Press Release

U.S. Citizens Responsible for Vast Majority of Islamist Extremist Terror Plots in the U.S. Since 2002, Annual ADL Report Finds

Analysis of 16-year period shows more than half of plots were carried out by U.S. citizens

New York, NY, May 1, 2018 … The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) today released new data and analysis of 98 Islamist extremist plots and attacks in the United States over the past 16 years. Among the key findings: the vast majority — a full 90 percent — of the plots and attacks were carried out by U.S. citizens or individuals living in the country with lawful permanent or temporary status. ADL’s report includes policy recommendations to reduce the extremist threat.

ADL’s Center on Extremism analyzed plots and attacks in the U.S. from 2002 through 2017 that were motivated by extremist interpretations of Islam. The resulting annual report, “A Homegrown Threat: Islamist Extremist Plots in the United States,” shows that the largest threat of Islamist extremism is homegrown, and that various online platforms continue to be a catalyst for radicalization and recruitment to violence.

“We found that the most significant threat of Islamist extremism is homegrown, and that encrypted online platforms continue to catalyze radicalization and recruitment to violence,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “That first finding undermines assertions made by the Trump administration, that immigrants and foreign born individuals post the greatest threat to our national security.  We call on policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels to prioritize community first-strategies that effectively prevent all forms of violent extremism.”

ADL’s findings call into question the conclusion of a January 2018 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report released, which said there was a need for authorities to track certain Muslim immigrants to the United States “continuously” on a “long-term basis.”

Other findings from the Center on Extremism report:

  • Since 2002, 127 individuals have been involved in 98 domestic plots or attacks motivated by Islamist extremism – and 72 percent of these people were U.S. citizens.  Another eighteen percent were lawful permanent or temporary residents, six percent were in the U.S. without documentation, and four percent were foreign citizens. For context, over the same time period, 161 individuals motivated by right-wing extremism were involved in 94 plots or attacks.
  • In 2017, authorities arrested 29 individuals living in the U.S. for crimes motivated by Islamist extremist ideology. 
  • Eight of the 29 individuals were plotting attacks. These plots led to three attacks (the New York City vehicle ramming, the Port Authority attempted pipe bomb attack, and a Denver attack on a law enforcement officer), resulting in nine deaths and 16 injuries.
  • Since 2014, the majority of plots have focused on “soft targets” – public locations without security – rather than symbolic targets. 
  • The number of murders in the U.S. in 2017 motivated by Islamist extremism (nine) fell by approximately 82 percent from the 2016 total of 49 (all attributed to the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando).
  • In 2017, 59 percent of domestic extremist-related killings in the U.S. were related to right-wing extremism; 26 percent were linked to Islamist extremism.
  • Firearms remain the most common weapon of choice for extremists committing deadly acts in 2017.

“Violent extremism and radicalization is an American problem that is not limited to any one extremist movement or group,” said Oren Segal, director of ADL’s Center on Extremism. “The deadly attack on a crowded bike path in lower Manhattan last year and the nearly 100 plots and attacks inspired by extreme intolerance since 2002 serve as stark reminders of just one of the threats we are working to combat.”  

The report found that Islamist extremists in the U.S. are increasingly acting alone, rather than in groups. This is due, in part, to extremists’ growing use of the Internet, social media and encrypted messaging applications to access propaganda, bomb-making manuals, and other sources of inspiration or instruction.

Policy Recommendations:

  • Whole-of-society approach:  Violent extremists’ increased usage of encrypted technology over discoverable networks underscores the need for a holistic, community-first approach that leads with prevention.  This includes countering extremist propaganda online and on the ground, facilitating mental health support, and advocating for sensible gun control. 
  • Federal Policy: The federal government has an essential leadership role to play in confronting terrorism, extremism, and acts of violence motivated by prejudice.  It cannot do so if it scapegoats Muslims, refugees, or new immigrants to the United States.  The President’s executive action to ban immigrants from majority Muslim countries and other federal agency actions that discriminate against and target communities of color and other marginalized communities are counterproductive to fighting extremism and building community trust.  
  • Community Outreach:  The American Muslim community must be part of the solution; no effort can succeed until the Administration improves relations. The January 2018 DHS report wrongly suggested that the current immigration system allows terrorists to attack the U.S.; this approach must be changed.  It is imperative that policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels prioritize a community-first approach that will more strategically address the threat of Islamist extremism—and all forms of extremism.
  • Encryption:  Federal law enforcement must invest in investigating and understanding new technologies, particularly encrypted platforms like Telegram, the messaging platform that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda use to disseminate violent propaganda. 

State and local approaches: With a community-first strategy, non-federal entities such as non-profit organizations will be critical partners.  ADL works at the federal, state and local levels – with the federal government, Congress, and mayors and governors -- to counter hate and extremism.  State and local officials nationwide want to address these issues, and must be encouraged and empowered to do so.