While running for president, Donald Trump frequently excoriated his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and his chief political opponent, Hillary Clinton, as naive, even gutless, for preferring “violent extremism” to describe the nature of the global and domestic terrorist threat.
“Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country,” Trump said at one campaign speech in Ohio. During another, in Philadelphia, he drove home the attack: “We now have an administration and a former secretary of state who refuse to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’”
It was a strange place to make his point. The only Islamist terror attack in Pennsylvania over the past 15 years was committed by Edward Archer, a mentally ill man who shot and injured a police officer in early 2016, later telling investigators that he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Far-right episodes of violent extremism were far more common.
Just two years before Trump’s Pennsylvania speech, anti-government radical Eric Matthew Frein ambushed two police officers in the township of Blooming Grove, killing one and wounding another, then led law-enforcement authorities on a 48-day manhunt in the woods. (He was sentenced to death in April.)
Two months before that, police discovered that Eric Charles Smith, who ran a white-supremacist church out of his home in the borough of Baldwin, had built a stockpile of some 20 homemade bombs.
And in 2009, white supremacist Richard Poplawski opened fire on Pittsburgh police officers who had responded to a domestic dispute at his mother’s home, killing three and leaving two injured before surrendering. Poplawski, who was active on far-right websites, said he feared the police represented a plot by Obama to take away Americans’ guns.
This contrast, between Trump’s rhetoric and the reality of domestic terrorism, extends far beyond Pennsylvania. A database of nine years of domestic terrorism incidents compiled by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting has produced a very different picture of the threat than that advanced by the current White House.
- From January 2008 to the end of 2016, we identified 63 cases of Islamist domestic terrorism, meaning incidents motivated by a theocratic political ideology espoused by such groups as the Islamic State. The vast majority of these (76 percent) were foiled plots, meaning no attack took place.
- During the same period, we found that right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents: 115. Just over a third of these incidents (35 percent) were foiled plots. The majority were acts of terrorist violence that involved deaths, injuries or damaged property.
- Right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly: Nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of 79 deaths, while 13 percent of Islamist cases caused fatalities. (The total number of deaths associated with Islamist incidents was higher, however, reaching 90.)
- Incidents related to left-wing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights, were comparatively rare, with 19 incidents causing seven fatalities—making the shooting attack on Republican members of Congress earlier this month somewhat of an anomaly.
- Nearly half (48 percent) of Islamist incidents in our database were sting operations, more than four times the rate for far-right (12 percent) or far-left (10.5 percent) incidents.
Yet, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out in early February, Trump has yet to acknowledge the threat of right-wing violence:
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Long before the 9/11 attacks, the worst terrorist attack on American territory occurred at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and co-conspirator Terry Nichols were unabashed radical right-wing terrorists. But check the record. You won’t hear Trump use those words.
Instead, with his statements, policies, and personnel, the president has exhibited an obsession with the Islamist threat to the homeland.
As a candidate, Trump promised to institute a “shutdown of Muslims.” As president, he has signed two executive orders barring immigrants and refugees from a list of Muslim-majority nations, both blocked by the courts.
Two of his most influential advisers, whom he brought with him into the White House, were retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn—who, before his short-lived tenure as national-security adviser, had a record of making such incendiary remarks as “Fear of Muslims is rational” and “I don’t see Islam as a religion”—and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who had called Islam a “religion of submission” and stoked fears that radical Muslims seek to create an “Islamic States of America.”
Trump brought in other figures associated with the demonization of Islam, from transition-team adviser Frank Gaffney to national-security adviser Sebastian Gorka.
While the president mostly failed to acknowledge a wave of post-election hate crimes targeting Muslims, Jewish institutions, and communities of color, his team planned changes to the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program to focus it exclusively on the threat of Muslim radicals, including changing the program’s name to Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.
The president sometimes has appeared to grasp for data to justify this narrow approach. Intense protests and rapid court challenges greeted his first travel ban. By the time of his second, signed March 6, his staff had compiled information to justify it.
“According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country,” he claimed in the speech to Congress a week before signing the order. “We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”
But in examining incidents from 2008 through 2016, we could identify only 36 perpetrators or alleged perpetrators who were foreign born, 13 percent of the total. And only three came from a nation listed in his second travel ban. A Department of Homeland Security analysis likewise found that citizens of nations named in the ban are “rarely implicated in U.S.-based terrorism.”
The White House did not respond to interview requests or to detailed written queries.
Trump’s March executive order cites two specific terrorism convictions to bolster its claim that refugees constitute a significant threat to the United States:
For example, 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. And in October 2014, a native of Somalia who had been brought to the United States as a child refugee and later became a naturalized United States citizen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction as part of a plot to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.
On closer inspection, even those examples are flawed. The first involved two Iraqi men living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who were convicted on charges of supporting terrorism in Iraq, not in the United States. (It was White House counselor Kellyanne Conway who had a month earlier mistaken the incident as an act of domestic terrorism she dubbed the “Bowling Green massacre.”) Moreover, people from Iraq were not barred by the March executive order.
The second case is one of the three incidents in our database involving people from countries included in the executive order, all of them from Somalia. Two of the incidents were preempted plots, one of which—the Portland “Christmas-tree bomber” case the order cites—was an elaborate sting operation.
That sting targeted 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized citizen who grew up in Portland and suburban Beaverton, Oregon, having arrived as a refugee from Somalia’s civil war at age 3. Educated at local schools, he showed little interest in religion or politics until his teens, when he began attending services at a mosque led by a Wahhabi cleric in Portland.
Alienated at home, where his parents were going through a divorce, Mohamud began to visit extremist websites and, at 18, declared that he was heading off to a religious school in Yemen. His father panicked and called the FBI for help, setting in motion surveillance and, ultimately, the sting.
Mohamud was arrested at the annual Christmas-tree lighting at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland on November 26, 2010, after trying to detonate a fake truck bomb supplied by undercover FBI agents. Convicted of a single count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, he was sentenced to 30 years.
The response to Mohamud’s father’s call for help—surveillance and a sting—underscores another disparity: the federal government’s disproportionate commitment of investigative resources to rooting out Islamist terrorism.
Even against this backdrop, the sting operation targeting Mohamud stood out.
No evidence was introduced in court that Mohamud had ever owned a weapon, participated in a political action or had any previous encounters with law enforcement. The FBI had not gleaned evidence that Mohamud even sought information about how to build a bomb.
He likely would have been incapable of attempting the crime without the financial, logistical, and motivational support of the FBI informants and agents. In fact, a few weeks before the Christmas-tree lighting, an FBI agent assigned to the case wrote that Mohamud “would not make any attempts to conduct a terrorist attack without specific direction from the [undercover employees].”
Evidence was even introduced at trial that FBI operatives had blocked him from traveling to a cannery job in Alaska to keep him involved in the plot they had designed.
By contrast, less than two days after the Christmas-tree sting, another Oregon youth, Cody Seth Crawford, then 24, launched a homemade firebomb into the offices of the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, Oregon, a mosque where Mohamud sometimes prayed. The bomb caused thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, though no injuries.
Crawford had written anti-Muslim screeds on Facebook in the wake of Mohamud’s arrest: “I ha te [sic] the ji-had’st [sic], they should go and realize what life is about!!! This guy on the news was a really bad guy !!! He went to the mosque right in front of my house here in Corvali [sic].” When he was arrested, according to court documents, he told his arresting officer, “You look like Obama. You are a Muslim like him” who is “going to burn in Hell like other Muslims.”
Citing Crawford’s history of mental illness, a federal judge sentenced him to five years’ probation, and he is now free.
“I consider what happened in my case a total victory for me,” Crawford recently told Reveal. “I kicked the federal government’s ass in court.”
The Crawford case highlights something else in the data: While perpetrators of plots or attacks targeting the broader public received three life sentences, seven death sentences and, among definite sentences, an average of 14.5 years in prison, no perpetrator of a plot or attack targeting a mosque or Muslims was ever sentenced to life or death, and they were sentenced, on average, to under nine years.
Muslims, it seems, are taken quite seriously as potential perpetrators, but far less so as victims.
More than a million violent crimes are committed each year in the United States, while annual domestic terrorism incidents number in the dozens. Yet acts of terrorism have a special significance, said former FBI agent Michael German, because each one not only targets particular victims, but also “is an attack on civil society itself.”
What distinguishes an act of terrorism from a violent crime, explains former federal counterterrorism official Daryl Johnson, is the ideological component of “the perpetrator’s motivation, his ideology and what he wanted the outcome to be. There needs to be a desire to instill fear among the general public, change government policy, or draw attention to a political or social cause.”
While a variety of think tanks and journalistic organizations have compiled data that capture fragments of the domestic terrorism picture—Islamist attacks (the Heritage Foundation), deadly domestic terror attacks (the think tank New America), attacks on abortion clinics (the National Abortion Federation) and far-right plots and attacks (the Southern Poverty Law Center)—the Investigative Fund database is the only one that gathers incidents that span the full range of ideologies and that includes both plots and attacks and both federal and local prosecutions. It also catalogs each incident according to a diverse range of variables, such as target, ideology, movement affiliation, sentence, and whether federal charges or terrorism charges were filed. (See our methodology here.)
The database vividly illustrates the ways in which Islamist incidents have received disproportionate attention from federal law enforcement.
While a majority of the incidents were perpetrated by right-wing extremists (57 percent), the database indicates that federal law enforcement agencies focused their energies on preempting and prosecuting Islamist attacks, which constituted 31 percent of all incidents, a finding confirmed by counterterrorism experts.
For instance, 84 percent of Islamist incidents resulting in arrests involved terrorism charges, and all the law enforcement resources that implies, as opposed to 9 percent of far-right incidents.
While federal charges of some kind were filed in 91 percent of the Islamist incidents that led to arrests, federal prosecutors handled 60 percent of far-right cases, leaving many in the hands of state or local authorities.
Moreover, three-quarters of the Islamist incidents in the database were preempted plots, including elaborate sting operations, while 35 percent of far-right incidents were preempted, a much smaller ratio. That disparity, counterterrorism experts say, is an indication that far fewer investigative resources—such as analysts, paid informants, and undercover operatives—have been deployed to halt far-right attacks.
Yet even though most Islamists were charged only in connection with plots, they often were sentenced as harshly as or more harshly than right-wing extremists, who mostly succeeded in committing acts of terror. Among the Islamist cases, 8 percent got life sentences, 2 percent got death sentences, and the average sentence for the other cases was 21 years in prison. Among far-right cases, 12 percent got life sentences, 5 percent got death sentences, and the average sentence for the rest was eight years.
German, the former FBI agent, is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security program and tours the country briefing local and federal law-enforcement officers on domestic terror. In his presentations, he cautions officers against a worldview that “only sees a terrorist if he’s wearing a turban” and is blind to the threat from far-right extremists.
“The thing that strikes me most often is not just that they don’t know this information, but that they actively resist it,” he said. “They are incredibly hostile to it. That’s troubling to me. Not only are police given bad information, but they are trained or inclined to resist true information.”
In testimony before the US Senate in 2012, Daryl Johnson, the former federal counterterrorism official, observed: “The threat from domestic terrorism motivated by extremist ideologies is often dismissed and overlooked in the national media and within the U.S. government. Yet we are currently seeing an upsurge in domestic non-Islamic extremist activity. Today, the bulk of violent domestic activity emanates from the right wing.”
While federal officials were turning their attention away from the far right, the Southern Poverty Law Center had noticed something dramatic. While most such groups had collapsed after 9/11, the law center noticed an explosion of so-called Patriot groups that began in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, and reached a peak in 2012, when the group counted 1,360 active Patriot groups and 1,007 hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, and neo-Nazis.
According to our database, during this same period, from 2008 to 2013, terror plots and actions by far-right groups outnumbered Islamist domestic terror cases by more than 2 to 1. Far-right extremists also inflicted three times as many deaths as Islamists during this period.
“The United States is engaged in a generational fight against terrorists who seek to attack the American people, our country, and our way of life,” David Lapan, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “We reject criticism that DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] is overly focused on any particular group or element as we concentrate on all threats of terrorism to the Homeland.” The FBI declined to respond to an interview request or to detailed written queries.
In hundreds of the nearly 1,400 hate incidents around the nation that the Southern Poverty Law Center counted in the three months following the November 8 elections, the perpetrators directly referenced the election or Trump. In particular, his administration’s decision to focus the Countering Violent Extremism program exclusively on Islamists has been interpreted by many white supremacists as a green light.
“Donald Trump wants to remove us from undue federal scrutiny by removing ‘white supremacists’ from the definition of ‘extremism,’” Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, wrote in a post. “Donald Trump is setting us free.” He went on:
It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines.… This is absolutely a signal of favor to us.
Daryl Johnson warns that continuing to focus counterterrorism efforts disproportionately on Islamists risks fueling that threat.
“Muslim Americans already feel targeted and alienated,” he said. Reconfiguring the Countering Violent Extremism program around Islamists “pretty much validates their suspicions” and even risks aggravating extremism within the Muslim community.
“When you turn a blind eye to all the uptick in hate or wait a long time before you even address the hate incidents that we’ve been seeing against Muslims and against the Jewish community,” he said. “I think that just emboldens the far right in thinking that they have free rein to do whatever they want.”