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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Bogus Terrorist Claim

At a military base in Florida, President Donald Trump complained that “radical Islamic” terrorist attacks are “not even being reported” by the “very, very dishonest press.” That’s nonsense.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer later revised Trump’s criticism of the media by claiming the president was talking about terrorist attacks that have gone “underreported,” not unreported. But that’s not what the president said.

Trump and Spicer were both proven wrong when the White House produced a list of “underreported” terrorist attacks that contained numerous widely covered terrorist attacks over the last two years, including the Orlando, Florida, mass shooting that left 49 people dead and the San Bernardino, California, attack that killed 14.

The White House list also included the Nov. 13, 2015, attack in Paris that killed more than 130 people; the Bastille Day attack last year in Nice, France, that killed 84 people; and the bombing attacks at an airport and on a subway train in Brussels on March 22, 2016, that killed at least 31 people. All were, obviously, widely covered.

Trump made his remarks at MacDill Air Force Base.

Trump, Feb. 6: Radical Islamic terrorists are determined to strike our homeland as they did on 9/11; as they did from Boston to Orlando, to San Bernardino. And all across Europe, you’ve seen what happened in Paris and Nice. All over Europe it’s happening. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported and, in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that.

What terrorist attacks are “not even being reported”? When asked, Spicer backtracked and said that Trump was complaining about “underreported attacks.”

Spicer, Feb. 6: Look, I think the president’s comments were very clear at the time. He felt as though members of the media don’t always cover some of those events to the extent that other events might get covered; that a protest will get blown out of the water, and yet an attack or a foiled attack doesn’t necessarily get the same coverage.

The White House then provided a list of 78 attacks that were carried out by terrorists or suspected terrorists from September 2014 to December 2016. We searched Nexis, a news database, for coverage of all 78 incidents and found tens of thousands of news articles, TV news transcripts and news wire accounts of the attacks and subsequent stories related to these attacks.

Several of the suspected terrorist attacks described as “not … reported” (Trump) or “underreported” (Spicer) received so much global press coverage that Nexis could not return all search results — instead it provided just a warning that the search would yield more than 3,000 results.

In addition to the five high-profile attacks we mentioned earlier — in Orlando, San Bernardino, France and Belgium — the White House list included these other incidents that yield more than 3,000 results in our Nexis search for “all English language news”:

  • Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa in October 2014. The name “Michael Zehaf-Bibeau” was mentioned in more than 500 U.S. news and wire stories, including in front page articles in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.
  • Amedy Coulibaly killed one police officer and four hostages in a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Paris. The name “Amedy Coulibaly” appeared in at least 1,400 U.S. news and wire reports, including in at least 150 front-page stories. The New York Times alone wrote 22 front-page stories on the attack.
  • Man Haron Monis killed two hostages in December 2014 after taking over a downtown cafe in Sydney, Australia, for more than 16 hours. Man Haron Monis, who was killed when law enforcement officers stormed the cafe, was mentioned in nearly 500 U.S. news and wire reports. The incident was on the front page of five U.S. newspapers, and carried on all the major TV networks and cable stations.

All of those attacks can be found on CNN’s website, which lists 143 terrorist attacks through July 25, 2016.

Extensive media coverage was not limited to attacks that resulted in the loss of innocent lives. Our search turned up heavy coverage for attacks listed by the White House that resulted in no one other than the attackers being killed:

  • Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi were killed after they opened fire on May 3, 2015, at an exhibit of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad in Garland, Texas. One security guard was wounded. Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, a roommate of the gunmen, was convicted of conspiracy to support ISIL and other terrorist-related charges. We found more than 1,200 U.S. news and wire stories that mentioned Kareem and the attack, including 21 stories in the New York Times. 
  • Usaama Rahim was shot and killed by a Boston police officer and FBI agent after Rahim approached them with a machete. A Nexis search of Rahim’s name in U.S. news and wire reports turned up 278 hits, including 12 stories in the Boston Globe and four in the New York Times. The Globe wrote four front-page stories on Rahim’s case.
  • Mohamed Barry was shot and killed by police a year ago in Columbus, Ohio, after he injured four people in a restaurant with a machete. We found more than 100 search results for “Mohamed Barry” and “Columbus,” including five front-page stories by the Columbus Dispatch. It was covered by CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News.

Simpson, Soofi and Rahim are listed in a federally funded report for the U.S. Department of Justice as “deceased American jihadists.” It is not clear, however, if the Ohio incident was a terrorist attack. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Barry “had been on a watch list for ‘espousing extremist views,’” but FBI agents “didn’t use the words ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’” at the time to describe the attack.

The White House list also includes at least two attacks that do not appear to be terrorist attacks at all:

  • Khaled Babouri was killed in August after injuring two female police officers in Brussels with a machete. Belgium Migration State Secretary Theo Francken said Babouri “was not known for terrorist reasons,” according to an Associated Press report.
  • Smail Ayad killed two people, Mia Ayliffe-Chung and Tom Jackson, at a hostel in Australia in August. The Brisbane Times reported that Ayad was “alleged to have yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the attack but authorities found no evidence to suggest his motivations were terror-related and have considered whether he had an obsession with Ms Ayliffe-Chung.” Ayad “has been given a preliminary diagnosis of schizophrenia,” the paper said.

Update, Feb. 8: Mia Ayliffe-Chung’s mother, Rosie Ayliffe, said the murders of her daughter and Jackson should not have appeared on the White House list of terrorist attacks. In an open letter to Trump on Facebook, Ayliffe wrote that “an Islamic terror attack was discounted in the early stages of the police investigation.” 

For sure, there are some suspected terrorist attacks that were not widely reported. But we found that those were generally in far-flung places that, for the most part, did not result in any deaths.

The White House listed, for example, these nonfatal attacks that received little U.S. media coverage: a June 9, 2015, rocket attack targeting an airport in el Gorah, Egypt; a roadside bombing attack that injured four U.S. soldiers in el Gorah, Egypt; and the shooting of two U.S. defense contractors in Saudi Arabia in January 2015.

(We note that nine of the 78 attacks listed by the White House were in Egypt, which has been struggling with “a long-running insurgency in the region that has grown since the 2011 popular uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak,” the former president of Egypt, according to U.S. News and World Report.)

President Trump’s criticism of the media and the reporting on terrorist attacks comes at a time when the Department of Justice is in federal court defending the president’s executive order — Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. The order seeks to impose a 90-day travel ban on the citizens of seven predominately Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. It also would suspend the refugee program indefinitely for Syrians and for 120 days for all other refugees. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on Feb. 3 that for now blocks enforcement of portions of Trump’s order.

We will leave it to the courts to decide the merits of Trump’s executive order. But we judge that his claim that terrorist attacks are “not even being reported” by the “very, very dishonest press” is unsupported by the facts.