The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice (DHS/DOJ) released a report this morning on the threat of international terrorism. This report was required by President Donald Trump’s executive order that, among other things, originally established the infamous travel ban. The new DHS/DOJ report produces little new information on immigration and terrorism and portrays some misleading and meaningless statistics as important findings. Interestingly, the draft version of the report had more interesting and useful information that was mysteriously edited out of the final public version. It’s remarkable that, given almost a year to produce such a report and with the vast resources of the federal government combined with reams of government information unavailable to the public, that they were able to produce a report of so little of value.
The DHS/DOJ report found that about 73 percent of those convicted of international terrorism-related offenses from 9/11 through the end of 2016 were foreign-born. That means that 27 percent of them were native-born Americans. By focusing exclusively on international terrorism-related charges, this report intentionally ignores domestic terrorists unaffiliated with international terrorists. Thus, the results of the DHS/DOJ report are, at best, a snapshot of the international subset of terrorism that ignores the purely domestic variety.
The DHS/DOJ report ignores the most important statistic: how many people were actually killed by these terrorists on U.S. soil. In our updated terrorism information that runs through the end of 2017, we found that a total of 155 people were killed on U.S. soil in terrorist attacks since January 1, 2002, 34 of them by foreign-born terrorists and 121 of them by domestic terrorists (going back to September 12, 2001 does not add any deaths by identifiable terrorists on U.S. soil but would diminish the chance of dying, so I excluded it from this blog post to bias the results against me). Since the beginning of 2002, native-born Americans were responsible for 78 percent of all murders in terrorist attacks committed on U.S. soil while foreign-born terrorists only committed 22 percent. Including the actual number of deaths caused by terrorists flips the DHS/DOJ statistics on its head.
From the beginning of 2002 through 2017, about the period of time covered by the DHS/DOJ report, the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a native-born American on U.S. soil was about one in 40.6 million per year. During the same period, the chance of being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was about one in 145 million per year. The total chance was about one in 32 million a year. To put that one in 32 million a year chance in perspective, the annual chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist homicide was about one in 19,325 per year or about 1,641 times as great as being killed in any terrorist attack since 9/11. These numbers are based on updated and expanded data that we plan on publishing in the near future (available upon request).
The DHS/DOJ report found that at least 549 people were convicted of international terrorism-related charges in federal court from 9/11 to the end of 2016. These are fewer than the 627 convictions that the DOJ reported through the end of 2015. What accounts for the 78 fewer convictions over a longer period? The DHS/DOJ report does not attempt to reconcile their report here with what they have reported previously. Furthermore, the DHS/DOJ report does not supply the relevant information about the numbers of convictions for terrorism-related offenses, their names, or the actual offenses they committed. The DHS/DOJ report should have published this information just as the government has done in the past in request to FOIAs.
The DHS/DOJ relies on “terrorism-related convictions” as their important metric, a definition that encompasses numerous convictions that have nothing to do with terrorism. There is no definition of “terrorism-related” as a crime in U.S. statutes. The phrase “terrorism-related” appears mostly in reference to actions of government officials in response to terrorism such as a “terrorism-related travel advisory.” The anti-terrorism Information Sharing Environment, which integrates information which the GAO, defines “terrorism-related” as relating to “terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement, as well as other information.” That is a definition that so broad “terrorism-related” is not synonymous with “terrorism.”
The DHS/DOJ report reveals that the DHS had 2,554 encounters with individuals on the terrorist watch list via the FBI’s Terrorists Screening Database (TSDB) in FY 2017. That means that DHS could have had multiple encounters with the same individuals who were all counted as separate “encounters.” The TSDB includes the identities of hundreds of thousands of known and suspected terrorists who are both native-born Americans, foreign-born travelers and immigrants to the United States, and foreigners who have not traveled here. According to a DOJ audit of the TSDB, frontline officers conducted about 270 million checks against the TSDB every month in 2007 with a total of about 3.24 billion checks per year. Assuming those numbers were unchanged for FY 2017, even though that number has likely increased, and that only 10 percent of them were conducted by DHS, means that about 0.0008 percent of all TSDB checks conducted by DHS resulted in a TSDB hit, or about one for about every 127,000 checks. That does sound dangerous until you realize that people flagged by the TSDB are not necessarily terrorists. Even U.S. Senators and Congressmen have been included on the TSDB list. Getting one’s name on the TSDB list is easy but getting off is very difficult. As the DOJ audit of the TSDB noted:
[O]ur file review found that the State Department and the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection did not revise encounter records in a screening database in a timely fashion to reflect modified or removed terrorist identities.
Thus, the DHS/DOJ reported TSDB encounters statistic is virtually meaningless. It’s a count of people the government is concerned about without evidence or a clear way of being removed. The DHS/DOJ report could have told us how many of these folks actually committed a terrorist attack, eventually did so over time, or were arrested for a terrorism offense but they missed that opportunity.
The DHS/DOJ report on international terrorism reveals little new information on the international terrorist threat to Americans on U.S. soil. Unusual for a government report on terrorism, it isn't even capable of providing many scary-sounding statistics that could frighten people. While that last point is an improvement, future reports on this topic should seek to provide information on this important topic that isn’t publicly known. This report fails to do that.