The Trump administration released a new analysis Tuesday claiming that 73% of those convicted of "international terrorism-related charges" in US federal courts following the attacks on September 11, 2001, were "foreign-born," attempting to draw a causal connection between hotly debated immigration policies disfavored by President Donald Trump and acts of terrorism.
But the threadbare, 11-page document raised more questions than it supplied answers about what exactly the Trump administration seeks to conclude from the snapshot of data released to the public in the midst of a protracted immigration fight on Capitol Hill.
The Department of Homeland Security focused on 549 individuals convicted of offenses between September 11, 2001, and December 31, 2016. But it included terrorist acts committed abroad (though it didn't say exactly how many), doesn't provide a breakdown of how many individuals were arrested for acts committed on US soil and doesn't explain how many foreign nationals were radicalized only after entering the US.
Instead, the report states only that at the time of conviction, 254 of the 549 individuals "were not US citizens," 148 "were foreign-born, naturalized and received US citizenship" and 147 "were U.S. citizens by birth." The document partially acknowledged its own limitations, however, saying the analysis "does not include individuals convicted of offenses relating to domestic terrorism, nor does it include information related to terrorism-related convictions in state courts."
The figures provided in the report -- blasted out to the media by Homeland Security and the Justice Department on Tuesday morning -- were originally supposed to be released last year under Trump's derailed second executive order, which restricted travel for certain nationals of several Muslim-majority countries. On a call with reporters, a senior administration official acknowledged the report was "overdue," said the timing was "coincidental" with the ongoing immigration debate in Congress and the data had simply taken longer to aggregate than expected.
Trump touted it via Twitter, tying it to the immigration fight.
"New report from DOJ & DHS shows that nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born. We have submitted to Congress a list of resources and reforms ... we need to keep America safe, including moving away from a random chain migration and lottery system, to one that is merit-based," the President tweeted.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called the findings of the report "chilling" during an oversight hearing with lawmakers Tuesday, suggesting it was "likely just the tip of the iceberg," but she did not provide additional evidence. She singled out the case of a diversity visa lottery recipient from Uzbekistan who pleaded guilty to conspiring to support ISIS in 2015 after posting a threat against President Barack Obama online.
The White House wants to stop immigrants coming to the US based on family connections through so-called, "chain migration," and end the diversity immigrant visa program. But the DHS analysis provides no firm figures on how many of the 549 individuals at issue entered the US through those programs, only providing eight "illustrative examples."
Some national security experts say this type of analysis -- zeroing in on where a terrorist was born -- focuses on the wrong question.
The better question is "where did they radicalize," said Joshua Geltzer, the former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and current executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.
"If we're letting in already-radicalized people," then immigration policies "might well be worth blaming," Geltzer said. "But it seems from what's publicly available that we're letting in totally normal people who qualify for our entry standards and who then in rare cases radicalize -- just as some US-born folks unfortunately do. This sets up a way to blame the immigration system for something it can't possibly do: address radicalization that can occur on our soil to US-born and non-US-born individuals alike."
A CNN review of the eight examples DHS provided in its report shows several of the individuals had lived in the US for many years before committing the terror-related offenses they were eventually convicted for in federal court. Court filings do not indicate that most were radicalized overseas, leaving open the possibility that many radicalized after arriving in the US.