Tag: terrorism

Fatalities and the Annual Chance of being Murdered in a European Terrorist Attack

Recent terrorist attacks in Europe have increased death tolls and boosted fears on both sides of the Atlantic. Last year, I used common risk analysis methods to measure the annual chance of being murdered in an attack committed on U.S. soil by foreign-born terrorists. This blog is a back of the envelope estimate of the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States from 2001 to 2017 is about 1 in 1.6 million per year. Over the same period, the chances are much lower in European countries.

Methods and Sources

Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom are included because they have suffered some of the largest terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years. Sweden and Germany are included because they have each allowed in large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers who could theoretically be terrorism risks.

The main sources of data are the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland for the years of 1975 to 2015, with the exception of 1993. I used the RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism to fill in the year 1993. I have not compiled the identities of the attackers, any other information about them, or the number of convictions for planning attacks in Europe. The perpetrators are excluded from the fatalities where possible. Those databases do not yet include the years 2016 and 2017, so I relied on Bloomberg and Wikipedia to supply a rough estimate of the number of fatalities in terrorist attacks in each country in those two years through June 20, 2017. The United Nations Population Division provided the population estimates for each country per year.

Trump’s No Good Very Bad Arms Deal

Tomorrow Congress will vote on resolutions of disapproval in response to Trump’s recent arms deal with Saudi Arabia. If passed, Senate Resolution 42 and House Resolution 102 would effectively block the sale of precision guided munitions kits, which the Saudis want in order to upgrade their “dumb bombs” to “smart bombs.” A similar effort was defeated last year in the Senate. How should we feel about this vote?
 
Before the ink was dry President Trump was busy bragging about his arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a deal that he claimed would reach $350 billion and would create “hundreds of thousands of jobs.” The sale bore all the hallmarks of Trump’s operating style. It was huge. It was a family deal—brokered by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It was signed with pomp and circumstance during the president’s first international trip. But most importantly, as with so many of his deals, the deal was all sizzle and no Trump Steak.™
 
Trump’s arms deal with the Saudis is in fact a terrible deal for the United States. It might generate or sustain some jobs in the U.S. It will certainly help the bottom line of a handful of defense companies. But from a foreign policy and national security perspective, the case against selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is a powerful one for many reasons.

Was the Rise of ISIS Inevitable?

In the latest issue of Survival, Hal Brands and Peter Feaver address an important debate in American foreign policy circles. Was the rise of ISIS inevitable, or was it the result of misguided U.S. policies? Most agree it is the latter, but the dispute gets fraught on the question of whether it was U.S. military interventionism or inaction that deserves the blame. Some say it was the invasion of Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS. Others insist it was Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

Brands and Feaver use counterfactual analysis to assess whether different U.S. policy decisions at four “inflection points” could have nipped the rise of ISIS in the bud. The first of these points was the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The other three occurred during the Obama administration and include the decision not to press Iraq to allow the United States to leave behind a significant number of U.S. troops, the decision not to intervene aggressively early on in the Syrian civil war, and the decision not to intervene more forcefully to help the government of Iraq defeat ISIS before it took the city of Mosul.

The authors take a middle road, arguing that, “the rise of ISIS was indeed an avertable tragedy,” but that both restraint and activism share the blame. Had U.S. policymakers not invaded Iraq in 2003, or been more aggressive in Iraq and Syria from 2011-2014, they argue, “ISIS might not have emerged at all.”

With suitable analytic humility, however, the authors warn against overconfidence that any of the alternatives would have made a decisive difference to the eventual outcome:

We find, for instance, that limited intervention in Syria in 2011-13 might have had benefits, but it probably would not have shifted the course of the conflict so fundamentally as to head of ISIS’s rise. Likewise, not invading Iraq in 2003 would have left the United States saddled with the costs of continuing to contain that country, whereas striking ISIS militarily in late 2013 or early 2014 might have weakened that organization militarily while exacerbating the political conditions that were fueling its rise. Intervening more heavily in Iraqi politics in 2010 in order to bring about a less sectarian government than that which ultimately emerged, and leaving a stay-behind force in Iraq after 2011, represent a fairly compelling counterfactual in the sense that such policies could have had numerous constructive effects. But even here, choosing a different path from the one actually taken would have meant courting non-trivial costs, liabilities, uncertainties and limitations (p. 10).

We applaud Brands and Feaver, who served in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, for their attempt to “move away from polemical and polarized assessments focused on assigning blame, and toward more granular, balanced analysis based on a fairer-minded view of what went wrong (p. 10).” At the same time, there is plenty of room for disagreement over their interpretation of the “what ifs” of such a complex historical question.

Trump Justifies Executive Order by Citing Terrorists Who Were Not Planning a Domestic Attack

President Trump’s updated executive order used the Bowling Green terrorists as a justification for his policy changes even though they weren’t planning a domestic terrorist attack. His order states that “in January 2013, two Iraqi nationals admitted to the United States as refugees in 2009 were sentenced to 40 years and to life in prison, respectively, for multiple terrorism-related offenses.” Those two Iraqi nationals were Mohanad Shareef Hammadi and Waad Ramadan Alwan and they were each convicted of multiple terrorism offenses—but they were not convicted or even charged with attempting to carry out a terror attack on U.S. soil despite some erroneous media reports to the contrary. 

Hammadi and Alwan were arrested in an FBI sting operation. Hammadi pled guilty to a 12-count indictment on multiple charges of providing material support to foreign terrorists, material support for a designated terrorist organization, exporting a missile system that could destroy aircraft, and fraudulently procuring a U.S. passport. Alwan pled guilty to a 23-count indictment that included engaging in terrorism against Americans overseas, teaching someone how to make a bomb, providing material support to foreign terrorists, material support for a designated terrorist organization, and exporting a missile system that could destroy aircraft. The FBI rendered all of the weapons inert before allowing Hammadi and Alwan to handle them so nobody was ever in any real danger.

Alwan did show a confidential informant how to build bombs but, according to the Department of Justice, those lessons were provided “with the intent that they be used to train others in the construction and use of such IEDs for the purpose of killing U.S. nationals overseas, including officers and employees of the United States.” The press release that announces Hammadi’s guilty plea doesn’t mention any support for domestic terrorist attacks. Additional court documents show neither Alwan nor Hammadi was charged or convicted of planning a domestic terror attack.

Upon their indictment, David J. Hale, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky said, “Whether they seek shelter in a major metropolitan area or in a smaller city in Kentucky, those who would attempt to harm or kill Americans abroad will face a determined and prepared law enforcement effort dedicated to the investigations and prosecutions necessary to bring them to justice.”

Upon their sentencing in 2013, Assistant Attorney General Monaco said, “These two former Iraqi insurgents participated in terrorist activities overseas and attempted to continue providing material support to terrorists while they lived here in the United States. With today’s sentences, both men are being held accountable.” 

Neither of those statements by U.S. attorneys, the numerous press releases I linked to above, nor the court documents show that Alwan or Hammadi was convicted or charged with planning a domestic terrorist attack. The sting operation was designed to show the two terrorists shipping weapons and money abroad to support insurgent operations against American forces in Iraq, not against Americans on U.S. soil. Alwan and Hammadi thought they were providing material and money for insurgents to kill Americans abroad—a serious crime but not one targeting Americans on U.S. soil. The overarching purpose of Trump’s new executive order is to protect the “nation from terrorist activities by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” The convictions of Alwan and Hammadi do not support the supposed overarching purpose of Trump’s executive order.  

42 Percent of “Terrorism-Related” Convictions Aren’t for Terrorism

The reason for President Trump’s reissued executive order is to “protect the Nation from terrorist activities by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” A further justification buried in the executive order is that “[s]ince 2001, hundreds of persons born abroad have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the United States.” 

What exactly is a “terrorism-related crime”? There is no definition in U.S. statutes. The phrase “terrorism-related” does appear but mostly in reference to actions of government officials in response to terrorism such as a terrorism-related travel advisory. One use of the phrase “terrorism-related” that makes the most sense in this context comes from the anti-terrorism Information Sharing Environment (ISE) that integrates information which the GAO defined as relating to “terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement, as well as other information.” That’s so broad that a reasonable person can’t possibly see “terrorism-related” as synonymous with “terrorism.”

If the people counted as “terrorism-related” convictions were really convicted of planning, attempting, or carrying out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil then supporters of Trump’s executive order would call them “terrorism convictions” and exclude the “related.” After all, when people are convicted of murder we don’t call it a “murder-related conviction.” We call it murder.

The most famous list of terrorism-related convictions is that published by Senator Sessions in 2016 that shows 580 convictions from 9/11 until the end of 2014 (the link isn’t working now for some reason). Sessions’ list appears to be the source of the worry that “hundreds of person born abroad have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the United States.”   

Only 339 of the 580 terrorism-related convictions on Sessions’ list were actually convicted of a terrorism crime. The other 241 (42 percent) were not convicted of a terrorism crime. “Terrorism-related” apparently includes investigations that begin due to a terrorism tip but then ended in non-terrorism convictions. My favorite examples of this are the convictions of Nasser Abuali, Hussein Abuali, and Rabi Ahmed. An informant told the FBI that the trio tried to purchase a rocket-propelled grenade launcher but the FBI found no evidence of that. The three individuals were instead convicted of the non-terrorist crime of receiving two truckloads of stolen cereal—which is not terrorism.

An additional 92 (16 percent) convictions were of U.S.-born citizens whose plots would not have been prevented by Trump’s executive order. 

That leaves 247 (43 percent) who were foreign-born and actually convicted of a real terrorist offense. Of those, 180 were convicted of material support for foreign terrorists, attempting to join foreign terrorist organizations, planning a terrorist attack abroad, or a similar offense taking place abroad. Twenty-seven were extradited to the United States and tried here for any one of the offenses listed abroad. Only 40 were convicted of planning, attempting, or carrying out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Future immigrants and non-immigrants who are similar to those 40 terrorists are the intended focus of Trump’s executive order.  They only comprise 6.9 percent of the 580 “terrorism-related” convictions listed by Senator Sessions.

At most, only 58 percent of the “terrorism-related” convictions given as the likely justification for this executive order can be classified as actual terrorism. The other 42 percent were not convicted of a terrorism offense. Only 6.9 percent were convicted or attempting, planning, or carrying out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

As a note, Stanford University associate professor of law Shirin Sinnar recently received an answer to a FOIA that showed 627 convictions to the end of 2015 but I have not been able to parse them by terrorism or non-terrorism convictions.    

Huge Net Costs from Trump’s New Executive Order Cutting Refugees

President Trump today issued a revised version of his infamous executive order to temporarily ban the issuance of new green cards and visas for nationals from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. The new order dropped Iraq, which eviscerated Trump’s argument that the list of banned countries is based on an existing list in U.S. law. The order also cuts the number of refugee admissions by about 37 percent compared to the post-1975 average number of annual refugees admitted—from 79,329 per year to just 50,000. However, there were 110,000 refugees scheduled to be admitted in 2017 so the actual decrease in refugees this year is a whopping 55 percent under this executive order. The Trump administration thinks this new order addresses many of the legal challenges made against the first version.

Introduction

When the first version of this order was signed at the end of January, Cato’s research showed that the actual domestic terrorism risk from nationals of those six countries was minor and that the order stands on shaky legal ground. For this iteration of the executive order, I intend to show that the permanent decrease in refugees costs native-born Americans more than we’d save from fewer terrorism deaths. This cost-benefit analysis does not look at the cost of temporarily reducing green cards and other visas.

Results

If Trump’s refugee reduction eliminated all deaths from refugee terrorists then it will cost native-born Americans about $159.4 million per life saved, which is about 10.6 times as great as the $15,000,000 per statistical life estimates if the average number of refugee admissions had stayed at 79,329 going forward (Figure 1). In other words, such a policy would reduce your annual chance of dying a terrorist attack committed by a refugee on U.S. soil from one in 3.64 billion per year to zero at a cost of $159.4 million per life saved. 

However, President Trump’s executive order is not decreasing refugee flows by 37 percent in 2017. The Obama administration slotted 110,000 refugee admissions for 2017, so this year’s reduction is actually 55 percent. If I assume that the new 110,000 annual admission figures would have been the new normal in the absence of Trump’s executive order, the economic costs increase to $326 million per life saved for a 100 percent reduction in your chance of dying in a refugee terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The economic costs incurred are about 21.7 times as great as the cost for a single death by refugee terrorist in this scenario (Figure 1). 

Visas Denied for Terrorism—Crunching the Numbers

From 2000 through the end of 2015, 6,329 immigrants and non-immigrants were ineligible for visas because of terrorist activities or association with terrorist organizations (Figure 1). A full 99.5 percent of the denials were for terrorist activities. Keeping terrorists, criminals, and other national security threats out of the United States is one of the federal government’s important immigration responsibilities but many of the people denied a visa shouldn’t have been. An overly broad definition of providing “material support” to terrorists results in bans that make little sense and do nothing to defend Americans from terrorist attacks.

For example, a young man who was living with his uncle in Colombia was attacked by paramilitaries who then forced the young man to march for several days.  Along the way, paramilitaries shot and killed many of those in the man’s group. Often times he was forced to watch the executions and, at times, to dig the graves of the dead. Sometimes the man was told that it was his own grave he was being forced to dig. The government denied his attempt to settle in the United States because his forced digging of graves provided “material support” in the form of “services” to a terrorist organization. 

Another example is of a Liberian woman who was abducted, raped repeatedly, and held hostage by LURD rebels after they invaded her house and killed her father. During this time they forced her to cook, clean, and do laundry. She eventually escaped and is now in a refugee camp but her attempted resettlement in the United States was put on hold because the tasks she had done for the rebels, such as doing laundry, provided “material support” in the form of “services” to a terrorist organization. 

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