Tag: terrorist

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.    

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. 

Immigration and Terrorism

Cato published a paper of mine today entitled “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis.”  I began this paper shortly after the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December last year when it became clear that few had attempted a terrorism risk analysis of immigration in general, let alone focusing on individual visa categories.  There were few studies on the immigration status of terrorists and the vast majority of them were qualitative rather than quantitative.  Inspired by the brilliant work of John Mueller and Mark Stewart, I decided to make my own.  

From 1975 through the end of 2015, 154 foreign-born terrorists murdered 3024 people on U.S. soil.  During that same time period, over 1.14 billion foreigners entered the United States legally or illegally.  About 7.4 million foreigners entered the United States for each one who ended up being a terrorist.  Startlingly, 98.6 percent of those 3024 victims were murdered on 9/11 (I did not count the terrorists as victims, obviously).  However, not every terrorist is successful.  Only 40 of those 154 foreign-born terrorists actually ended up killing anyone on U.S. soil.    

Immigrants frequently enter the United States on one visa and adjust their status to another.  Many tourists and other non-immigrants frequently enter legally and then fall out of status and become illegal immigrants.  I focused on the visas foreigners used to enter the United States because applications for that visa are when security screenings are initially performed. 

Woodward, Resilience, and Virtues of Partisan Foreign Policy

On the National Interest’s Skeptics blog, I have a new post about my lack of outrage over the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book about Obama and Afghanistan.

Unlike John Bolton and Heritage, I don’t think that the President’s comment that we can withstand another terrorist attack like 9-11 is offensive. After all, we can, and saying so doesn’t mean you want to try it.

As I put it there:

What’s truly outrageous is the notion that the only valid response to terrorism is cowering fear at home and endless warfare abroad. Somehow, for much the right, crediting our enemies with the ability to wreck our society is required, and it is verboten to say that we are something other than a pathetic, brittle nation that cannot manage adversity.

I also fail to get upset about the President’s worry that expanding the war in Afghanistan would alienate his base. Politics not only doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; it shouldn’t. I’m not sure exactly when popular checks on the war-making power went out of style, but I think we could use more of that in Afghanistan, not less. If pandering to the base can get us out of there one of these years, pander away.

The solution to bad policies is better politics, not no politics, to paraphase.

*I also recommend Paul Pillar’s post on the same subject. He says that the real news here is the Pentagon’s refusal to offer the President a policy alternative between population centric counter-insurgency and exit.

The GOP and the “Ground Zero” Mosque

Some leaders within the Republican Party seem to have fixed on a useful club with which to bludgeon the president and his fellow Democrats – Cordoba House, aka the “Ground Zero” Mosque. Over the weekend, Republican strategist Ed Rollins explained how the party would use the issue in the coming months:

ROLLINS: Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York, and it’s going to be a big, big issue for Democrats across this country.

“Face the Nation” Host Bob SCHIEFFER: So you see it as an issue that’s going to continue?

ROLLINS: Absolutely. No question about it. Every candidate – every candidate who’s in the challenge districts are going to be asked, how do you feel about building the mosque on the Ground Zero sites? 

This strategy, exploiting still-raw emotion and implicitly demonizing Muslims, threatens to trade short-term political gain for medium-term political harm to the party. And it most certainly will translate into long-term harm for the country at large.

Opposing the construction of a mosque near the Ground Zero site plays into al Qaeda’s narrative that the United States is engaged in a war with Islam, that bin Laden and his tiny band of followers represent something more than a pitiful group of murderers and thugs, and that all American Muslims are an incipient Fifth Column that must be either converted to Christianity or driven out of the country, else they will undermine American society from within.

It isn’t a political slam-dunk, either. Though 64 percent of Americans think a mosque near Ground Zero is ”inappropriate”, 60 percent of all respondents in the same survey, including 57 percent of Republicans, believe that the organizers have a right to build in that location, and presumably would not favor a government prohibition on this activity. (h/t  Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight) If anyone were to show evidence that the parties building the center were in any way linked to the 9/11 terrorists, or funded by or funding these same  terrorists, then the issues at stake would change.  But they haven’t done so, and are unlikely to do so. In the meantime, those GOP leaders who oppose the mosque betray a basic inability to discern public attitudes, even as they propel this country on a ruinous course, headlong into a civilizational war which pits all Americans against all Muslims.

A number of public officials and commentators, not all of them Obama supporters, have staked out a position that walks this country back from that precipice. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s courageous and eloquent statementon this issue should be read by all, not just Republicans. But Bloomberg is unlikely to swing opinion within the GOP base. So too with Fareed Zakaria, who nonetheless deserves enormous credit for distancing himself from any organization that would adopt a public position of thinly veiled bigotry, especially one whose mission is “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” Dan Drezner’s take is aimed squarely at right-of-center readers, and sprinkled with a tone of sarcasm; but he is a pointy-headed intellectual, so he’ll have a hard time convincing the most skeptical of the lot.

A more convincing spokesman for sensible voices on the Right is former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wisely opposes a short-sighted and cynical political strategy to exploit anti-Muslim sentiments. Likewise, Mark Halperin recognizes the political salience of an anti-mosque stance, but advises party leaders to steer clearof that position. Josh Barro at National Review Online renders a devastating refutation of all the dubious arguments erected to block the mosque. 

Indeed, George W. Bush himself set the tone in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, counseling against retaliation against innocent Muslims who had nothing to do with the attacks, and noting that a number of Muslims were killed on 9/11. Other conservative organizations and institutions took notice of Bush’s leadership, and wisely sacked the few voices who preached violence against all Muslims because nineteen of their coreligionists had perpetrated the attacks.

Not quite nine years later, we’ve come full-circle. With Bush enjoying retirement in Texas, who within the GOP will affirm the party’s position that declaring a war on Islam does not advance our nation’s security?

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Talking about Terrorism

Terrorists are named after an emotion for a reason. They use violence to produce widespread fear for a political purpose. The number of those they kill or injure will always be a small fraction of those they frighten. This creates problems for leaders, and even analysts, when they talk publicly about terrorism. On one hand, leaders need to convince the public that they are on the case in protecting them, or else they won’t be leaders for long. On the other hand, good leaders try to minimize unwarranted fear.

One reason is that we shouldn’t give terrorists what they want. Another is that fear is a real social harm, particularly when it is exaggerated. Stress from fear harms health. It causes bad decisions. For example, if people avoid flying and drive instead the number of added fatalities on the road will quickly surpass the dead from a typical terrorist attack. Most important, excessive fear causes policy responses that often damage the economy without much added safety. Measured in lives on dollars, reactions to terrorism often cost more than the attack themselves.

If leaders talk only about the danger of terrorism and everything they are doing to fight it, without putting danger in context, they may be on safe political ground, but they risk causing or prolonging groundless fear and encouraging all sorts of harmful overreactions. That is the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism record, in a nutshell. If leaders just say “calm down and worry about something more likely to harm you,” they will be butchered politically.

So a reasonable approach is to sound concerned but reassuring. You want to convince people that they are mostly safe without appearing complacent. I don’t like many of this administration’s counterterrorism policies, starting with Afghanistan, but thus far its communication about terrorism is far more sensible than the last administration’s. That includes the aftermath of this attempted Christmas Day attack.

The administration made it clear that it is unacceptable that a guy we just got warned about got onto a plane wearing explosives. But the President also said Americans should be generally confident in their safety from terrorism. He didn’t act as if this incident was the most important thing on his schedule this year or compare the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to the Third Reich or what have you, exaggerating their capability and power. I wish he had gone further and said that detonating explosives smuggled on to a plane is tricky and that flying remains incredibly safe. (Jim Harper will soon have more to say here on the security failures and how to talk about them.)

In a different political universe, the President could describe the terrorist threat honestly. He would say that recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States show more amateurism and failure than skill and success. He could add that we are fortunate that our greatest enemy, al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers, are scattered and weak compared the sorts of enemies we historically faced. He would sound more like Michael Bloomberg, who told New Yorkers that they had a better chance of being struck by lightening than killed by terrorists, after a particularly inept terrorist plot on JFK airport was uncovered. He could even quote Nate Silver, who calculates that in the last decade of US flights, there was one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. It’s true, as Kip Viscusi demonstrates, that people don’t think like actuaries. They rightly value different sorts of deaths in different ways, and want more protection against terrorism than other dangers. But knowing the odds is still important in weighing the appropriate amount of concern and forming policy preferences. The president could also have treated voters like grown-ups and pointed out that whatever flaws in airline security that this attempted attack reveals, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and sooner or later even the finest security systems fail.

I also disagree with the argument that the trouble with our airline security or national security policy-making in general is insufficient presidential attention. Overall, we could do with a little more masterly inactivity in security policy, to use an old British phrase. Aviation security is another matter, but I struggle to see how presidential involvement would have fixed this problem. The 9-11 Commission did claim that September 11 occurred because leaders failed to pay sufficient attention to al Qaeda, but there, as in other matters, the Commission is wrong. At least in the executive branch, the attention paid to the threat in the 1990s was quite substantial, as you can see in this essay by Josh Rovner or in my contribution to this book. The historical record shows that the threat was well understood by security officials and the reading public. Time, for example, called Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the world when they interviewed him in 1998. The trouble, in my opinion, was not misperception but our policies and the difficult and unprecedented nature of problem–a terrorist group ensconced in hostile country that refused to do anything about it.

Getting the line between confidence and vigilance right is not easy, but it starts with acknowledgment that there is such a thing as overreaction. That subject will be the on the agenda for our January 13 counterterrorism forum with James Fallows, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, Paul Pillar and others.

*My attempts to explain this stuff to Politico yesterday resulted in some confused and inaccurate uses of my quotes in this story by Carol E. Lee, which unconvincingly compares the Obama’s response to this terrorist attempt to his silly involvement in the Henry Louis Gates arrest fiasco. First, Lee absurdly uses me as example of “predictable” attacks from the right on Obama, when I said I was glad that the President said Americans should feel confident but that I’d have preferred if he’d done it more forcefully by saying flying remains safe and al Qaeda weak. That is more or less the opposite of the predictable take on the right. Then, she says that my views on the President’s response to the attacks referred to his post-press conference golf outing. I was talking about his overall response, or lack thereof, over the last several days. I can’t decipher the meaning of presidential golf.

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