Americans — not foreigners — have committed 80 percent of terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11
Omar Siddiqui Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people in Sunday's horrificmassacre, was an American-born citizen. He was raised in the US and he legally obtained his assault rifle.
Mateen did reportedly claim allegiance to ISIS during his attack, but the FBI hasn't found evidence that he received direction from abroad. All evidence available suggests that the shooter acted independently of any specific group.
That didn't, however, stop Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump from making renewed calls to bar Muslims from entering the US.
In a speech on Monday, Trump said: "The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here. That is a fact and it's a fact we need to talk about. We have a dysfunctional immigration system which does not permit us to know who we let into our country and it does not permit us to protect our citizens properly."
Data from the New America Foundation suggests this type of security plan would be misguided. When you look at the history of terrorism in America, the perpetrators are rarely foreign nationals. The story of terrorism in America is one of homegrown radicalism.
"There is a conventional wisdom that terrorism in the US is the province of foreigners and is seen as a problem of infiltration," says David Sterman, a senior program associate with the international security program at the New America Foundation. "And while there is certainly a reason for that perception, as the September 11 attacks were conducted by people who came in from abroad, in the 330 cases we’ve examined since September 11, we found 80 percent are US citizens."
US citizens have committed 80 percent of terrorist attacks since 9/11
September 11, 2001, marked the worst international terrorist attack on American soil, killing more than 3,000 people and wounding countless others. But 9/11 is an outlier. In the 14 years since, not one domestic terrorist attack has been committed by a foreign terrorist organization, including the latest mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. Omar Mateen was an American citizen.
In the same time frame, however, there have been 26 deadly domestic terrorist attacks perpetrated by homegrown terrorists. Homegrown terrorism commonly refers to terrorist acts committed by a government's own citizens. While sometimes used to describe an Islamic extremist threat, homegrown terrorism isn't tied to any one ideological background.
Of the 28 deadly homegrown terrorist attacks, only 10 of those attacks were related to Islamic extremism. The other 18 attacks were led by right-wing extremists, including, most recently, the mass shooting that killed three and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The data from New America clearly shows that domestic terrorist attacks have, since 2001, been more commonly perpetrated by right-wing groups than by Islamic extremists. But when you look at data on arrests, the story flips: Since 2001, there have been 323 charges for "jihadist terrorism," which New America defines as violent extremism motivated by al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, and only 182 for right-wing terrorism.
Sterman says one reason for this discrepancy is it is often hard to obtain reliable data on right-wing terrorism, as the government doesn't always label it as terrorism, whereas jihadist terrorist activity is almost always labeled as some form of terrorism. When deciding whether to classify a violent attack as a terrorist attack, Sterman said New America focuses on whether the attack was linked to a political group or organization — meaning many hate crimes often wouldn't fall under this kind of categorization. The presence of large weapon caches is another criterion used in their assessment, as Sterman said it speaks to the organizational aspect of the attack.
Most acts of domestic terrorism are committed by US citizens
Regardless of the type of terrorist attack — jihadist or right-wing — the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks are committed by US-born citizens. Of the 497 individuals arrested for terrorism, 64 percent were born here. As my colleague Jennifer Williamsnotes, citizens living at home can radicalize and become terrorists too, even though that issue gets less attention. And as the data from New America confirms, terrorist acts committed by US citizens and not by refugees has formed the narrative of domestic terrorism since 9/11.
The New America data set does show that since 2001, 10 refugees have been arrested on terrorism charges. That number is still dwarfed, however, by the 320 American citizens arrested for the same charges.