On Tuesday morning, the Department of Justice tweeted out a link to its new report on national security threats posed by foreign-born nationals with an alarming all-caps tagline: “DOJ, DHS REPORT: THREE OUT OF FOUR INDIVIDUALS CONVICTED OF INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM AND TERRORISM-RELATED OFFENSES WERE FOREIGN-BORN.”
“This report reveals an indisputable sobering reality,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement in the accompanying press release. “Our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety.”
However, the Trump administration has frequently been accused of cherry-picking data to fit its agenda, and experts say this is another example, especially as the report came out of Trump’s infamous executive order last February banning travel from Muslim-majority countries and halting the refugee program, ostensibly for national security reasons.
According to the report, 73 percent (or 402) of the 549 individuals convicted of international terrorism between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016, were foreign-born, but the authors acknowledge that “DHS and DOJ do not yet have complete, final information about these individuals at the time of this report’s publication.” Instead, the report offers a handful of “illustrative examples,” and describes several cases involving foreign-born nationals from Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, India, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.
“When they’re saying international terrorism, they’re really talking about Muslim extremism,” said William Braniff, the executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. “But you have to ask whether immigration status is a salient characteristic here.”
A Pew study from last year concluded that the Muslim adult population in the United States was about 2.15 million. Of those, 58 percent were born in another country — that’s about 1.2 million people. The report is talking about a tiny sliver of that population, about 0.02 percent.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law, says that the report is misleading on many levels, but firstly because it only covers a timespan through 2016, and some key things have changed since then. The report found that just 147 of the 549 individuals convicted of international terrorism between 2001 and 2016 were U.S. citizens by birth. “That number has changed significantly in the last few years,” said Greenberg, noting that 60 percent of individuals in ISIS cases were born in the U.S., a rate that’s increased over time.
Greenberg worries that by focusing on the threat posed by foreign-born individuals rather than homegrown extremism, the Trump administration could be missing the mark with its counterterrorism strategy.
Much of the language in the 11-page report and the accompanying press release is vague. For example, the release states that “in 2017 alone DHS had 2,554 encounters with individuals on the terrorist watch list (also known as the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database) traveling to the United States.” But neither the release or report say how those encounters ended.
“This report is too short; it just isn’t in-depth enough to tell us anything. It’s not careful enough or specific enough,” said Greenberg. “What does that actually mean? You suspected someone, and you questioned someone? That’s disturbing.”
That’s not the only instance where the report appears to muddy the waters between being suspected of terrorism and being found guilty of terrorism.
“The information in this report is only the tip of the iceberg,” Sessions said. “We currently have terrorism-related investigations against thousands of people in the United States, including hundreds of people who came here as refugees.”
“The numbers of investigations are always vastly more than the number of indictments,” said Greenberg. “You can’t say because someone is investigated that they’re guilty.” The FBI investigates 7,000 to 10,000 international terror cases in any given year, and in fiscal year 2017, for perspective, there were 44 convictions.
What’s more, according to Fordham University data, to date, 6.4 percent of ISIS prosecutions involved refugees, out of a total of 156 cases.
The report also does not address the threat posed by domestic terrorism — namely by white supremacist and white nationalist groups, who grabbed headlines following last year’s so-called “Summer of Hate.” The report notes the have only gleaned their data from “terror-related” cases tried in federal court. Because there’s no federal domestic terrorism law, domestic terror cases are either tried in state court or on other federal charges, like homicide or using a weapon of mass destruction.
But nonetheless, experts say that ignoring domestic terrorism entirely offers a misleading and inaccurate portrayal of the national security threat. “The results of the DHS/ DOJ report are, at best, a snapshot of the international subset that ignores the purely domestic variety,” wrote the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh.