Perhaps frustrated by the fact that since 9/11 no Americans have been killed on US soil by terrorists from the seven countries affected by Donald Trump’s travel ban, the conservative media have rallied around a dubious “study” purporting to show that 72 people from those countries have been convicted on terror charges since 9/11. But an honest reading of their data only reveals how thin the basis for the order really is.
The “study” is based on media reports compiled last year by Republican staffers on the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, which was then headed by newly minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)—an anti-immigration think tank—then combed through that data and pulled out incidents involving people born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
The study’s release has been greeted by conservative publications with enthusiastic headlines like “New Study Proves Trump Right,” “Study Proves Judges Wrong,” (a reference to the Ninth Circuit court’s decision blocking the ban), and “Whoops! Turns Out 72 Terrorists Came From Banned Countries.”
But the underlying data reveal a different story. The first thing that jumps out is that it cites a few well-publicized plots that were foiled by authorities—like the case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was found guilty of attempting to set off a “bomb” that an FBI informant had provided him at an event in Portland, Oregon, in 2012–and none of the other “terrorists” highlighted in the study were involved in plots within the United States, which, presumably, is the whole point of the exercise.
That’s right—these 72 evil-doers carried out zero attacks, and killed a grand total of zero people in the United States.
David Sterman, an analyst at New America, a think tank, did a serious study of the 856,000 immigrants, visa holders, and green-card holders from the seven affected countries, and found that over the past 15 years, a grand total of three individuals carried out attacks in the United States, wounding a number of people but, thankfully, killing none (those three cases aren’t included in the CIS study; two were killed at the scene by police and the third was convicted of multiple counts of attempted murder).
The vast majority of “terrorists” cited in the CIS study were convicted for providing “material support” to designated terrorist organizations, not for actually planning or committing acts of violence. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the material-support statute, one of the most controversial measures in the USA Patriot Act, criminalizes “the provision of forms of support such as the distribution of literature, engaging in political advocacy, participating in peace conferences, training in human rights advocacy, and donating cash and humanitarian assistance, even when such support is intended solely to promote the lawful and non-violent activities of a designated organization.”
In their book, Terrorism and the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security, David Cole and James Dempsey wrote that “the material support law has since 9/11 become the Justice Department’s most popular charge in antiterrorism cases. The allure is easy to see: convictions under the law require no proof that the defendant engaged in terrorism, aided or abetted terrorism, or conspired to commit terrorism.” Facebook, Google and Twitter have all been sued for the same “crime.”
The CIS data also include convictions for tax fraud, lying to officials during immigration proceedings, drug charges, and financial crimes. It cites three Yemeni grocers in New York who were convicted of money laundering but “weren’t charged with any terrorism-related crimes,” and a 20-something Somali resident who was convicted for giving state troopers false statements during a traffic stop. Other “terrorists” include several Middle Eastern men who were charged with fraudulently obtaining licenses to transport hazardous materials—no links to terrorism were ever established in those cases—and a “frail 51-year-old Iranian woman” who law enforcement officials said “did not pose a direct threat to the United States,” according to The New York Times, but who was nonetheless charged with providing material support to MEK, an Iranian group that has paid both Howard Dean and Rudy Giuliani to speak at its events.
Others were charged for planning to go abroad to join ISIS or other terror organizations, a journey some Westerners make because they’re motivated by religious extremism, but others undertake because “they want to fight the Assad regime, or they want to help what they see as the oppressed Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq,” according to Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.
The sentences attached to these 72 convictions tell their own tale. For a group of dangerous terrorists, the fact that only eight were sentenced to 20 years or longer in prison is noteworthy. On the other hand, 28 of them were only sentenced to probation, released with time served and/or fined. Fifty-four received sentences of 10 years or less, and 46 of the 72 got five years or less. These are not the kinds of punishments one would expect to see genuinely dangerous terrorists receive in the post-9/11 era.
It’s also important to note that most of the cases included in the study have nothing to do with Trump’s travel ban. The original data set identifies the immigration status of those involved in 42 of the cases, and 34 of them—81 percent—were citizens (25) or legal permanent residents (nine) who wouldn’t be subject to the travel restrictions. (At first, the ban did affect green-card holders, but the Trump regime reversed course after facing a backlash.)
The fact that conservatives needed to include dozens of cases that are only tenuously related to terrorism, and have nothing to do with the travel ban, in a study purporting to show that the ban would prevent terrorism, just shows that the policy is nothing more than security theater put on by a regime that, according to the Los Angeles Times, has “a broader, long-term goal of shrinking the foreign-born population in the United States and transforming the immigrant makeup of the country by limiting the number of people coming to the country who, in their view, won’t assimilate.”
At the end, we’re exactly where we’ve always been: fortunate that the Muslim-American population is well assimilated and not prone to radicalization, and safe knowing that refugees from high-risk countries are already subject to “extreme vetting” that takes up to two years to complete. The only difference is that now, with a dishonest study from a conservative think tank, the right has a new, and no doubt unshakable, alternative fact with which to demonize an already vulnerable population.