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A Database Showed Far-Right Terror on the Rise. Then Trump Defunded It.

Is the administration trying to thwart efforts to combat white supremacy?

David McNew/Getty Images

In May 2017, Erin Kearns, an adjunct instructor at American University, gave a lecture on terrorism in the United States. Jihadists, she said, commit only a small portion of attacks on American soil, just 12 percent—far fewer, in fact, than right-wing extremists do. People with far-right beliefs, like white supremacists and nationalists, were responsible for 35 percent of the attacks that had happened on American soil over the previous seven years, up from 6 percent in the 2000s. Not long after Kearns’s lecture, conservative media sites the Daily Caller and College Fix ran articles attacking her and her methodology. PJ Media said she had been “trying to indoctrinate college students.” (Jihadists, they pointed out, had killed a greater number of people.)

The data Kearns used was solid, however. It had been gathered by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, which was founded in 2002, shortly after the September 11 attacks. Since 2005, officials at the departments of State and Homeland Security have used the GTD’s roughly 180,000 entries, each one listing a terrorist incident around the world, to analyze patterns of violence and develop counterterrorism strategies. The entries date as far back as 1970. Homeland Security provided much of the funding for the project in its early years, and since 2012, State has taken it on.

The summer after Kearns’s lecture at American, Erin Miller, a criminologist who runs the GTD, learned that the federal government would no longer be funding the organization’s work. The State Department had decided to give the contract to a firm based in Bethesda, Maryland, Development Services Group Inc., which had partnered with a terrorism center at George Mason University.

In August, the University of Maryland filed an official protest with the Government Accountability Office, alleging, among other things, that the State Department was biased against it. The Trump administration, for its part, claimed it made its decision on the basis of cost (Development Services had advanced a slightly lower bid for the contract), and the GAO dismissed the charge. But the Global Terrorism Database is not the first program to be shuttered after it called attention to the rise in violence on the right. Shortly after Donald Trump took office, the administration rescinded a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, a group dedicated to stopping right-wing extremism in America. The Department of Homeland Security also backed out of a $867,000 grant promised to researchers at the University of North Carolina who were developing a program to stop young people from embracing ideologies like jihadism and white supremacy. The Office of Community Partnership, an arm of DHS whose mission is to prevent violent extremism before it begins, had administered those grants. After Trump took office, its name was changed, its staff cut in half, and its budget slashed by more than 85 percent.

Republicans have tried to bury reports about right-wing terror before. Perhaps the best-known instance occurred in 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security, under Obama appointee Janet Napolitano, released an intelligence brief outlining how white supremacists, radical anti-abortionists, and a few “disgruntled” veterans were particularly susceptible to radicalization. When the document leaked to conservative media outlets, Republicans on Capitol Hill were furious; Minority Leader John Boehner called it “simply outrageous” that Napolitano would seek to demonize conservatives, and Napolitano eventually apologized. (A month later, a pro-life extremist shot George Tiller, a doctor in Wichita, Kansas, who worked at a local abortion clinic. Ten days after that, a neo-Nazi killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

The situation with the GTD, however, is different, and arguably more troubling, because, as president, Trump has often pushed ideas about terrorist violence that directly contravene the available data. He has not only firmly maintained that the “alt-left” is as dangerous as the “alt-right” (“I think there is blame on both sides,” he said after the protests in Charlottesville—something not borne out in the data, which shows that right-wing extremists have become much more active than left-wing extremists in the last ten years), but also that immigrants are inciting violence in the United States. On the campaign trail, he’d refer to Somalian refugees “joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world.” Here again, the data indisputably contradicts him; most convicted domestic terrorists are U.S. citizens.

Miller does not believe her team lost funding because of what their data showed. But she still has more questions than answers about the bid. In the meantime, she’s seeking new sources of funding to keep the database going, and is hopeful something will emerge. If it doesn’t, a key resource for academics, journalists, and governments will likely be lost. The data collected by the new contractor will almost certainly not be compatible with that accumulated by the GTD, Miller said. The two data sets will have different quantifiers and coding, and with completely different data collection methodologies, it will be difficult for researchers to track trends accurately across two platforms. In the past, such data helped provide lawmakers with what Miller called “an empirically grounded understanding of a topic that is at times very politicized and very emotional.” Whether that understanding will still be based on the facts under the Trump administration is unclear.