These were indi­vidu­als who prosec­utors thought might have a connec­tion to terror­ism, but were never even charged with a terror­ism offense. While it is impossible to say whether some of these might prop­erly be coun­ted as terror­ism, there is reason to distrust this number: In 2013, the DOJ Inspector General found that the Justice Depart­ment was signi­fic­antly over­stat­ing its “terror­ism-related” convic­tions.

Never­the­less, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion seems determ­ined to send the message that people coming to the U.S., espe­cially from Muslim coun­tries, are determ­ined to carry out terror­ist attacks and harm Amer­ic­ans. However, earlier DOJ numbers show that a total of 40 convic­tions (or less than three per year) were related to planned terror­ist attacks on the U.S. Typic­ally, a large major­ity of terror­ism charges are for mater­ial support. Accord­ing to a study by Ford­ham University’s Center on National Secur­ity, almost 70 percent of all ISIS-related convic­tions from May 2014 to June 2016 were for mater­ial support. Mater­ial support can include conduct such as trav­el­ing abroad to join a terror­ist group, but it can also be as limited as send­ing a few hundred dollars to someone over­seas or even trans­lat­ing a docu­ment. Finally, many – by some counts close to half – of terror­ism prosec­u­tions involve FBI sting oper­a­tions, which are often criti­cized for ensnar­ing indi­vidu­als with no connec­tion to terror­ist groups or capa­city for carry­ing out viol­ence.

There is far more to say about today’s report, includ­ing its obvi­ously biased treat­ment of viol­ence against women, as well as the sugges­tion that the govern­ment’s many and varied watch lists actu­ally bear a real rela­tion­ship to the threat of terror­ism. But it’s clear that this report has but one purpose: to buttress weak and xeno­phobic argu­ments for a restrict­ive immig­ra­tion policy.

(Photo: Getty)