Fact Checker: Ernst's convention claims about ISIS

  • Photo

Introduction

“According to the FBI, ISIS is present in all 50 states. Think about it for a moment — terrorists from ISIS are in every one of our 50 states.”

Source of claim: U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, made the statement July 18 while speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Analysis

Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, spoke on the RNC’s first night, which had the theme Make America Safe Again.

As a source for her comment about Islamic State terrorists, Ernst’s campaign pointed to a statement FBI Director James Comey made to the National Association of Attorneys General meeting Feb. 25, 2015.

Comey said ISIS reaches out to disaffected Americans through social media, claiming they will find meaning by joining the cause.

“That is a message that goes out to troubled souls everywhere, resonates with troubled souls, people seeking meaning in some horribly misguided way,” Comey said. “Those people exist in every state. I have homegrown violent extremist investigations in every single state. Until a few weeks ago, where there was 49 states — Alaska had none — but Alaska is now joined the group. So we have investigations of people in various stages of radicalizing in all 50 states.”

When the Fact Checker called the FBI Press Office to find out what Comey meant by “homegrown violent extremist investigations,” a spokeswoman, using another common abbreviation for the Islamic State, said: “He’s referring to terrorism cases in all 50 states without being specific to saying they’re all ISIL.”

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, said most investigations don’t lead to arrests.

“It is also a big stretch to say that investigations in 50 states of individuals who are attracted to the ISIS ideology or may be considering traveling to become a foreign fighter means that ‘ISIS is present’ in these states,” Schanzer said. “In that sense, ISIS is ‘present’ everywhere in the world that it has social media followers.”

That someone watches an ISIS video or looks at a website doesn’t make him or her a terrorist, said Neil Shortland, program manager for the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

“This stuff is all over the internet and the internet breeds curiosity,” Shortland said.

As far as the number of people accused of doing illegal things, a June report from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University shows there had been ISIS-related arrests in 25 states. Between March 2014 and June 30, 91 people were arrested, mostly in large metropolitan areas, the research reported. Minnesota had the second-highest number of arrests at 13, behind New York at 18.

Jim Saunders, director of investigative operations for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations, said he does not have any information currently about specific threats in Iowa, but those investigations are usually handled by the FBI.

A study published by the Triangle Center showed 55 of 81 Muslim-Americans associated with violent extremist plots in 2015 were traveling or attempting to travel abroad to be foreign fighters, rather than committing violence in the United States.

Of the 23 domestic plots, five resulted in violence, the study showed.

New America, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank, reported in December that white supremacists and antigovernment types killed more people in U.S. attacks since 9/11 than radical Muslims.

Conclusion

While the FBI director’s comments on terrorism were already alarming, Ernst took them further.

First, Comey’s statement referred to homegrown violent extremists — which an FBI spokeswoman said is a broader category than ISIS alone. From the information Comey gave in his comments, it’s not possible to know for sure specifically whether there are ISIS-related investigations in every state.

Moreover, Ernst said without equivocation that there are “terrorists’ in each state. Comey did not go so far — he instead referred to “investigations.”

There have been ISIS-related arrests in 25 states, which means those investigations had enough evidence to bring criminal charges.

“She’s inferring that an investigation means there is a terrorist,” Shortland said. “It’s a little bit of fear mongering.”

Because of Ernst’s exaggerations on both counts, we give her claim an F.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/office holder or a national candidate/office holder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan.

Like what you're reading?

We make it easy to stay connected:

to our email newsletters
Download our free apps
Fact Checker: Reynolds on brain drain

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.