Terrorism & Extremism

Counting Terrorists: The Urgent Need for Comprehensive Data

Charles Kurzman
Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 7:00 AM

The Trump administration is trying to turn counterterrorism into an immigration issue.

(Photo: Matthew Kahn)

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The Trump administration is trying to turn counterterrorism into an immigration issue. From the launch of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—“we have no protection and we have no competence”—to last week’s joint report from the Homeland Security and Justice departments, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” Trump and his supporters have argued that terrorism in the United States is primarily the work of immigrant Muslims.

I maintain a dataset of Muslim-American involvement with violent extremism. It says foreign-born Muslim extremists committed 43 out of 260,000 murders in the United States since 9/11, or 0.002 percent. These figures are based in part on a list of international terrorism-related convictions that the Justice Department releases periodically.

How many murders have non-Muslim terrorists committed? The fact is, we don’t know, because the federal government does not release comprehensive information on domestic terrorism cases.

We know how many cases there are: at least 1,441 federal prosecutions for domestic terrorism over the past 16 years, almost twice as many as those categorized as international terrorism. That averages to more than one case of domestic terrorism every week.

But we don’t know the death toll, or other information, because the Justice Department does not publicly identify these cases.

Before blaming terrorism on immigrants, the public needs more complete data. The Brennan Center and I are working on getting that information. Last week, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Executive Office of the United States Attorneys to start the process of identifying all terrorism prosecutions, including domestic terrorism cases.

This information will add to the body of information collected by non-governmental researchers, who have long worked to bring evidence-based reasoning to debates about terrorism. These researchers have found as many or more fatalities in the United States from right-wing and other forms extremism than from Muslim extremists in recent years—three-fourths of extremist-related killings over the past decade, according to a report last week by the Anti-Defamation League. But this figure may underestimate the actual proportion, because it is based only on open-source materials.

Far more information may be contained in the the Justice Department’s publicly available case management system. This database, called the National Caseload Data, lists the lead charges associated with each case handled by the United States attorneys: Among the cases identified as domestic terrorism, only 4 percent involve charges under the terrorism provisions of the U.S. Code, starting at 18 U.S.C. §2331. Among cases identified as international terrorism, 29 percent involve these statutes.

The lead charge is virtually the only piece of information about the cases contained in the public version of the caseload management database. We don’t know how many people were victimized, or why these cases were categorized as terrorism. We don’t know whether the defendants were white supremacists or “Black Identity Extremists” or supporters of some other radical ideology.

We could fill these knowledge gaps if we could pull the indictments and other court documents in these cases. But we can’t, because docket numbers and defendant names are redacted from the public version of the database.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has periodically released lists of names of people convicted in international terrorism-related cases. (International terrorism is defined to include Americans who may have been inspired by or connected with foreign terrorist organizations. Domestic terrorism is not so clearly defined.) Attorney General Jeff Sessions requested and published one iteration of this list when he was in the Senate. A number of researchers, myself included, have used this list to look up court documents, media coverage, and other information, in order to identify the number of victims in each case, the background of terrorism defendants, the sorts of activities that federal agencies considered terrorism, and government actions in these cases.

Our request seeks docket numbers for federal prosecutions in all terrorism-related program categories, including domestic terrorism, so that researchers can develop a fuller picture of violent extremism in the United States.

By themselves, these federal cases will not present a complete picture of violent extremism, because some cases of domestic terrorism are charged in state courts. In addition, there are relatively few federal officials assigned to domestic terrorism—335 out of 2,185 in the FBI’s counterterrorism division, according to a 2010 audit, which is the latest public data available. (FBI Director Christopher Wray told Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) at a congressional hearing in September 2017 that he would provide updated figures.) But the federal cases could add considerable information to the material that open-source researchers have already accumulated, including hundreds of cases that failed to generate media attention and did not come to the attention of non-governmental research projects.

Regardless of what the data show, the current administration seems unlikely to increase resources to combat domestic extremism, since its counterterrorism policy focuses almost exclusively on Muslims, and in particular on Muslim immigrants. That is the target of the administration’s travel bans, its suspension of refugee resettlement, its threat to the visa lottery, and the counterterrorism portion of the December 2017 National Security Strategy.

That was the focus as well of Trump’s inaccurate tweet on last week’s report: “New report from DOJ & DHS shows that nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born.” The report stated clearly that the denominator in this fraction was international terrorism-related convictions, not all terrorism-related convictions. (Trump made the same mistake in his joint address to Congress last February: “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.”)

The Justice Department has access to information on all terrorism-related convictions, including cases of domestic terrorism, but it chose not to include that information in the report. If successful, this FOIA request will help to remedy that oversight and generate more accurate data for an evidence-based discussion of counterterrorism policy.

Editor's note: This piece originally stated that 335 out of 7,000 agents in the FBI's counterterrorism division are assigned to domestic terrorism. However, the 7,000 figure referred to both agents and other employees; the piece has been corrected to refer to the number of agents in the counterterrorism division, 2,185.

Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “The Missing Martyrs: Why Are There So Few Muslim Terrorists?” (second edition, updated for the age of the Islamic State).

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