Cipher Brief expert and former DHS official Todd Rosenblum says the Trump administration used incomplete and cherry-picked statistics in a new report that says three out of four individuals convicted of international terrorism-related charges since the 9/11 attacks were “foreign-born,” as opposed to born U.S. citizens.
The report from the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security studied the period between the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Dec. 31, 2016. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said the report “reveals an indisputable, sobering reality—our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety.”
In contrast, a CATO Institute reached the opposite conclusion, finding in its own research that native-born Americans, rather than immigrants, are responsible for 78 percent of murders in terrorist attacks. CATO tracked terrorism-related deaths on U.S. soil, rather than convictions, over a similar time frame, and found that, of 155 people killed, 34 perished at the hands of “foreign-born terrorists and 121 of them by domestic terrorists.”
Rosenblum gave his take on the disparity of those views to The Cipher Brief Daily Podcast anchor Brian Garrett-Glaser. An edited version of his remarks follows.
How do the patterns reported by the DOJ and DHS track with what you know?
It’s a reality that international terrorism cases will most often have this nexus of people who are from overseas. And people who tend to maintain relationships overseas almost by definition are more likely to have that nexus [too]. So it’s a little bit of skewing facts to paint this picture that first-generation immigrants pose a unique threat to the homeland. I don’t agree with that, and I think it’s just a way that they’re playing with the numbers.
There are two types of terrorism that affect the United States: domestic terrorism that originates from American citizens inside the United States, and terrorism that is committed with a nexus to planning and facilitation from overseas terrorist organizations. We tend to treat these as different activities. The effect is the same; it’s acts of violence with political intent.
The issue is that they have the same outcome of committing violence and killing civilians for civilian reasons, but the drivers are usually quite different. Domestic terrorism events inside the United States are far more likely to be committed by someone who is anti-government, a white nationalist, a religious extremist—and not necessarily Muslim at all but people who grow up with the same feelings of alienation. They may share a lot of the same profiles of people who might be seduced by terrorism overseas, but they’re driven by very different variables than those who are driven by Islamic extremism, which is the core profile we have when we talk about international terrorism.
You’re saying that this report specifically singles out international terrorism and doesn’t look at domestic terrorism, and as a result of that, just looks at convicted terrorists who are motivated by political Islam, and not other political motivations?
Exactly. It’s creating a cause-and-effect, where there is definitely a correlation of some sort, but it’s not putting the numbers into a larger context in terms of when we’re worried about threats of terrorism. This notion that first-generation citizens of the United States are far more likely to be terrorists and therefore we should stop letting people into the country is a disservice to the debate and a disservice to first-generation immigrants.
To me, this report was issued with the core intent to say, “Immigrants are scary to our national security, our homeland security.” And that’s really unfortunate.
There is always a risk every time you allow someone in the country. When the president first came in, he talked about “extreme vetting,” with the implication being that vetting wasn’t being done robustly before. Unless I have 100 percent certainty that I know every person who is granted citizenship will never commit a crime—that person or their children, if that’s your standard—then obviously the conclusion is not to let anyone into the country.
You can always tilt more toward security and less toward a humanitarian assumption, and I’m in favor of tilting more toward security—I always have been. But you have to recognize you do it with risk. You never have a hundred percent certainty.
According to the report, 27 percent of those convicted of international terrorist crimes were U.S.-born citizens. You’re saying that this figure is really higher, if we take domestic terrorism convictions into account. Is the administration paying enough attention to domestic radicalization?
I think this administration has willfully tried to play up the notion of “foreigners,” and in this case they’re really talking about Muslims when they say foreigners are much more likely to commit acts of violence and terrorism than any other kind of immigrant. And when you talk about citizens and the issue of domestic terrorism, it raises the uncomfortable specter for this administration that most domestic terrorists are not at all affiliated with Islamic extremism, but are driven by many other factors that are uncomfortable, I think, for this president to accept.