When White House counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared at a town hall event with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, she mentioned “the Bowling Green massacre” — a terrorist attack that, the social media world would quickly determine, did not exist.
This exchange stemmed from her defense of President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order barring citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya from entering the United States for 90 days and putting Syrian refugee admissions on hold indefinitely. (We go over some of the key issues in this explainer.)
Trump’s action inspired protests, but Trump and others in his administration cited as a precedent an action taken by the Obama administration. “My policy is similar to what President (Barack) Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months,” Trump said. Specifically, the government instituted new background checks for visa applicants from Iraq and expanded screening for Iraqi refugees who had already settled in the United States. (We largely disagreed that the two actions were equivalent, so we rated Trump’s statement Mostly False.)
So what does any of this this have to do with Bowling Green, a city in western Kentucky?
The Obama-era action was taken after a failed plot by Iraqi nationals living in Bowling Green to send money, explosives and weapons overseas to al-Qaida. The two men were arrested by the FBI in May 2011 for actions committed in Iraq and trying to assist overseas terrorist groups.
That’s the context in which Conway brought it up during a town hall at American University on Feb. 2, 2017.
“I bet it’s brand-new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country were radicalized and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre,” she said. After some cross-talk between Conway and Matthews, Conway added that the incident “didn’t get covered.”
So there was indeed a terrorism-related situation in Bowling Green, Ky., but it wasn’t a “massacre.” No one died in Bowling Green. And before long, social media lit up with mockery of Conway, from reminders of a 2013 football blowout of Northern Illinois University by Bowling Green State University to a website for the mythical Bowling Green Massacre Victims Fund. Lots of wags added that it was no wonder that the media didn’t cover the massacre because … it didn’t happen.
The next morning, Conway clarified matters on Twitter. She tweeted, “On @hardball @NBCNews @MSNBC I meant to say ‘Bowling Green terrorists’ as reported here.” She also tweeted that “honest mistakes abound.”
So Conway has publicly acknowledged her error. Still, we thought it would be important to clear the air about what actually happened and what did not.
The account below is largely taken from a fact-check we originally published on Sept. 23, 2014, in which we gave a False rating to the statement that, “In 2011, (the Islamic State) attempted to attack Fort Knox” in Kentucky. That was just one of a number of inaccurate statements circulating at the time about terrorist activities in and around Bowling Green, Ky.
On Feb. 3, 2017, we ran our original fact-check by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and he said that our original account remains accurate. The White House did not respond to an inquiry for this article.
Iraqi nationals in Kentucky
The details of the Kentucky case were indeed alarming.
In September 2009, the FBI, based on a tip, launched an investigation into an Iraqi, Waad Ramadan Alwan, who was living in Bowling Green.
A confidential source for the FBI started talking with Alwan in 2011. Alwan discussed how he previously worked as a bombmaker in Iraq. He boasted about blowing up American Hummers and targeting U.S. soldiers, claiming he used improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, hundreds of times, according to court documents.
The FBI even matched a fingerprint from Alwan to an unexploded IED that was discovered by the military in 2005. (There’s a warehouse outside of Washington, D.C., that houses thousands of bombs found by the military). That enabled investigators to determine that Alwan had likely killed U.S. troops while in Iraq.
The confidential source continued to meet with Alwan and recruited him to assist in an operation in the United States to send explosives, firearms and money to al-Qaida of Iraq. Al-Qaida of Iraq later morphed into the Islamic State or ISIS, according to terrorism experts.
On five occasions, Alwan helped procure and load money and weapons he believed were going to help al-Qaida of Iraq fight U.S. troops. In January 2011, Alwan recruited a friend to assist him — Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, another Iraqi who had moved to Bowling Green after first living in Las Vegas. Alwan and Hammadi entered the United States as refugees after lying about their past terrorism ties on paperwork.
From January to May 2011, the two worked together on five missions to send grenade launchers, machine guns, explosives, sniper rifles, hand grenades, missile launchers and $565,000 to al-Qaida of Iraq.
Of course, this was all a sting operation. While Alwan and Hammadi thought they were helping insurgents in Iraq, in reality, the FBI was monitoring all of their actions — a common tactic for sting operations involving suspected terrorists. The weapons, which the FBI rendered unusable, were merely transferred from one location under FBI control to another.
In May 2011, Alwan and Hammadi were arrested. In December 2011, Alwan pleaded guilty to a 23-count indictment, including conspiring to kill U.S. nationals abroad and multiple charges of weapons and terrorist activities. Hammadi pleaded guilty to a 12-count indictment, including attempting to provide material support to terrorists.
For cooperating with authorities, Alwan received a reduced sentence of 40 years in prison followed by a lifetime under house arrest. Hammadi was sentenced to life in prison.
None of the charges filed against Alwan and Hammadi were for domestic terrorism plots. They were not convicted of any crimes related to domestic terrorism. All of the charges against these individuals were for actions committed while in Iraq or for trying to assist terrorist groups operating overseas.
PolitiFact has combed through hundreds of pages of court documents that were available online. The only conceivable reference to any other terrorist activity is in Hammadi’s appeal of his sentence. There, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit wrote: “Hammadi and Alwan also plotted to murder a U.S. Army Captain whom they knew from Iraq.”
An ABC investigative report had a few more details: “Alwan had been caught on an FBI surveillance tape talking about using a bomb to assassinate an Army captain they’d known in Bayji, who was now back home — and to possibly attack other homeland targets.”
We should also note that while Alwan and Hammadi thought they were helping a predecessor of the Islamic State, al-Qaida of Iraq had no communication with them.
At root, this was a case of two Iraqis with dangerous backgrounds who were duped by the FBI into believing they were helping Islamic insurgents fight Americans overseas.
So how does Conway’s original (and now inoperative) statement stack up?
Most importantly, there was no “massacre” in or around Bowling Green that was either carried out or attempted.
In addition, while the two men were charged with serious crimes and were sentenced accordingly, it’s important to remember that everything that happened was part of a sting operation by the FBI. This means that the people of Bowling Green were not endangered at any point, and that the entire incident can be viewed as a law-enforcement success. The fact that it was a sting undercuts Conway’s use of the word “masterminds.”
Conway also said the event “wasn’t covered” by the media. We used the Nexis database to search media reports from around the time of the arrest and found that it wasn’t a huge, newscycle-dominating story. But several major news outlets did cover the story when it broke, including CNN, CBS and the Associated Press. And they also covered the debate that followed — including the call by some members of Congress to send the Iraqis to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the fact that it exposed a gap in the refugee screening process.
In her tweet correcting her statement on MSNBC, Conway linked to a news story about the two Iraqis and other refugees, a 2013 article by ABC, headlined, “US May Have Let ‘Dozens’ of Terrorists Into Country As Refugees.”
Conway said that “two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. … It didn’t get covered.”
Put simply, there was no massacre. While Conway admitted her mistake the following morning — and we’re happy she did — it’s important to make sure the record is crystal clear. We rate the claim False.