Tag: terrorist

More Americans Die in Animal Attacks than in Terrorist Attacks

Comparing the risk of dying in a terrorist attack to a common household accident like slipping in the bathtub is inappropriate.  After all, inanimate objects like bathtubs do not intend to kill, so people rightly distinguish them from murderers and terrorists.  My research on the hazard posed by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil focuses on comparing that threat to homicide, since both are intentional actions meant to kill or otherwise harm people.  Homicide is common in the United States, so it is not necessarily the best comparison to deaths in infrequent terror attacks.  Yesterday, economist Tyler Cowen wrote about another comparable hazard that people are aware of, that is infrequent, where there is a debatable element of intentionality, but that does not elicit nearly the same degree of fear: deadly animal attacks.

Cowen’s blog post linked to an academic paper by medical doctors Jared A. Forrester, Thomas G. Weiser, and Joseph H. Forrester who parsed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mortality data to identify those whose deaths were caused by animals in the United States. According to their paper, animals killed 1,610 people in the United States from 2008 through 2015. Hornets, wasps, and bees were the deadliest and were responsible for 29.7 percent of all deaths, while dogs were the second deadliest and responsible for 16.9 percent of all deaths. 

The annual chance of being killed by an animal was 1 in 1.6 million per year from 2008 through 2015.  The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was 1 in 30.1 million per year during that time.  The chance of being murdered by a native-born terrorist was 1 in 43.8 million per year, more than twice as deadly as foreign-born terrorists at 1 in 104.2 million per year.  The small chance of being murdered in an attack committed by foreign-born terrorists has prompted expensive overreactions that do more harm than good, such as the so-called Trump travel ban, but address smaller risks than those posed by animals.

New Government Terrorism Report Provides Little Useful Information

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.

One in a Billion Chance a Year of Being Killed by a Chain Immigrant in a Terror Attack

Yesterday, Bangladesh-born Akayed Ullah attempted a suicide bombing in New York City.  Fortunately, he only injured a few people and severely burned his own torso.  Ullah entered the United States on an F4 green card for the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.

Some are using Ullah’s failed terrorist attack to call for further restricting family-based immigration and the green card lottery.  After hearing about the failed terrorist attack, President Trump argued that “Today’s terror suspect entered our country through extended-family chain migration, which is incompatible with national security … Congress must end chain migration.”  Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also argued for ending chain immigration and the visa lottery program.  He said ending those green card programs “would make us safer.”

Neither President Trump nor Rep. Goodlatte indicated how much safer ending chain immigration or the diversity visa would make us.  Since September 2016, I have been updating information on the number of people killed in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil by foreign-born terrorists according to the visa they initially used to enter the United States.

President Trump’s New Travel Executive Order Has Little National Security Justification

President Trump issued a new proclamation that expanded a list of the so-called “travel ban” countries that were the subject of an executive order he issued early in his administration. His first order temporarily banned the entry of nationals from six countries for dubious national security reasons. His new order expands the list to eight countries (as I somewhat predicted). They include Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. From the original six, he subtracted Sudan and added Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela. The new executive order is also not a complete ban for all of those countries. All North Koreans and Syrians are barred from obtaining visas while nationals from the other six countries face varying degrees of additional security checks on specific visas or broader categories (such as nonimmigrant or immigrant).

President Trump issued an executive order earlier this year that temporarily banned the entry of all nationals from six foreign countries in order to “protect the nation from terrorist activities by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” The six (originally seven) Muslim-majority countries were targeted because of the supposed inability of those governments and the United States to sufficiently vet nationals from there for terrorist intent. The order is currently tied up in the courts.

From 1975 through the end of 2015, zero Americans have been killed by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil who hail from any of the eight countries on the new executive order (Figure 1). Only nine terrorists from those countries have carried out an attack or actually been convicted of planning an attack on U.S. soil during that time. About 42 percent of all convictions for terrorism-related offenses are for non-terrorist crimes and very few of them could even be considered vetting failures.

Figure 1

Terrorists and Murders by Country

 

Terrorists

Murders

Chad

0

0

Iran

6

0

Libya

0

0

North Korea

0

0

Somalia

2

0

Syria

0

0

Venezuela

0

0

Yemen

1

0

Source: 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.

Executive Orders like these have big and guaranteed economic costs with negligible and unlikely boosts to security. The risk of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a foreigner on U.S. soil from 1975 through 2015 was about 1 in 3.6 million per year. Four of the Iranian terrorists (44 percent of the total domestic terrorists from all eight countries) attempted to kidnap the governor of Minnesota in 1979. Those four Iranians were students who are specifically exempted from this new executive order—so only five terrorists would actually have been stopped from those countries. This list of eight countries is not a list of nations whose citizens are the most likely to kill Americans in domestic terrorist attacks. Due to the high guaranteed cost of Executive Orders like these and the small potential security benefits, the administration should supply an excellent reason for this order along with sufficient evidence to demonstrate their claim. It speaks volumes that they have not done so.

Terrorism Deaths by Ideology: Is Charlottesville an Anomaly?

One person was murdered in a likely terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia this Saturday when a suspected white nationalist named Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a group of protesters. Prominent people on both sides of the political spectrum have condemned the politically motivated violence. However, some commentators have pointed out that left wing terrorists and rioters have also committed violence in recent years, though they have not provided any data with which to compare the relative scale of the violence. This blog fills that void by describing terrorist murders and injuries by the political ideology of the perpetrators. Also, though the chance of being murdered or injured in a terrorist attack is minor, there is wide variation in the ideology of terrorists. 

Data and Methodology

This post examines 25 years of terrorism on U.S. soil from 1992 through August 12, 2017. Fatalities and injuries in terrorist attacks are the most important measures of the cost of terrorism. The information sources are the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland and the RAND Corporation. Other organizations seem to count many religiously or racially motivated crimes as terrorist offenses, an overcounting that I attempted to avoid. I estimate the number of murders committed by terrorists in 2017 from online sources although they may be incomplete. As much as possible, I excluded terrorists who died or were injured in their attacks as they are not victims.

I grouped the ideology of the attackers into four broad groups: Islamists, Nationalists and Right Wingers, Left Wingers, and Unknown/Other. Global Terrorism Database descriptions of the attackers and news stories were my guide in organizing the groups by ideology. Islamists and unknown/other straightforward. Left Wing terrorists include Communists, Socialists, animal rights activists, anti-white racists, LGBT extremists, attackers inspired by Black Lives Matter, and ethnic or national separatists who also embrace Socialism. Nationalist and Right Wing terrorists include white nationalists, Neo-Confederates, non-socialist secessionists, nationalists, anti-Communists, fascists, anti-Muslim attackers, anti-immigration extremists, Sovereign Citizens, bombers who targeted the IRS, militia movements, and abortion clinic bombers. Some of the marginal attacks are open to reinterpretation but the ideology of the attackers by death and injury are straightforward in virtually all cases.

Heritage Report Shows Refugees Are Not a Major Threat

Olivia Enos, David Inserra, and Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation published an interesting Backgrounder last week about the U.S. refugee program. We agree with many, though not all, of its conclusions and think that it serves as a wonderful example of policy experts grappling with a difficult policy question in a nuanced and thoughtful way – two characteristics often lacking in Washington, D.C.

However, the Backgrounder’s claim that 61 refugees were convicted of Islamist “terrorism-related” offenses since 2002 has earned a lot of attention from the media. David Inserra was kind enough to send us a complete list of the refugee terrorists he and his colleagues counted. Here are the facts about these 61 people:

  • None of these refugees killed anyone in a terrorist attack on U.S.-soil.
  • Only five (8 percent) were refugees who attempted or planned an attack on U.S. soil. The other 56 (92 percent) of the list were either not refugees or not terrorists targeting U.S. soil.
  • At most 50 were actual refugees who may have committed terrorism offenses, out of the 2.1 million refugees admitted since 1989, which is the earliest year that anybody on the list entered as a refugee. At least eleven (18 percent) of the refugee terrorists reported by Heritage were either not actually refugees or not convicted of terrorism offenses.
  • Only five (8 percent) entered as refugees since 2008.
  • Only five (8 percent) were likely refugee security vetting failures who entered as adults or older teenagers and committed an offense soon after entering.
  • The 50 refugees represent just five of the 124 nationalities of refugees admitted since 2002 (4 percent). Three-quarters of the refugees who committed a terrorism offense came from a single nation.

The security threat from refugees is minuscule, concentrated among a few Somalis, and has little to do with vetting.

The Non-Refugees and Non-Terrorists

The Backgrounder’s use of terrorism-related offenses is problematic as it is not synonymous with actual direct or indirect support of terrorism. There is no definition of a terrorism-related offense in U.S. statutes but there is a broad working GAO definition: that it relates to “terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement, as well as other information.” As far as we can tell, the term terrorism-related is used to describe a conviction for any offense that results from a terrorism investigation – even if it is for crimes that bear no relation to terrorism such as buying stolen cereal. David Inserra told us that “Our [Heritage’s] inclusion criteria wasn’t based on convictions for terrorism offenses because people could be involved in that sort of activity and not ever be convicted. We were trying to find the happy medium between overly-restrictive and too loose definitions.” Thus, we are working with different definitions and the reader should keep that in mind. 

Six individuals on the Heritage list were not convicted of terrorism offenses. The government dismissed its complaint against Al-Hazmah Mohammed Jawad. Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab and Ali Mohammed Al Mosaleh were charged with making false statements. Abdi Mahdi Hussein was convicted of failure to follow financial reporting requirements and was “not charged with any terrorism offense and was not alleged to have knowingly been involved in terrorism activities,” according to the FBI. Yusra Ismail was charged with stealing a U.S. passport—not terrorism—and Saynab Hussein was convicted of perjury.

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.    

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