Lies, Damned Lies, and Trump-Administration Terrorism Statistics

If you define your categories just right, you can create the illusion that Trump’s Muslim ban has something to do with terrorism, and justify an irrational fear of immigrants.


Last February, President Trump told a lie to a joint session of Congress:

According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.

He used this claim to justify his executive order to keep people from seven (later reduced to six) Muslim countries out the United States.

Tuesday, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice published a report to back up Trump’s lie. The Lawfare blog explains how you have to manipulate the data to support Trump’s claim and his executive order:

  • Substitute “international terrorism” for “terrorism”, so that you can ignore all the instances of domestic terrorism, where most of the perpetrators are native-born. When Wade Michael Page killed six people at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, for example, that would probably have been classified as domestic terrorism (if Page hadn’t short-circuited the legal process by killing himself). Dylann Roof’s shooting of nine at a black church in Charleston wasn’t classified as terrorism at all; it was a hate crime. Nobody knows what to call the Las Vegas shooting, but if shooter had been from Yemen it would of course count as “international terrorism”. The report considered only federal convictions, but according to another Lawfare analysis: “Other crimes that could easily fall under the domestic-terrorism umbrella are charged at the state level, making them even more difficult to track.”
  • Include nearly 100 foreign-born terrorists who didn’t come here, but were extradited here so that we could prosecute them. Imagine that we hadn’t killed Osama Bin Laden, but instead had brought him to New York and convicted him of conspiring in the 9-11 attacks. The HS/DoJ report would then count him as a foreign-born convicted terrorist. In addition to such foreign conspirators whose role in terrorism didn’t involve entering the U.S., our terrorism laws also cover attacks against American citizens on foreign soil, where American border security isn’t relevant in any way at all. So if Ahmed Abu Khattala is convicted of participating in the Benghazi attack, he will count as a foreign-born convicted terrorist also.
  • Fudge the difference between foreign countries in general and the ones mentioned in the travel ban. Even if you accept HS/DoJ’s skewed set of categories, the resulting analysis doesn’t support Trump’s executive order. Lawfare says: “The six listed countries are not among those with the greatest representation on the list of terrorism-related convictions from 2001 to 2015. Only one — Somalia — is even in the top five, and it ranks fifth.” For example, Saudi Arabia (not on Trump’s list) accounted for 15 of the 19 9-11 hijackers. None of the other four came from listed countries.

So what would happen if you did an honest analysis of the foreign-born role in American terrorism? Lawfare’s Nora Ellingsen and Lisa Daniels  found some of the flaws in the data too difficult to overcome (like the domestic terrorists charged under hate-crime and other non-terrorism laws), but ignoring those problems (which they admitted would still make their numbers too high), they made an attempt back in April.

So what would the numbers look like if we excluded extradited subjects while including all of these domestic terrorists—the approach that seems to us the unbiased way to express the real rate at which foreign-born, as opposed to domestic-born, people are committing terrorist or terrorism-related crimes?

If we clean up the data to account for the issues described above, instead of accounting for between 63 and 71 percent of terrorism convictions, foreign-born persons would likely account for only 18 to 21 percent of terrorism convictions.

Quartz pointed to another problem: Both the HS/DoJ report and its clean-up by Lawfare count not just acts of terrorist violence, but also “terrorism-related” crimes that could be just about anything.

[T]he vague term “terrorism-related charges” inflates numbers by including not just people who broke laws “directly related to international terrorism,” but others who were convicted of totally unrelated offenses, such as fraud or illegal immigration in the course of a terrorism-related investigation. … One example of how this can happen is the case of three Middle-Eastern grocers who were convicted for stealing boxes of Kellogg’s cereal in 2000 — but remained on the list of terrorism-related cases because the Federal Bureau of Investigation questioned them after a source inaccurately tipped agents that the three men had tried to buy a rocket-propelled grenade.

Another problem in the data: Maybe the Feds find so many “terrorism-related offenses” among people born in Muslim-majority countries because that’s where they’re looking. For example, the HS/DoJ report tells about Uzair Paracha, a Pakistani convicted of “providing material support to al Qaeda”. He was never connected to any actual act of terrorism, but was convicted of helping somebody whose hazy plans “to attack gasoline stations” never got specific enough to carry out. (The plot to bring him back into the U.S. failed, but exactly what he would have done if he got here is unclear.) The somebody “discussed” giving Paracha and his father $200K in exchange for their help, but the money never actually changed hands, and maybe never existed in the first place.

I have to wonder: If the Feds went after domestic terrorist groups with equal vigor, if they put all known white supremacists under constant surveillance and interpreted every big-talker’s violent fantasy as a “plot” that turned all his listeners into “conspirators”, how many additional terrorism-related convictions could they add to their total? (Dear FBI: In bars, I have materially aided plots against the Koch brothers by buying the next round. None of us had any weapons or knew exactly where the Kochs live, but if stuff like doesn’t matter, we’re guilty.)

In short, the numbers in the report really have nothing to do with the terrorist tendencies of immigrants or refugees, and say nothing about whether we need to change the way we let foreigners enter the United States. They’re just artifacts of the way the terms are defined. They do not at all support the White House’s subsequent claim that “Our current immigration system jeopardizes American security.”

And finally, the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh puts the whole foreign-born terrorism problem in context:

[Between 1975 and 2015], the chance of an American being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was 1 in 3,609,709 a year. The chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion a year. The annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist.

So if the Trump travel ban isn’t about terrorism, what is it about? Nativism.

What picks those countries out is that their residents are largely non-white Muslims, and (unlike Saudi Arabia, which is a much larger source of both terrorists and material support for terrorism) the Trump Organization has no business interests there. If you think of America as a white Christian nation, and worry that it’s losing that identity, then you don’t want people coming here from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen.

If you’re also against letting in brown-skinned Spanish-speakers from Mexico or Central America, you’re happy to lump them in with the “foreign-born” as well. That’s all that’s going on here.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • ericralbright  On January 22, 2018 at 9:32 am

    “Team Trump Bypassed DHS Analysts to Produce Bogus Terror Report”

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/team-trump-bypassed-dhs-analysts-to-produce-bogus-terror-report?ref=home

  • Xan  On January 22, 2018 at 10:49 am

    Couple of things– we need to stop using terms like “nativism” and start using terms like “racist” to describe racist things. Second, there are some articles going around the left-wing blogosphere that DHS did not provide the statistics in this report, but that they were manipulated/fabricated entirely by DoJ. Do you have info on this?

    • Xan  On January 22, 2018 at 10:49 am

      blurg, just saw the top comment. So that’s what I’m talking about.

  • GJacq726  On January 22, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Regarding the lack of outrage, I think it cones down to what is expected of a toddler vs. educated maturity. Why enough prefer the toddler is most likely identification of some sort. Sigh.

Trackbacks

  • By Troubles and Issues | The Weekly Sift on January 22, 2018 at 11:28 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Lies, Damned Lies, and Trump Administration Terrorism Statistics“. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: