Tag: terrorism

Assuaging Trump: Fear-mongering and the Times

Donald Trump has of late been complaining that the media has been underplaying the threat presented by Islamist terrorism.     

Although one could question whether a hazard that has inflicted six deaths per year in the United States since 9/11 actually represents something that could be called a “threat,” the New York Times in its Sunday, February 5 edition presented on its front page an exercise in terrorism fear-mongering that should surely warm Trump’s heart, if any.

The article, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All” by Rukmini Callimachi seeks in the most ominous tones to demonstrate “How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar.”    

The article does an excellent job at showing how a few ISIS operatives have been trying through internet communication to stir up violence by sympathetic would-be jihadists around the world. However, the evidence from the article includes enough information to indicate that this effort has been an abject, even almost comedic, failure.

Dying From a Terrorist Attack Is Different than Slipping in Your Bathtub

David French at National Review criticized Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times op-ed where he wrote that many other hazards like bathtubs, stairs, and lightning strikes are deadlier than foreign-born terrorism on U.S. soil.  French is correct that there is a big difference between dying as the result of an accident and dying as a result of murder (intentional killing committed by another person).  Murder is scarier than an accidental death so people are willing to tolerate more precautionary measures to prevent it.  The costs of death appear to be the same to the victim but many risk analysts disagree.  A 2010 report endorsed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated the value of each life saved at $6.5 million but argued that $13 million was justifiable.  Another report estimated the value of a statistical life at $15 million.  People seem to intrinsically be repelled when the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack is compared to your chance of being killed in a bathtub.

My preferred comparison is your annual chance of being murdered by a terrorist versus being murdered in a homicide.  One in 3.6 million people were murdered in a terrorist attack by a foreign-born terrorist on U.S. soil per year from 1975 through the end of 2015 (one in 3.2 million per year for all terrorist attacks committed on U.S. soil by any perpetrator).  One in 14,219 people per year were murdered on U.S. soil by a non-terrorist homicide during the same period.  Comparing murder by terrorist and deaths by accident is useful for explaining the frequency of rare events.  The understandable desire to compare the likelihood of infrequent yet scary events to other infrequent but less scary events is a useful academic, mathematical, or cost-benefit exercise but it is not effective at convincing people to more rationally view the real risk from terrorism.  People understand there is an important distinction between those who die as a result of murder and those who die from accidents.

However, French’s criticism of Kristof for focusing on terrorism deaths caused by foreigners on U.S. soil is off base.  French’s sarcastic comparison to World War II summarizes his position:

By that logic, never mind about those Nazis. Much ado about nothing. After all, ladders, bathtubs, toddlers, and husbands were all more deadly “in America” from 1939-1945 than the SS or the Wermacht. Millions of died overseas, including hundreds of thousands of Americans, but the Germans couldn’t strike us here at home. So all that hysteria over Hitler? Fearmongering, really. He couldn’t hurt us.

The reason Kristof distinguishes between murders committed by terrorists on the homeland and those killed overseas is because Trump’s executive order is entirely concerned with stopping terrorists from entering the United States and committing attacks here. 

The title of Trump’s executive order is:   “EXECUTIVE ORDER: PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES.” 

The first header of the executive order is “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” 

The first full sentence is: 

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America, including the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. 1101 et seq., and section 301 of title 3, United States Code, and to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States, it is hereby ordered as follows [emphasis added].

Guide to Trump’s Executive Order to Limit Migration for “National Security” Reasons

President Trump is expected to sign an executive order shortly to temporarily ban all visas for people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia among other actions.  An advanced copy of this order was available earlier this week.  The first sentence of his order states that it is to “protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.”  However, the countries that Trump chose to temporarily ban are not serious terrorism risks. 

I compiled a list of foreign-born people who committed or were convicted of attempting to commit a terrorist attack on U.S. soil from 1975 through 2015.  Below is a table with the distribution of their countries of origin (Figure 1).  The first seven countries are those to be initially and, hopefully, temporarily denied visas.  During the time period analyzed here, 17 foreign-born folks from those nations were convicted of carrying out or attempting to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and they killed zero people.  Zero Libyans or Syrians intended to carry out an attack on U.S. soil during this time. 

Figure 1

Foreign-Born Terrorist Country of Origin, 1975-2015

Country

Terrorists

Murders

Terrorists (percent)

Murders (percent)

Iran

6

0

3.9%

0.0%

Iraq

2

0

1.3%

0.0%

Libya

0

0

0.0%

0.0%

Somalia

2

0

1.3%

0.0%

Sudan

6

0

3.9%

0.0%

Syria

0

0

0.0%

0.0%

Yemen

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Afghanistan

3

0

1.9%

0.0%

Algeria

4

0

2.6%

0.0%

Armenia

6

1

3.9%

0.0%

Australia

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Bangladesh

2

0

1.3%

0.0%

Bosnia

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Croatia

9

1

5.8%

0.0%

Cuba

11

3

7.1%

0.1%

Dominican Republic

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Egypt

11

162

7.1%

5.4%

Ethiopia

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

France

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Ghana

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Guyana

2

0

1.3%

0.0%

Haiti

3

0

1.9%

0.0%

India

2

0

1.3%

0.0%

Japan

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Jordan

4

0

2.6%

0.0%

Kazakhstan

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Kosovo

2

0

1.3%

0.0%

Kuwait

2

6

1.3%

0.2%

Kyrgyzstan

2

3

1.3%

0.1%

Lebanon

4

158.5

2.6%

5.2%

Macedonia

3

0

1.9%

0.0%

Mexico

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Morocco

3

0

1.9%

0.0%

Nigeria

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Pakistan*

14

3

9.1%

0.1%

Palestine

5

2

3.2%

0.1%

Saudi Arabia*

19

2,369

12.3%

78.3%

Serbia

2

0

1.3%

0.0%

South Korea

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Taiwan

1

1

0.6%

0.0%

Trinidad and Tobago

2

0.5

1.3%

0.0%

Turkey

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

United Arab Emirates

2

314

1.3%

10.4%

United Kingdom

3

0

1.9%

0.0%

Uzbekistan

3

0

1.9%

0.0%

Vietnam

1

0

0.6%

0.0%

Total

154

3,024

100.0%

100.0%

Sources: John Mueller, ed., Terrorism Since 9/11: The American Cases; RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents; National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism Global Terrorism Database; Center on National Security; Charles Kurzman, “Spreadsheet of Muslim-American Terrorism Cases from 9/11 through the End of 2015,” University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill; Department of Justice; Federal Bureau of Investigation; New America Foundation; Mother Jones; Senator Jeff Sessions; Various news sources; Court documents.

*San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik was born in Pakistan but mostly resided in Saudi Arabia from the time she was an infant. She physically met her U.S. born husband in Saudi Arabia.  I counted her as Saudi but one could reasonably count her as Pakistani because she was born in Pakistan and she held a Pakistani passport.  Doing so would transfer 14 terrorist murders from the Saudi Arabia’s row to Pakistan’s row.      

Attempting or committing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is not the only terrorist offense.  Materially supporting foreign terrorist organizations, seeking to join a foreign terrorist group overseas, plotting or carrying out terrorist attacks in other countries, and others are also terrorism offenses.  I excluded foreign-born people convicted of those offenses because Trump is concerned with “making America safe again,” not with making other countries safe or with a global war on terrorism.  A terrorist attack in another country doesn’t kill Americans inside of the United States and these threats are not what concern American voters nearly as much as terrorism on U.S. soil.  You can call this an America First weighting of terrorism offenses.

Little National Security Benefit to Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

Tomorrow, President Trump is expected to sign an executive order enacting a 30-day suspension of all visas for nationals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.  Six Iranians, six Sudanese, two Somalis, two Iraqis, and one Yemini have been convicted of attempting or carrying out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Zero Libyans or Syrians have been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during that time period.

Many other foreigners have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses that did not include planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  One list released by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) details 580 terror-related convictions since 9/11. This incomplete list probably influenced which countries are temporarily banned, and likely provided justification for another section of Trump’s executive order, which directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release all information on foreign-born terrorists going forward, and requires additional DHS reports to study foreign-born terrorism.

I exhaustively evaluated Senator Sessions’ list of convictions based on publicly available data and discovered some startling details.

Trump Towers or Trump Targets?

Donald Trump’s election ushers in a new challenge for homeland security and counterterrorism both at home and abroad. Trump owns, has a stake in, or has lent his name to scores of properties all over the United States and the world. A terrorist could decide to target a Trump Tower in Stuttgart, a Trump hotel in South Korea, or a Trump golf resort in Dubai. A terrorist might even decide to target the famous carousel in Central Park, which Trump also owns. The attraction to the terrorist is obvious: Trump’s hotels, resorts, and condominiums are vulnerable “soft targets,” without any of the serious security measures surrounding American embassies or other government buildings. Even better, most of these targets have the president’s name on them in huge letters. Clearly the symbolic damage of such an attack would be immense.

What is not clear, however, is just how great a threat this exposure represents and how the United States should deal with it.

A quick look at the list of Trump’s properties reveals that several of them are located in countries with significant serious civil unrest and instability. Trump Tower in Istanbul, for example, probably seemed like a pretty safe bet five or ten years ago as Turkey was working towards membership of the European Union. But today, thanks to spillover from the Syrian civil war, the failed military coup, and the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, the neighborhood seems much less secure than it used to.

Trump properties in Muslim-majority nations may present the greatest risk of attack, given Trump’s hardline rhetoric towards the Islamic State and towards Muslims and Islam more generally. Trump Tower Manila, for example, sits within easy striking distance of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and has a history of bombing attacks. Trump also owns high-visibility properties in Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, and India, all of which house one or more jihadist groups. Even Trump Tower in Seoul might not be safe: ISIS has recently labeled South Korea an enemy of the caliphate, attempting to incite attacks on U.S. installations in South Korea. In all of these locales, Trump Towers might prove to be an irresistible target.

Trump’s properties clearly present a new kind of Achilles heel for the United States, but what exactly should be done about the potential threat? One position might be to argue that the United States should do nothing. After all, the United States government bears no legal responsibility for providing security at these private establishments. But practically speaking it seems obvious that a major terrorist attack on one of Trump’s towers would have political and security implications that go well beyond the legal question. Attacks on American embassies from Tehran to Benghazi, for example, have always provoked anger and support for retaliation among U.S. citizens. Aware of the symbolism of an attack on a Trump Tower, Americans would likely feel similarly, putting pressure on the U.S. government to respond.

Perhaps one of the most critical aspects to consider along these lines is the reaction of the president himself. How would Trump respond if Trump Tower in Istanbul went up in smoke, killing hundreds of people? From everything we have seen since he began his presidential campaign, it seems likely that Trump would take such an act extremely personally. And given his hawkish rhetoric about dealing with terrorism, it is possible that Trump would respond emotionally, using his executive authority to take extreme measures beyond those dictated by a cool calculation of costs and benefits. Unfortunately, not only might such a response be dangerous and counterproductive for the United States, it might also play right into the hands of terrorists seeking to provoke just such an overreaction.

A second possibility is for Trump to divest from his private holdings and to begin to take the necessary steps to rename his associated properties. This would have the benefit of dramatically reducing the symbolic value of the properties as targets while simultaneously reducing the potential emotional impact on Trump himself. An attack on a hotel that “used” to bear Trump’s name is less likely to offend his ego and to provoke him to an overreaction.

If Trump is unwilling to do this, then he must come up with an alternative plan to ensure that his privately-owned properties and those bearing his name do not expose him to potential blackmail or provocation once he becomes president. Unfortunately, Trump’s reluctance to divest from his businesses, or even to acknowledge the potential for conflicts of interest, strongly suggests that he will not come up with such a plan, or even admit that such a plan is necessary. If so, Trump will be choosing to leave the United States vulnerable on a new front in the battle against terrorism.

Delete NSEERS Before Trump Takes Office

This week Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and Trump transition team adviser, told Reuters that Trump’s team had discussed his plan to restore a registry of immigrants from predominantly Arab and Muslim counties. The registry, which was part of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), operated from 2002 until 2011. The Obama administration suspended it, citing efficiency issues. Although NSEERS was suspended it could very easily be resuscitated and made worse. This is by design. A 2012 Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) report reveals that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rejected a recommendation to terminate the NSEERS program, saying that the system would allow DHS to register “a category of aliens” in the future.

In the wake of 9/11 the Department of Justice (DOJ) built NSEERS. DHS took control of the program after it was established in 2003. Under NSEERS, nonimmigrant aliens from 25 countries were fingerprinted, interviewed, photographed, and required to check in with officials at regular intervals. Twenty-four of these 25 countries were majority-Arab and Muslim (North Korea was the other country).

Although in place for almost a decade, NSEERS was ineffective as an anti-terrorism tool. Because of the inscrutable rules associated with NSEERS, thousands of men and boys were deported while the system was up and running.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that in February 2012 a DHS OIG report found that, “The NSEERS program for special registration of certain categories of aliens from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries, and the database that supports this program, is obsolete and should be terminated.”

The Terrorism Risk of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees: The Minnesota, New York, and New Jersey Terrorist Attacks

News stories are now suggesting that the Minnesota stabber Dahir Adan entered the United States as a Somali refugee when he was 2 years old.  Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspected bomber in New York and New Jersey, entered as an Afghan asylum-seeker with his parents when he was 7 years old.  The asylum and refugee systems are the bedrocks of the humanitarian immigration system and they are under intense scrutiny already because of fears over Syrian refugees.    

The vetting procedure for refugees, especially Syrians, is necessarily intense because they are overseas while they are being processed.  The security protocols have been updated and expanded for them.  This security screening should be intense.  The process for vetting asylum-seekers, who show up at American ports of entry and ask for asylum based on numerous criteria, is different.  Regardless, no vetting system will prevent or detect child asylum-seekers or child refugees from growing up and becoming terrorists any more than a child screening program for U.S.-born children will be able to prevent or detect those among us will grow up to be a terrorist. 

Adan and Rahami didn’t manage to murder anyone due to their incompetence, poor planning, potential mental health issues, luck, armed Americans, and the quick responses by law enforcement.  Regardless, some may want to stop all refugees and asylum seekers unless they are 100 percent guaranteed not to be terrorists or to ever become terrorists.  Others are more explicit in their calls for a moratorium on all immigration due to terrorism.  These folks should know that the precautionary principle is an inappropriate standard for virtually every area of public policy, even refugee screening.   

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