Beware Trump’s Phony ‘Terror’ List
As a senator, Jeff Sessions had a history of falsely inflating the count of foreign nationals supposedly involved in terrorism. Now, he wants to do much more of that as attorney general.
After President Trump revamped his Muslim ban, courts again blocked its implementation, at least for now. But another unnecessary and damaging part of the order—which directs the Department of Homeland Security to release various types of information on foreign nationals’ supposed involvement in terrorism—remains unchallenged. Like much of Trump’s campaign and fledgling presidency, the obvious goal of this reporting is to gin up fear of foreigners, especially Muslims.
It’s a tried and true tactic. The House Un-American Activities committee—a favorite of Trump surrogates—hyped the threat of “a communist behind every tree” by disseminating lists of alleged communist sympathizers in anti-war and leftist groups, as well as among teachers, federal workers and, most famously, people in the entertainment industry.
U.S. terrorism numbers are already available from a variety of sources. They show that only a handful of foreign nationals commit terrorist acts in the United States. According to an analysis by CATO, in the period between Sept. 11, 2001, and December 2015, foreign-born terrorists killed 24 people in the United States. Apparently unsatisfied with what the facts show (sound familiar?), Trump wants alternative facts, which will surely include unverifiable information about nebulous and unproven connections to terrorism and exaggerate the threat.
The order requires DHS to put out numbers on foreign nationals who have been “charged with terrorism-related offenses while in the United States,” as well as those “who have been radicalized after entry into the United States and who have engaged in terrorism-related acts.” This group would include people charged but not convicted, as well as those who “engaged” in terrorism—an undefined category. Counting foreign nationals “engaged in terrorism-related offenses” is simply a way of inflating numbers.
That’s something Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a history of doing. As a senator, he published an analysis purporting to show that 380 foreign nationals had been convicted of, or implicated in, terrorism. This is misleading because it counts cases that may start with a terrorism tip but end in an unrelated criminal conviction, such as receiving stolen property, selling untaxed cigarettes, or immigration offenses. A Brennan Center analysis found that 49 percent of the cases identified by Sessions were not terrorism convictions at all.
It gets worse. DHS must also publish the number of foreign nationals “removed from the United States based on… affiliation with or provision of material support to a terrorism-related organization, or any other national-security-related reasons.” Providing “material support” to any group designated a terrorist organization by the State Department is a crime, but “affiliation” is not. Even at the height of the red scare, the Supreme Court drew a distinction between membership of the Communist Party and participation in criminal activity in support of the party, noting that conflating the two would undermine First Amendment values.
Trump’s reports will go even further, identifying individuals connected to “terrorism-related” organizations. There is no official list, or legal definition of what counts as a terrorism-related organization. It is an entirely malleable category and one fraught with danger for civil society. For many years, fringe anti-Muslim voices, now influential in the White House, have tried to get successive administrations to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. These efforts have thus far failed; but six degrees of separation connections to the Brotherhood have for years been used to smear American Muslim civil society and leaders.
Any doubt that the reporting requirements are meant to target Muslims is eliminated by the requirement that DHS report on “the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States by foreign nationals.” It is unclear why numbers on gender-based violence would be relevant to the stated counter-terrorism purpose of the order, but the reason for highlighting honor killings is obvious. Islamophobes like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer regularly portray honor killings as unique to Islam, as does Breitbart, the website previously run by Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Bannon. Indeed, one anti-Muslim group even mounted an unsuccessful effort to find high numbers of honor killings in the U.S.
Violence against women in the name of protecting honor is widespread and cuts across cultures and religions. As Widney Brown, the former advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, explained to National Geographic, “In countries where Islam is practiced, they’re called honor killings, but dowry deaths [in India] and so-called crimes of passion [in some Latin American countries] have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable.” Linking “honor killings” to an order banning Muslims from the country is nothing more than a loud and piercing dog whistle.
More broadly, presenting data without context can be highly misleading. A headline could read “foreign-born terrorists kill Americans” or “the chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack by a foreigner in the U.S. is 1 in 36 million.” It’s pretty clear which one Trump and his advisers would prefer.