“She [Hillary Clinton] gave us ISIS as sure as you are sitting there. And what happened is now ISIS is in 32 countries…. We should have never let ISIS happen in the first place. And right now, they’re in 32 countries.”
— Donald Trump, remarks in the third presidential debate, Oct. 19, 2016
Many readers have asked us about this comment, repeated twice, by Trump. We wondered as well, and put it aside for further review after the debate.
We have explained before the reasons for the rise of the Islamic State. The Islamic State is largely centered in portions of Iraq and Syria — through the area under its control is shrinking under assault from U.S.-backed forces — but it has made no secret of its global aspirations. Trump’s suggestion that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is operating in 32 countries seemed rather high.
Trump’s comment is vague enough that it is open to interpretation, which will allow him to slip by with a Pinocchio rating not as high as usual.
The Trump campaign directed us to a Sept. 4, 2014, post, titled “The Islamic State’s global reach,” that appeared on the blog of the Long War Journal, affiliated with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The post presented what it described as partial list of reported or suspected Islamic State activity outside Iraq and Syria since Jan. 1, 2013, based largely on news reports. As an example, it describes an arrest in France of a man suspected in a shooting attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels.
When the blog post appeared, The Hill newspaper described its findings this way: “ISIS now has active supporters in at least 32 countries around the world, including Canada, Australia, 11 countries in Europe, five countries in the Middle East, six countries in Africa and eight countries in Asia.”
It’s a bit odd that the Trump campaign would rely on such dated material; there have certainly been more attacks associated with the Islamic State since this list was produced.
Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, said that a rough count of his own would increase the estimate to about 37 countries in which the Islamic State had supporters or was operating to some degree.
But he noted that Trump was not very specific about what he meant. Roggio counted six countries in which the Islamic State has actually occupied territory, though in some cases the territory seized is pretty small. Another set of countries has suffered through attacks linked to the Islamic State, others have groups with some military capacity, and still others have terrorist cells.
“He’s kind of right and he’s kind of wrong,” Roggio said, adding that he is apolitical and did not watch the debate, though he is also no fan of Trump. Roggio said the magazine did not assemble the list for the purpose for which Trump is citing it.
The biggest problem with Trump’s statement is it lacks context. The State Department after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said that the al-Qaeda terrorist organization was active in 64 countries. Indeed, a number of a groups affiliated with the Islamic State (such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines) used to be linked to al-Qaeda but then switched their allegiance. So in some cases a terrorist group was always in a particular country, but it simply changed the nameplate of the holding company on the door. So it’s not like the association with ISIS represents an increase in terrorist activity.
“Al-Qaeda still has a presence in a lot of these countries,” Roggio said. “The Islamic State was sort of cherry-picking” various terrorist groups.
Trump, however, implies that Islamic State has operational control in 32 countries. This would significantly narrow the list. The Congressional Research Service, in a June 2016 report, listed only six affiliates beyond Iraq and Syria — in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Yemen. Even then, CRS noted that “the implications of such pledges of loyalty to the Islamic State on groups’ objectives, tactics, and leadership structures appear to vary and may evolve.”
The Pinocchio Test
Trump’s statement lacks context. He could point to 32 countries — and probably more — where the Islamic State has conducted attacks, occupies territory or has terrorist cells that have pledged some sort of allegiance. But that is half the size of a comparable list for al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks — and in some cases, the Islamic State has merely gained the backing of the group that was once affiliated with al-Qaeda. Even the magazine that was the source of Trump’s statistic says it is not being used correctly by the campaign.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Check out our guide to all Trump and Clinton fact checks
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter