Addendum- Special thanks to The College Fix for doing a story highlighting this blog post. Their story was reported on in a number of other publications, including the Wall Street Journal- See Notable & Quotable: Extremist Math.
Recently I have noticed a lot of friends and associates posting articles on social media that claim right wing extremism is more dangerous than Islamic extremism. For many, the claim is surprising, so I thought I would take a look at the numbers to see if it is justifiable. At the outset, let me acknowledge that extremist attacks by any person on behalf of any political ideology are disturbing and must be examined and condemned. Yet it is such an important issue that an open and honest accounting of such claims is necessary.
The now oft repeated claim that right wing extremism is more dangerous to Americans than Islamic extremism is based on total deaths and excludes casualties. Moreover, such accounts limit themselves to attacks in the United States (not worldwide), and purposefully exclude the nearly 3,000 deaths (as well as the over 6,000 survivors treated at hospitals) that took place on September 11, 2001. They don’t count the 9/11 deaths as then the numbers would be extraordinarily lopsided (in terms of total U.S. deaths due to Islamic extremism vs right wing extremism) and so such claims are careful to be based only on deaths in the United States AFTER the events of 9/11.
Indeed, if you include the death totals from 9/11 in such a calculation, then there have been around 62 people killed in the United States by Islamic extremists for every one American killed by a right wing terrorist (a 62 to 1 ratio if you divide the slightly over 3000 deaths due to Islamic extremism by the 48 deaths attributed to right wing extremism).
62 to 1.
I once had an academic friend dismiss my concerns about the exclusion of 9/11 victims from such accounting by explaining that this is acceptable as the events of 9/11 are a statistical anomaly and excluding such major events is standard practice for statisticians.
So there you go… 9/11 doesn’t count.
Standard practice or not, it seems misleading to have a discussion about terrorism related deaths in the United States and exclude the most important and largest terror attack in U.S. history, particularly one so recent, but this nevertheless has become standard practice in stories covering this issue that argue that right wing terrorism is more deadly than Islamic terrorism (in the U.S.), so we will work within those limits here.
I will note, however, that such an approach does not factor in how extraordinary security measures (e.g. the Patriot Act, Homeland Security and the TSA, etc…) since 9/11 have prevented a large number of attempted attacks.
Such accounting also does nothing to recognize the disproportionately high number of attacks by Islamic extremists in the United States, who, even after excluding the victims of 9/11, are still responsible for around 50% of the total number of deaths due to extremism, even though Muslims only account for around 1% of the total U.S. population.
Nevertheless, once these narrow parameters have been put in place, with other considerations excluded, according to one often and widely cited source provided on the New America Foundation’s International Security website, there have been (at the time of this writing) 48 deaths in the U.S. due to “Far Right Wing Attacks” while there have been only 45 deaths due to “Violent Jihadist Attacks.”
Although these numbers are highly problematic, as will be considered below, a number of publications have argued (based on this source) that right wing extremists are a far more violent threat to Americans than Islamic extremists. See examples here, here, and here.
The problem with this source, as I see it, is that the count is wrong.
In International Security’s listing of the 45 deaths due to Islamic extremism, they attribute them to only nine incidents since 9/11. These include the more well-known attacks, such as San Bernardino (14 dead), Chattanooga (5 dead), Fort Hood (13 dead), the Boston Marathon Bombing (4 dead- with 264 additional casualties, I might add), as well as the Washington and New Jersey killing spree (4 dead), but also the Oklahoma beheading of 2014 (1 dead), the Little Rock Shooting of 2009 (1 dead), the Seattle Jewish Federation Shooting of 2006 (1 dead), and the Los Angeles Airport shooting of 2002 (2 dead).
So this is where they stop, but if we are comparing Islamic extremism to right wing extremism, apples to apples (and, to give credit to International Security, they acknowledge this is subjective on their website) then there are several others incidents that should be included in this total.
Consider, for example, the efforts of the so-called Beltway sniper John Allen Williams, a longtime member of the Nation of Islam, who only one month after the attacks of September 11, 2001 changed his last name to from Williams to Muhammad. After his arrest, he told police that he modeled himself after Osama bin Laden, no less, and his junior partner, Lee Boyd Malvo, claimed one of their goals was to extort money from the federal government so they could set up a terrorist training camp in Canada. Indeed, on April 22, 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed his death penalty on the basis that Muhammad had committed an act of terrorism.
Together, Muhammad and Malvo, killed at least ten people. Yet International Security does not list their victims among those under the category of “Violent Jihadist Attacks.” If we add Muhammad and Malvo’s victims to the total number of Americans killed by Islamic extremists since 9/11, then the number killed rises to 55, a total higher than the 48 deaths they attribute to right wing extremism.
But there are, unfortunately, many more such examples that have not been included.
In June of 2006 in Denver, a man shot four of his co-workers and a swat team member, killing one. He later claimed he did it because it was “Allah’s choice.” In December of 2009 in Binghamton, a Saudi Arabian graduate student named Abdulsalam S. al-Zahrani killed Richard T. Antoun, a non-Muslim Islamic studies professor who served on al-Zahrani’s dissertation committee, in revenge for “persecuted” Muslims. Prior to the killing one of al-Zahrani’s roommates tried to warn the university administration that he had been acting “like a terrorist.” In 2012 in Houston, in two separate incidents in January and in November, two people were shot to death by a Muslim extremist for their roles in his daughter’s conversion to Christianity. In March of 2013 in Ashtabula (Ohio), a Muslim convert walked into a Christian Church during an Easter service and killed his father, claiming it was “the will of Allah.” In August of 2014 in Richmond (California) killed an Ace Hardware employee by stabbing him seventeen times, claiming he was on a “mission from Allah.”
Multiple sources can be found online verifying all of these accounts.
It seems these examples (and others as well) should certainly count as victims of violent Islamic extremism, but they were not included in International Security’s total as they apparently did not meet their more precise designation of “violent jihadist attacks.” While their website could provide a more comprehensive explanation of their methodology, it nonetheless offers some insight.
“The dataset seeks to include all American citizens and residents indicted or convicted for terrorism crimes who were inspired by or associated with Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups as well as those citizens and residents who were killed before they could be indicted but have been widely reported to have worked with or been inspired by al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. The dataset does not include extremists tied to violent Islamist groups that do not target the United States as part of al-Qaeda’s war, for example Hamas and Hezbollah.”
So such a method does not account for so called homegrown extremists, who may have no connection with al-Qaeda or its affiliate groups. Even though John Allen Muhammad modeled himself after Osama bin Laden, and sought to establish a terrorist training camp in Canada, he had no formal connection or contact with al-Qaeda, which is why I suppose he and many other Islamic extremists operating in the U.S. are not included in their totals. This seems misleading, as it significantly excludes a number of deaths that are very clearly the result of Islamic extremism since 9/11, but this is the only way one could come up with a total number of U.S based deaths by Islamic extremists that is lower than the total number of deaths due to right wing extremists.
Moreover, the way they measure motivation is not equal either. Based on a reading of the right wing attacks included in International Security’s study, right wing extremist attacks seem to be determined by ideological goals or statements made by the attackers. If we applied the same criteria to attacks carried out by Muslim extremists (rather than its much more limiting methodology for Islamist attacks) then the examples I provide above, as well as potentially many others, would be included and the total number would go up significantly, far beyond the total of deaths attributed to right-wing extremists. Using such unequal standards seems like a way to pin attacks on the conservative community while pinning fewer attacks on the Muslim community.
I should also mention that, in addition to the examples I provide above, there are also a number of attacks that are not included in the International Security list because there is no definitive proof they were acts of terror, yet it’s quite possible, even likely, that they were. For example, in August of 2003 in Houston, a Saudi Arabian student who had recently embraced a conservative Islamic lifestyle as a result of religious reawakening, slashed the throat of a fellow Jewish student, nearly decapitating him. Yet he never stated his reason for killing his former Jewish friend, so this makes it hard to say, with any degree of certainty, that he did it for causes related to religious extremism. Consequently, we will not count it here. Similarly, in June of 2006, a Muslim medical student walked into a movie theatre in a Jewish area in Baltimore and started indiscriminately firing at people, killing one. He then walked to the lobby and placed his empty gun on a counter and waited for police to arrive. He never gave a motive for his act of terror, so, once again, we will not count it here. Yet even without counting these attacks, or various honor killings (accounting for around 14 deaths in the U.S. since 9/11) for that matter, the numbers of Americans killed due to Islamic extremism outnumber the totals given by International Security for right wing extremism.
But all of this is focusing only on extremist related deaths on U.S. soil.
Worldwide, the disparity between “right wing” movements and Islamic extremists is stunning.
According to the Global Terrorism Index by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the total numbers of deaths due to terrorism (of all kinds) in 2014 were 32,685. Of those deaths, nearly 4 out of 5 (78%) were in just four Muslim majority countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, as well as in Nigeria, which has a significant Muslim minority (40%) and where the Islamist group Boko Haram has been on a rampage slaughtering several thousand people in numerous terrorist attacks. So this accounts for 78% of all deaths due to terrorism, but much of the remaining 22% of deaths were also attributable to Islamic extremism in countries like Somalia, Yemen, etc…
In contrast, 95 of the 162 nations that were included in their survey had zero terrorist deaths.
In the “age of terror,” it is almost inconceivable that so many nations had no terrorist deaths when we seem to be bombarded with images and reports of terrorism daily and have learned to live with it, yet it is apparently possible to avoid terrorism, as these 95 nations have shown. It demonstrates how terrorism, worldwide, is heavily concentrated in Muslim countries and to dismiss the extent of Islamic terrorism by noting that “all religions” have their terrorists is to miss the highly unique struggles of the Muslim world in this regard and the disproportionately high level of terrorist acts carried out by Muslim extremists in comparison to any other group.
The Global Terrorism Index also notes, for example, that since 9/11 only 0.5% (half of 1%) of all terrorist related deaths took place in western countries, to include the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc… This number includes not only deaths due to attacks by right wingers, racists, nationalists, etc… but also Islamic terrorists operating in Western countries who were often responsible for the most deadly attacks. So “right wing” terror attacks account for… only a portion… of only half… of 1%… of all worldwide related terrorist deaths in 2014, based on the GTI study.
Again, as I noted in the introduction, this is not to dismiss the threat of right wing terrorism and its very deadly consequences for some, but only to add perspective to the claims being made. Right wing terrorism is more deadly for Americans only if you add a number of very limiting parameters (e.g. excluding the victims of 9/11, ignoring “lone wolf” attacks without solid connections to groups like al-Qaeda and their affiliates, etc…). But if you lift those limitations, and apply equal standards, then the raw and unfiltered numbers of deaths of Americans due to Islamic extremism in the United States over the last fifteen years dwarf the numbers attributable to right wing extremism by a ratio of over 62 to 1. Even if you leave out 9/11 victims and just focus on the ideological statements and goals of the attackers, then the deaths of Americans due to Islamic extremism still outnumber the deaths attributable to right wingers (which reveals an even greater disparity when compared with population groups). If we move beyond America’s borders, then the disparity becomes far greater, with somewhere around 90% of the world’s terrorism related deaths attributable to Islamic extremism, and only a fraction of 1% attributable to right wing extremism.
Addendum (June 14, 2016): Since the attack on a gay bar by an Islamic State supporter in Orlando that resulted in the deaths of 50 people, New America has updated their numbers to now show that jihadists have killed almost twice as many Americans since 9/11 than “Far Right Wing-Terrorists.” See my recent analysis for The College Fix.