As President Donald Trump struggles to defend his decision to halt refugee resettlement and immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, it’s become increasingly clear that the executive order he signed on Friday is a solution in search of a problem.
Islamophobia may sell in the White House, but many Americans find it hard to buy his argument that the order will keep out “radical Islamic terrorists” but is “not about religion.”
No refugee from any country targeted in Trump’s ban has carried out a fatal U.S. terror attack. This fact is inconvenient for Trump. He first proposed what critics ― and reportedly, Trump himself ― referred to as a “Muslim ban” in December 2015, after a Muslim couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.
Syed Rizwan Farook, the husband, was an American born in Chicago. And Tashfeen Malik, the wife, was a legal permanent resident of the U.S. whose native country, Pakistan, is not included in Trump’s order.
Yet those facts didn’t stop White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer from citing the San Bernardino shooting as a justification for Trump’s ban on immigrants and travelers from other Muslim-majority countries this week.
There’s little factual basis for this anti-immigrant fear-mongering, but it does enable the Trump administration to scapegoat people from a set of countries that have a combined population of 218 million. Only four nations in the world are that populous.
To understand the inconsistencies at work, it’s helpful to consider the terror threats the White House isn’t talking about ― the ones that are part of a wider trend of domestic terrorism motivated by white supremacy and other forms of right-wing extremism.
First, let’s talk about the fatal attacks carried out by foreigners in the U.S. Between 1975 and 2015, foreign-born terrorists ― including immigrants and tourists ― killed a total of 3,024 people on U.S. soil, according to a 2016 Cato Institute report. All but 41 of those deaths came on Sept. 11, 2001 and the following days.
Three deaths came at the hands of refugees: a pair of political attacks by anti-Castro Cubans in the 1970s. A number of non-fatal terrorist attacks ― including three by refugees from Iran and Somalia, both nations on Trump’s list ― also took place over that time.
Not only is the “death by refugee terrorist” phenomenon extremely rare, but dying in an attack by a foreign-born terrorist is among the least likely causes of death in America over the past four decades. According to the Cato Institute, there’s a 1 in 3.64 billion chance each year of dying in a terror attack carried out by a refugee.
These astronomical odds speak to the incredible rarity of death by terrorism in the U.S., especially when compared to more common causes, like routine gun violence and even shark attacks. Studies have also shown that new immigrants are generally equally or less likely to commit crimes than their natural-born counterparts.
Some supporters of Trump’s immigration ban have pointed to terror plots in Europe in the past few years, claiming the new policy is the only way to ensure a refugee never carries out an attack on U.S. soil. Beside the obvious differences between the U.S. and Europe, these arguments often fail to acknowledge the strict vetting system that currently governs refugee resettlement into the United States. The current screening process takes between 18 and 24 months on average, and includes biometric and biographic tests, interviews and database checks carried out by both United Nations and U.S. security agencies.
But Trump has successfully exploited Islamophobia and irrational paranoia to temporarily close off U.S. borders to people from certain countries. He defended his hasty and chaos-provoking decision by claiming that “bad dudes” would “rush” into the country if he waited (as if there were no national security apparatus to prevent this from happening).
Security experts say the terror threat from refugees and immigrants from the seven countries named in Trump’s ban ― Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen ― isn’t significantly higher than it’s been in the past, and they believe the order is only likely to make threats worse. The president has effectively cast aside the proverbial scalpel in favor of a sledgehammer. Now we’re watching him use it to perform an entirely unnecessary, far-from-surgical procedure.
This approach has created a desperate need for additional context. Between 9/11 and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando last year, right-wing terror attacks actually claimed more lives than those reportedly motivated by Islamic extremism, according to one frequently cited study. The government defines right-wing terror as activity often motivated by principles of racial supremacy and the embrace of anti-government, anti-regulatory or anti-abortion beliefs.
Recent acts of right-wing terror include the fatal 2012 shooting of 6 people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the 2015 killing of 9 people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and another 2015 shooting that killed 3 people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic. Authorities disrupted many more plots that the public may have overlooked because they didn’t involve Muslims.
Republicans have played a role in deflecting attention away from far-right terror. In 2009, when former President Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security issued a report on right-wing extremist radicalization, GOP leaders blasted language identifying “disgruntled military veterans” as potential targets for terrorist recruitment. Then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano eventually apologized to veterans and retracted the report.
The cases below certainly don’t serve as a comprehensive list of every right-wing terror plot uncovered in the past few years, and calling attention to them is not an attempt to paint all men with right-wing beliefs as terrorists intent on killing Muslims or people of color.
Yet as long as the White House continues to focus exclusively on terrorist acts by people who claim to be acting in the name of Islam ― and on the least likely sources of such terrorism, like refugees ― Muslims in the U.S. and around the world will continue to be unfairly demonized. Critics say this is likely to complicate the fight against legitimate terror threats and inspire more terrorism, both foreign and domestic.
In October, Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen were arrested and charged with conspiring to detonate a truck bomb in a Kansas apartment complex where more than 100 Somali immigrants lived.
All three were members of a white supremacist group called “The Crusaders.” The group espoused “sovereign citizen, anti-government, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant extremist beliefs,” according to an FBI agent’s affidavit. Authorities have since filed additional firearms charges against the defendants, who have all pleaded not guilty.
Federal authorities arrested Ronald Chaney III, Robert Curtis Doyle and Charles Halderman in November 2015 after they allegedly tried to buy an automatic weapon, explosives and a pistol with a silencer from undercover agents. The men had discussed a plot to attack black churches and Jewish synagogues, which they justified as a necessary assault in “an impending race war.” All three suspects later pleaded guilty.
Federal agents arrested Walter Eugene Litteral, Christopher James Barker and Christopher Todd Campbell in August 2015, after discovering a plot to manufacture explosives and purchase weapons and body armor to kill members of law enforcement and the U.S. military.
The men believed “the federal government intended to use the armed forces to impose martial law in the United States, which they and others would resist with violent force,” according to court documents. They believed this as part of a popular conspiracy theory regarding a multi-state military exercise known as Jade Helm. All three defendants later pleaded guilty and were sentenced to less than two years in prison.
Police and FBI agents raided a home in St. Louis in March 2015 after informants revealed that its owner, David Michael Hagler, had discussed plans to go on a killing spree targeting members of law enforcement at funerals and fundraisers.
Informants said Hagler held “extreme anti-government and anti-law enforcement views,” and had recently hardened his rhetoric against minorities and Muslims. Police were concerned they’d find explosives, booby traps and assault rifles at Hagler’s home, but an extensive search only turned up other firearms. Hagler later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison in February 2016.
Robert Doggart, of Sequatchie County, Tennessee, was charged in 2015 for allegedly plotting with associates to lay siege to Islamberg, an Islamic community in upstate New York.
Doggart, a former congressional candidate, allegedly planned to use assault rifles, firebombs and even machetes to “inflict horrible numbers of casualties upon the enemies of our Nation and World Peace,” according to court documents. His trial is set to begin next month.
In July 2014, Pennsylvania police found approximately 20 improvised explosive devices at the house of Eric Charles Smith, a man with white supremacist ties whom authorities had previously arrested. Federal officials also discovered Nazi paraphernalia and literature suggesting Smith had been hosting meeting for a group called the “White Church Supremacists.”
One of the bombs included a message reading “(Expletive) the government — down with Obama (racial slur) Muslim Pig,” according to police. Smith pleaded guilty and was later sentenced to more than 7 years in prison.
Shane Robert Smith was arrested in August 2015 after allegedly amassing an arsenal of machine guns, semi-automatics, armor-piercing ammunition and silencers to form a “hit squad” to murder minorities and Jewish people. Officials said that the teen’s social media accounts were littered with hate speech against the groups he may have intended to target. Smith pleaded guilty in 2016 and has been sentenced to 3 years in prison.
Violence and radicalism are complicated forces, often driven by complex social and political conditions and inflamed by personal factors. No single radical, or even group of them, can define a race, religion or belief system.
But extremism in any form can be a threat to U.S. security, and Trump says he’s simply pursuing the impossibly ambitious goal of keeping all Americans safe. If he truly wants to do that, he should be more consistent in acknowledging all potential sources of terror. Most importantly, he must not encourage further extremism, whether carried out in the name of Islam or in opposition to it.
Portions of this piece were published in a previous story on right-wing terror plots.