Looking to "blow off steam," a pair of teenagers broke into the Ohio Chapel United Methodist Church near Columbus, Ind. last year to steal propane tanks. The vandals turned crosses upside down, smashed windows, and even torched a pew stored in the basement.
Non-lethal incidents like church vandalism are a far cry from the bloodshed that occurred in the shadow of the rebuilt World Trade Center on Oct. 31, 2017, when ISIS-aligned Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented pickup truck down a crowded bicycle path, killing eight people and wounding 12. Yet, a Quartz report published Sept. 11 reviewing terrorist attacks in 2017 compares numerous low-level acts of vandalism to less frequent — but far more lethal — jihadist violence, to argue that most terrorist acts in the United States are motivated by right-wing extremism.
Analyzing data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), an open-source dataset maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, Quartz reporter Luiz Romero concluded that "almost two-thirds of terror attacks in the US last year" were perpetrated by right-wing extremists.
The left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which collects and distributes its own "Terror from the Right" statistics, was happy to run with Romero's findings. But a case-by-case review of the 2017 raw data finds that Quartz's study is incredibly flawed and misleading.
For starters, the conclusion that "nearly two-thirds" of 2017 domestic terrorism was right-wing driven is exaggerated. "Nearly" implies a rounding of a percentage point or two. But the actual figure of cases Quartz labeled right wing is 57 percent. That's still a significant number that shouldn't need padding.
But the biggest flaw is that the GTD isn't a very precise repository for terrorist incidents, conflating casualty-free violence with devastating, mass-casualty attacks. Between 1970 and 2016, 91 percent of GTD cases were non-lethal.
Of the 65 terrorist acts identified in the START data, 30 were arsons or property crimes. Muslim extremists did not commit any of them. They're still horrible crimes, and those carried out with the intent to frighten or intimidate a community are even more abhorrent.
But by counting these crimes equally with attempts at mass murder in a grand tally of terrorist attacks, Romero significantly dilutes the influence of Islamic extremism.
For example, he includes four attacks in the GTD database that were carried out with BB or pellet guns, including three "anti-Muslim" attacks executed over several days by an unidentified shooter who took pot shots at the Masjid Ebun Abass mosque in the Bronx. The suspect broke several windows, struck a worshiper in the neck and hit another man in the foot. There were no reports anyone required medical treatment.
In another case included as a terrorist attack, a "small-caliber bullet" consistent with a pellet gun or air rifle was used to shoot out the windows of the Lexington-Herald Leader in Kentucky. The rooms targeted were empty at the time of the shooting, and nobody was hurt. Law enforcement investigated the incident as "criminal mischief," and GTD researchers expressed doubt that it qualified as terrorism since "it is unclear whether the building was specifically or randomly targeted."
Quartz's conclusions are heavily skewed by arson-related incidents, which comprise 37 percent of the total terrorism cases. Half of all the attacks attributed to "anti-Muslim extremists," and half of the "anti-LGBT" incidents it includes involved fires. Thirteen of these arsons remain unsolved.
For instance, two months after a fire destroyed the Islamic Center of Lake Travis, Texas, Fire Marshal Tony Callaway admitted that investigators may never know what caused the blaze. Although Callaway pointed to local trash fires as a potential cause, the incident was still reported as coming from "anti-Muslim extremists."
Similarly, vandals spray painted "KKK" on the doors of a car before lighting it on fire in the small California town of Vacaville. "Anything's possible, it could be a case of mistaken identity, it could be targeted," Vacaville police Lt. Matt Lydon said. GTD analysts still labeled it a "suspected" Klu Klux Klan" attack.
This destruction of an empty car counts exactly the same in the Quartz report as Saipov's mass murder in New York.
The proliferation of offenses causing minor property damage within the database is "an effort to claim racially motivated (read: right-wing) violence," said David Firester, founder and CEO of TRAC Intelligence, who has criticized the GTD. This creates a false impression "that there are fewer instances of Islamist violence, or planned violence, than other sorts of terrorism, or suspected terrorism."
Although Romero doesn't provide a breakdown showing how he arrived at 37 right-wing attacks, he does share some clues. Filtering the database by motivation or extremist affiliation, Romero identified "right-leaning" cases as those "tied to racist, anti-Muslim, homophobic, anti-Semitic, fascist, anti-government, or xenophobic motivations." Conversely, he established that "left-leaning" attacks were "pro-LGBT, environmentalism, and anti-Republican."
The chart below breaks down the 65 cases Romero included in his Quartz report.
In another example, there is no evidence proving that an arson attack on a Puerto Rican gay bar was motivated by homophobia or right-wing extremism. After masked assailants threw a Molotov cocktail into the Circo bar in San Juan a year ago, causing minor damage, local LGBT activist Pedro Julio Serrano identified homophobia as the "probable" cause. Authorities never identified a suspect or motive, however, and a source told the Gay Times that "the attack could have come from a rival gay club that would have wanted to stop Circo Bar from opening" following renovations. Even the GTD isn't sure that this was a terrorist attack, because the incident may not have been "aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious, or social goal."
Again, Quartz counted this arson that left no casualties equally to the ISIS-inspired Bangladeshi man who strapped a crude bomb to his body and detonated it inside a commuter tunnel at Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal, wounding himself and three others. Upset over U.S. military strikes on ISIS positions and the Israeli "incursion into Gaza," Akayed Ullah timed his attack to maximize casualties. Fortunately, his suicide vest misfired and detonated prematurely, sparing numerous casualties.
It's certainly possible that the Circo bar was targeted by someone who hates gay people. But that remains unknown. In nearly a quarter of the cases in the GTD between 2010 and 2016, the perpetrator's identity is unknown. The 2017 data has mystery assailants in 29 percent of the cases, making conclusions about motive uncertain.
The same is true for the lone anti-Semitic attack featured in the database. It involved an unidentified man who set fire to an empty bus decorated with colorful artwork and Jewish iconography. The crime took place in New York's Crown Heights area, which has a history of black and Hispanic anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, Quartz counts this as a right-wing attack.
Quartz also blamed "anti-government" attacks on right-wing ideologues. This includes Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people and injured more than 800 in America's deadliest mass shooting. Investigative records released by Las Vegas police show Paddock may have previously expressed views consistent with anti-government, "sovereign citizen movements," and conspiracy theories about FEMA camps, but there is no evidence suggesting that these views incited Paddock to take action. Police officially closed the investigation in August 2018 without establishing a motive.
Tunisian national Abor Ftouhi's stabbing attack of a Michigan police officer may be the most dubious in the Quartz report. Ftouhi shouted "Allahu Akbar" as he stabbed the officer in the neck. He "exclaimed something similar to, 'you have killed people in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and we are all going to die,'" said a second law enforcement officer who witnessed the attack. Despite these statements, Quartz characterizes this incident as an anti-government/right wing attack.
The Quartz report also presents a misleading image by failing to acknowledge jihadist-inspired attacks which are thwarted by law enforcement. Even with their global Caliphate crumbling around them, the Islamic State still managed to inspire hundreds of potential would-be terrorists last year, and the U.S. Department of Justice reported 26 ISIS indictments in U.S. courts.
"[D]omestically, terrorism has been on the rise, but Islamist-inspired terrorist plots have been disrupted far more frequently as a result of law enforcement's due diligence," Firester said. Indeed, since 9/11, more than 80 percent of potential terrorist attacks were foiled thanks to improvements in intelligence and surveillance.
Worldwide terrorist attacks are trending downwards, and Quartz fails to note that 2017 stands out as exceptionally peaceful when compared to Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks experienced in the previous two years. Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, a "jihadi-inspired extremist," killed 49 of the 59 Americans who died from domestic terrorism causes in 2016. The year before, Muslim extremists Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 and injured 17 of their co-workers at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., accounting for one-third of all U.S. terrorism deaths in a single attack.
Quartz chose the anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil to publish a cursory study and made bold assumptions when evidence was clearly lacking. The result minimizes the deadly threat of Islamic extremism. By counting graffiti and arsons of empty buildings equally to car-ramming attacks and martyrdom operations, Quartz did more to mislead than to enlighten.
Benjamin Baird is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. He is a graduate of Middle Eastern studies from the American Military University, a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, and a U.S. Army infantry veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.