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Trump’s Targeting of Muslims Isn’t Just Racist – It’s Dumb Policy

A leaked DHS memo reveals how the White House is embracing Islamophobia – and ignoring the country’s most serious terrorist threat

How Trump Mistakenly Targets Muslims

Trump speaking with county sheriffs at the White House.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

In April of 2010, ex-FBI agent John Guandolo, who had left the agency months before wide-spread revelations of ethical breaches that included sleeping with confidential sources, held a training session for the Columbus, Ohio police department titled “Understanding the True Nature of the Threat to America.” During the course of the seminar, Guandolo made several outlandish claims about “secret” Muslim societies trying to take over the American government and the inherent dangerousness of Islam. Towards the end, he made an unsubstantiated claim: a 59-year-old college professor – an American citizen and a Muslim who helped run Muslim outreach programs for the state – was, in fact, a secret would-be terrorist who should be watched. Present in the room were dozens of law enforcement officers, including the Chief Deputy who knew the professor well. In the wake of the seminar, the professor was fired from his job and branded as a threat to the community. (A lawsuit filed by the professor against Guandolo was eventually dismissed.)

A new document published by Foreign Policy on Monday indicates that the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security are planning to turn a similar brand of baseless fear mongering into actual governmental policy. The draft report, which was reportedly requested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, describes the nascent stages of a system that would profile Sunni Muslims living in America, including permanent residents and possibly citizens. Titled “Demographic Profile of Perpetrators of Terrorist Attacks in the United States Since September 2001 Attacks Reveals Screening and Vetting Implications,” it calls for the long-term surveillance of Muslims who fit certain “at risk” criteria: being male, Muslim, and from “the Middle East, South Asia or Africa.”

The report purportedly examines 25 select terrorism-related prosecutions in the U.S. that involved Sunni Muslims, making the argument that the government should “continuously evaluate” Sunni Muslims due to their “higher risk of becoming radicalized.” This would likely include stricter standards for travel, visas and other benefits within the U.S. (Naturalized citizens can have their citizenships revoked under certain circumstances.) While the body of the report doesn’t include details of the cases being scrutinized, it does assert that more than half of these select perpetrators were not born in the U.S. – suggesting the proposed measures would largely target visa holders and other immigrants.

In a comment to Foreign Policy, CBP representatives emphasized that the report was a “first draft” that “did not reflect a large number of substantive comments and revisions that have since been made to subsequent versions of the document as a result of CBP’s internal and external review process.” But the draft memo marks another instance of the Trump administration inaccurately painting foreign-born Muslims as the primary perpetrators of terror. Trump’s “Muslim ban,” now in its third iteration, is being implemented even as it remains under Supreme Court review. Trump’s “extreme vetting” program has called for increased electronic surveillance, including the monitoring of social media accounts. After a young man from Uzbekistan drove into a bike path in Manhattan, killing eight people, Trump seemed to doubled-down on the power of racial profiling, tweeting: “I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!” 

The DHS memo is also not the first instance of immigration authorities supporting the president’s nativist agenda. Last month, the Department of Justice and DHS released a report – authorized by the executive order that limited Muslim immigration – saying that “3 out of every 4” people convicted of international terrorism charges in federal U.S. courts are foreign-born. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in the press release, “[W]e must examine our visa laws and continue to intensify screening and vetting of individuals traveling to the United States to prevent terrorists, criminals, and other dangerous individuals from reaching our country.”

But according to terrorism experts, the January 2018 report is misleading both in terms of data selection and interpretation. First, the administration is citing figures that do not match the total number of terrorism-related cases, and seeming to skew the results to include more foreign-born defendants. The DOJ periodically releases the number of international terrorism defendants, and the latest tally from 2015 included 627 defendants. (The Intercept has produced a complete list of terrorism defendants that cites around 800 cases as of January 2018.) But the January report lists only 549 defendants, making it seem that the 402 non-U.S. citizens on the list make up an overwhelming majority of cases.

In fact, long-standing data has shown that country of birth is not an important factor in determining whether or not someone will commit an act of terrorism. Faiza Patel, the Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Center at NYU’s Brennan Center, found that twice as many “homegrown” terrorists were prosecuted in federal court as “foreign” ones – a fact that’s particularly striking given certain selection issues, like biases in prosecution resources that target Muslim defendants. And then there’s the fact that deaths from terror attacks in the U.S. are statistically much lower than other forms of homicide. On that last point, the list of international terrorism defendants fails to distinguish cases based on threat. According to the Intercept, the vast majority involve providing “material support,” which can include sending money or Twitter messages.

Perhaps most telling – and unsurprising – the DHS memo last week ignores the growing threat of U.S.-born non-Muslim terrorists. In April 2017, the Government Accountability Office reported that almost 75 percent of all terrorism fatalities were due to right-wing extremists. The Anti Defamation League has similarly “identified more than 150 domestic terror incidents related to right-wing extremists over the past 25 years, with hundreds of perpetrators—almost every one of which was born in the United States.” At least 255 people have been killed and more than 600 injured in those incidents. “Our current report on extremist murders demonstrates that 71 percent of extremist-related murders in the past decade have come at the hands of right-wing extremists,” says Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “Stopping hate and violence begins with recognizing and understanding where it comes from.”

Of course, every administration since September 11th has disproportionately focused on the threat of Muslim terrorism. George Bush’s National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a registration system that required mostly Muslim non-citizens to submit to fingerprinting and enhanced background checks, was implemented in 2002 as a way to track people coming from Muslim-majority countries. And the recent DHS memo, Patel points out, “is not as radical a departure from the Obama years as it might first seem,” adding: “American Muslims are treated as populations vulnerable to terrorist recruitment and have routinely been targeted by a variety of counterterrorism programs based on their shared faith rather than suspicion.” 

But few argue that the Trump administration has reached new heights in embracing Islamophobia as official doctrine. “This draft report reflects the toxic effect the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic agenda is having on CBP and other law enforcement agencies sworn to protect and uphold the rights of all who reside in the U.S.,” says Robert McCaw, the Director of Government Affairs Department at CAIR. “How did a CBP analyst or research team even find it reasonable to recommend that the government surveil all Sunni Muslim immigrants in America, of African, South Asian, Middle Eastern origin?”

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Mr. Guandolo was fired before his various ethical issues came to light and a lawsuit filed by the professor against Mr. Guandolo was eventually dismissed.  

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