While the new administration focuses on Muslim refugees and immigrants, the most lethal terrorism threat of recent years is homegrown, and most often comes from right-wing radicals.
President Trump’s latest attempt at what his critics call a “Muslim ban” – officially known as his executive order on travel – is predicated on the administration’s claim that people from six Muslim-majority nations pose an immediate security threat to Americans by potentially harboring radical Islamist terrorists who might commit acts of violence on American soil.
However, a careful examination of domestic-terrorism data in the United States powerfully indicates that this claim is poorly grounded. The vast majority of so-called “Islamist” inspired terrorism arrests have involved pre-emptive arrests by law-enforcement sting operations in which potential actors were arrested under circumstances where the public was never at risk. None of the listed nations – Somalia, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – produced any terrorist who has successfully committed a violent act against Americans.
Most of all, the vast majority of domestic-terrorism incidents in the U.S. do not involve radical Islamists – rather, for the past several decades, most cases of violent terrorism have involved homegrown right-wing extremists. In a growing number of recent cases, some of these extremists have begun targeting Muslims and refugees themselves.
The president issued the order March 6, marking the administration’s second attempt at banning travel from Muslim nations whose refugees and emigrants pose a terrorism risk, as Trump had promised during the 2016 election campaign season. The first executive order, issued Jan. 27, listed the same six nations as well as Iraq, but was immediately contested in the courts and overturned as unconstitutional.
The administration is hoping that its revised order is able to surmount the legal difficulties encountered in its first attempt, primarily by claiming – the president’s campaign rhetoric notwithstanding – that the previous order, as the White House had argued in court, “did not provide a basis for discriminating for or against members of any particular religion,” nor does the new order.
This order also has faced immediate legal challenge in federal courts by several states; so far, Hawaii and Washington have filed lawsuits that include several other states as co-plaintiffs. The SPLC issued a statement decrying the order, saying it is “still discriminatory, continues to target the Muslim community and will cause ripple effects felt by people perceived to be Muslim.”
In his order, Trump attempts to surmount previous legal arguments about the ban’s appropriateness by claiming that
Recent history shows that some of those who have entered the United States through our immigration system have proved to be threats to our national security. Since 2001, hundreds of persons born abroad have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the United States. They have included not just persons who came here legally on visas but also individuals who first entered the country as refugees. 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. The attorney general has reported to me that more than 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The order calls these cases “recent,” though both of the arrests occurred in 2010. And, as Chip Gibbons of the Bill of Rights Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation recently noted, they both involve cases of pre-emptive arrest: “In each case the ‘terrorism’ in question was concocted by the FBI, as part of a sting operation.”
As NPR’s Middle East editor, Larry Kaplow, explains:
The two Iraqis were convicted in Kentucky of supporting militant groups back in Iraq that were attacking U.S. troops there. They were not charged with planning attacks in the U.S. The Somali man mentioned came to the U.S. as a small child. He was noticed by the FBI after he exchanged hundreds of emails with suspected terrorists and made statements to a jihadist website. He attempted to detonate what he believed was a bomb — actually a fake bomb supplied by FBI undercover agents — at a Portland Christmas tree lighting in 2010.
Moreover, domestic-terrorism statistics collected over the past eight years indicate that over three-quarters of all Islamist-related domestic terrorism arrests in the United States have involved such pre-emptive plots, cases in which no member of the public is ever harmed or even at serious risk. Only a tiny handful of all Islamist plots have been responsible for the vast majority of casualties by Muslim domestic terrorists.*
Four incidents in particular, all with abnormally high numbers of deaths and injuries, account for more than 90 percent of Islamist domestic-terrorism casualties (which total more than 90 deaths and over 400 injuries):
November 6, 2009, Fort Hood, TX: Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist influenced by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and suffering from mental illness himself, goes on a shooting rampage inside an Army facility, killing 13 and wounding 32, in an effort to strike a blow in defense of the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan and to become a martyr. Hasan was sentenced to die and awaits execution.
March 15, 2013, Boston, MA: Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, two Chechen brothers (ages 19 and 26, respectively) who emigrated from Kyrgyzstan 2002, set off two pressure-cooker bombs at separate locations along the route of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring an estimated 264 others; and then, when spotted by police after being identified as the suspect, killing another police officer and engaging in a gunfight with police in which Tamerlan was killed and another officer wounded; Dzhokar is later captured hiding in a boat without incident. Convicted of 30 counts, including four murder charges and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, he was sentenced to die and is currently held at a high-security federal prison in Colorado.
December 2, 2015, San Bernardino, CA: Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a Muslim couple recently married in Pakistan, though the husband had been a longtime resident of California, go on a shooting rampage at a holiday party for Farook’s coworkers in a county department, killing 14 and injuring 22, before being killed themselves in a shootout with police
June 12, 2016, Orlando, Florida: Omar Mateen, an American-born Muslim of Turkish descent, kills 49 and wounds 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Mateen is killed during the incident.
None of these perpetrators is from any of the nations targeted in the Trump travel ban. All of them, except Tashfeen Malik, were U.S. citizens.
When it comes to assessing the realities of domestic terrorism and the areas where the public is most at risk, these statistics strongly suggest that, regarding Islamist-inspired violence, the greatest area of concern has to be the recent uptick in murderous acts by American-born or –based Muslims, such as those in Orlando and San Bernadino. Recent immigrants, and particularly refugees, not only have been inactive in recent years, some of their communities in fact have been targeted for hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism by right-wing extremists.
Indeed, both the public generally and law-enforcement officers specifically are most at risk from domestic-terrorist violence when it is committed by fanatics from the radical right. The incidents involving such cases outnumber Islamist terrorism incidents nearly two-to-one.
Likewise, more than 60 percent of all right-wing extremist cases have involved acts of violence in which the public is at risk (compared to only 21 percent of Islamist incidents), and while only about 10 percent of Islamist cases resulted in deaths, over a quarter of right-wing extremist incidents did so.
Consider the steady drumbeat of terrorism over the past eight years from the radical right, including sovereign citizens, white supremacists, militia-movement extremists, and anti-abortion fanatics. Here is just a sampling of the more than 100 such incidents cataloged since 2008:
July 27, 2008, Knoxville, TN: Jim David Adkisson, an angry conservative with a manifesto urging violent war against liberals, opens fire in a Unitarian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee during a youth performance of a musical, killing two and wounding seven. He pleads guilty to murder and sentenced to life in prison.
April 4, 2009, Pittsburgh, PA: Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist from Pittsburgh, Pennslviana, fearful of an Obama plot to take his guns away, kills three police officers and injures two others in a standoff with police at this home. Poplawski is found guilty of murder and sentenced to die.
June 20, 2010, West Memphis, AK: Jerry and Joe Kane, two sovereign citizens, kill two police officers when pulled over in West Memphis, Arkansas, then die in shootout with local and state police.
January 18, 2011, Spokane, WA: Kevin William Harpham, a white supremacist, plants lethal backpack bomb along route of MLK Day Parade in Spokane, Washington, which did not detonate. Harpham pleads guilty to attempting to use a weapon of mass destrustrion, and attempting to cause bodily injury with an explosive device because of the race, color, or national origin of a targeted person, and is sentenced to 32 years in prison.
August 5, 2012, Oak Creek, WI: Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, kills six and wounds four during a shooting rampage in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, before eventually killing himself after being wounded by an officer.
February 15, 2014, Rome, GA: Three men in the so called Rome Militia – Brian Edward Cannon, Corey Robert Williamson, and Terry Eugene Peace – attempt to purchase pipe bombs and other explosives to attack a police station, a water treatment center, and other sites in hopes of overthrowing the US government. All pleaded guilty to charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, and all sentenced to 12 years in prison.
April 13, 2014, Overland Park, KS: Frazier Glenn Miller, former grand dragon of the Carolina Knights of the KKK, kills three at shootings at was extremely well known to law-enforcement authorities long before he embarked on a killing rampage at two Jewish community institutions in Kansas. He’s found guilty of guilty of one count of capital murder, three counts of attempted murder and assault and weapons charges, and sentenced to die.
June 8, 2014, Las Vegas, NV: Jerad and Amanda Miller, a married couple and Patriot movement members who had spent weeks involved in the antigovernment standoff at the Cliven Bundy ranch, go on a shooting rampage that killed three people, including two policemen, in Las Vegas. They’re killed by officers during a shootout.
June 17, 2015, Charleston, SC: Dylann Roof, a young white supremacist enters black church in South Carolina, prays with congregants, then opens fire on smaller group, killing nine and wounding another. He was found guilty of all 33 federal hate-crime charges against him in December 2016 and sentenced to death.
July 22, 2015, Lafayette, LA: John Russell Houser, an admirer of Dylann Roof, similarly caught up in ‘lone wolf’ and other far-right ideologies, enters Louisiana theater with gun, kills two, wounds nine, and is killed.
October 27, 2015, Colorado Springs, CO: Robert Lewis Deer kills a police officer and two others, and injures 9 in shootout and standoff at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He references “no more baby parts” in police interview, is charged with first degree murder, and eventually ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.
October 14, 2016, Garden City, KS: Three Kansas milita members plot to bomb an apartment complex home to hundreds of Somali immigrants.
This last incident underscores the potentially lethal nature of right-wing extremist terrorism. Curtis Allen, 49, Gavin Wright, 49, of Liberal, Kan., and Patrick Stein, 47, a resident of a nearby Dodge City, Kan., not only had stockpiled a huge cache of semi-automatic weapons and ammunition with the intent of using them against Somalian refugees and immigrants living in an apartment complex in suburban Garden City.
Their primary plan entailed constructing and detonating three Timothy McVeigh-style truck bombs loaded with fertilizer and fuel oil in the center of the complex, and then mowing down survivors as they fled down the complex’s exit streets with their guns.
The scheduled day for the attack: November 9, the day after the 2016 election. The men were motivated, their attorneys said, by their belief that if Donald Trump won the election, then-President Barack Obama would declare martial law to prevent him from attaining the office, requiring the militias to act.
One of the plotters was recorded describing the militiamen’s beliefs:
“The only f------ way this country’s ever going to get turned around is it will be a bloodbath and it will be a nasty, messy motherf-----. Unless a lot more people in this country wake up and smell the f------ coffee and decide they want this country back … we might be too late, if they do wake up … I think we can get it done. But it ain’t going to be nothing nice about it.”
“There has been an incredible increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment over the past few years. Anti-Muslim groups have exploited terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino,” observed the SPLC’s Heidi Beirich after the men were arrested. “The presidential campaign has also produced some of the rawest nativist appeals in recent memory.
“Significantly, this anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment is increasing within the ranks of the anti-government movement. We’ve seen it in the spate of armed protests outside of mosques in Phoenix and other places last year. The U.S. attorney bringing these charges said the three suspects were members of a militia called the ‘Crusaders.’
“As the Department of Justice announced, the defendants are innocent until proven guilty. The details of the plot, however, are disturbing and should serve as a warning to those who traffic in the politics of fear and bigotry.”
Particularly given the surge in hate incidents since the election, manifest especially in the surge of anti-Semitic threats and attacks over the past month, as well as a growing tide of anti-Muslim hate crimes, the concerns about right-wing domestic terrorism should be more acute than ever.
However, President Trump – who has only made vague gestures at addressing the problem – appears determined instead, with this most recent executive order, to worsen the situation for everyone involved.
*The above statistics are a preliminary summary of domestic-terrorism data that have been compiled as part of a multi-year project by the author in conjunction with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. Its full findings will be published in April by Reveal Radio and the Center for Investigative Reporting.