Did a Counterterrorism Expert Call For ISIS to Bomb a Trump Building?

Malcolm Nance's tweet was taken out of context in a "viral game of telephone".

Image via robert cicchetti / Shutterstock.com

On 18 April 2017, various right wing web sites (including Newsbusters and Breitbart) reported a claim that Malcolm Nance, a retired Navy intelligence officer, veteran counterterrorism expert and current MSNBC commentator, called for the Islamic State, or ISIS, to bomb property belonging to President Donald Trump.

Newsbusters wrote:

In an absolutely shocking tweet late Tuesday afternoon, MSNBC’s Counter Terrorism Analyst Malcolm Nance stepped up and suggested that ISIS bomb a Trump property in Turkey. “This is my nominee for first ISIS suicide bombing of a Trump property,” he tweeted in response to another one asserting that President Trump congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election win for corrupt reasons tied to his tower.

We reached out to Nance, who did not respond to our request for comment; we then spoke to Chris Sampson, a cyberanalyst who co-authored several books with Nance, and has known him for a decade. Sampson said it is quite farfetched to claim that Nance, a 34-year veteran of the U.S. military’s counter-terrorism operations, would advocate a terrorist attack. “There’s no way my Cro-Magnon brain would have interpreted that to say he’s threatening somebody,” Sampson said.

Sampson added that Nance’s tweet was a “threat assessment” based on the fact that both President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are particularly resented by ISIS, and that both have recently been in the news together, making a location that both bears Trump’s name and is situated in Erdoğan’s country vulnerable. On 18 April 2017, the news media widely reported that President Trump had called to congratulate Erdoğan on a referendum election that granted him expanded powers. In June 2016, the Turkish president called for Trump’s name to be removed from a building owned by a Turkish conglomerate, because of the then-candidate’s derogatory comments about Muslims while on the campaign trail.

“Here’s what’s really interesting,” Sampson said. “No one called us to ask ‘hey, is this accurate? What does this mean?'” Sampson called the viral story a “game of telephone” that got less and less accurate each time he read a different version of it. We contacted Newsbusters and indeed, their executive editor Tim Graham told us they had regurgitated the story from another source without trying to contact Nance before posting:

Nick [Fondacaro] relied on Griswold’s article in the Free Beacon. Did you contact Griswold? We were passing along his Tweet scoop. 

As you can see from the tweets in both articles, someone directly underneath suggests Nance has dreadfully gaffed. Nance deleted the tweet, but has not clarified or apologized. I believe it would be unfair to “fact check” this without him telling the world what on Earth he was trying to say. Are you “context checkers” instead of fact checkers? “Speculation checkers”? 

If he had tweeted “This is my guess of the first target,” that would be a different context. He wrote “This is my nominee,” as in “I nominate this building for destruction.”

In a followup question, we asked Graham whether it was reasonable to believe that someone with Nance’s military counterterrorism background would publicly advocate a terrorist attack. Graham responded:

That is not a “fact-checking” question either. As conservatives, we are used to leftists suggesting that the “war on terror” terminology itself egged on a terrorist attack. It was suggested that Bush and Cheney benefitted from terrorist attacks, inspiring the 9-11 truthers. Counter-terrorism experts with a military background are likely to seek a military solution, which is often implied to cause more terrorism than it prevents. 

Hence, Nance announced on MSNBC in 2016 that “Donald Trump is the ISIS candidate.” Did you “fact check” Nance on that one? If not, doesn’t it make it easier to believe he would nominate Trump properties for destruction? 

Counterterrorism experts have suggested that ISIS preferred Trump over his 2016 competitor Hillary Clinton because, as Foreign Affairs magazine noted:

First, Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric plays into ISIS’ narrative of a bipolar world in which the West is at war with Islam. Second, ISIS hopes that Trump will radicalize Muslims in the United States and Europe and inspire them to commit lone-wolf attacks in their home countries. Third, ISIS supporters believe that Trump would be an unstable and irrational leader whose impulsive decision-making would weaken the United States.

The stories displayed screen captures of the now-deleted tweet, which contained an image of the Trump-branded building in Istanbul, Turkey, and Nance’s caption:

This is my nominee for first ISIS suicide bombing of a Trump property.

The tweet was followed up by Nance’s followers presciently warning him that it would be taken out of context. A Twitter user with the screen name “Confident Wreck” cautioned him, “Be careful, it sounds like you’re encouraging it. They’ll jump all over that (“They being the people in the media that like to  intentionally ‘misinterpret’ comments)”:

It is clear from the comments below Nance’s tweet that he could have worded it better, but a poorly-worded tweet is hardly sufficient grounds to lob accusations of “calling for” a terror attack. The Twitter user with the screen name “Confident Wreck”, who asked only his first name “Brewster” be used, told us he didn’t interprete Nance’s tweet to be a call for a terrorist attack. Instead he saw it as as Nance’s educated guess about a potential target. Brewster added, “if anything, [Nance] was offering a warning.”

A large part of Nance’s commentary career and military history involves making “threat assessments,” or evaluating terrorism risks; it appears his tweet was nothing more than that. The Trump building in Istanbul has for months been cited as a vulnerable target for a terrorist attack (President Trump doesn’t own that building, but licenses his brand to its owner, Doğan Holding, a Turkish firm).

On 6 December 2016, Bloomberg reported on the heightened risks to Trump-branded and owned properties since he became a presidential contender:

The Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation likely will be examining the threat against Trump properties and the issue could prove significant, according to Chris Phillips, the former head of the U.K.’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office.

“They’re landmark targets,” he said. “You suddenly have a normal crowded place that becomes a high risk place. Most of the properties will be in places where you can’t get people away.”

Colin Clarke, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation, added, “Al-Qaeda is into symbolic attacks. Then you have the added bonus of having Trump’s name slapped on these buildings and all his divisive rhetoric on Muslims.” …

In Turkey, Trump has a licensing agreement with Dogan Sirketler Grubu Holding AS to brand two towers in Istanbul which house offices, apartments and a mall. With Turkey on high alert after a wave of terrorist attacks, including June bombings that killed 41 people at Istanbul airport, security measures such as armed guards and scanners were already in place outside Trump Towers. The election of Trump hasn’t led to heightened precautions, according to a senior official at Dogan who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.

“Istanbul is on a war footing to fight terrorism,” said Bryza, who lives there and works as a non-executive director of Turcas, a diversified energy company. “You have an ISIS presence all over the city. It’s something I worry about every day.”

Writing for the Washington Post’s digital magazine PostEverything, Daily Beast reporter Katie Zavadski called the Trump-branded building in Istanbul a “prime” target for terrorists:

But that will not be nearly enough to keep properties bearing his name safe. A handful of Trump buildings, such as the Istanbul towers, lie close to ongoing unrest. Turkey has emerged as a key Islamic State entry point to Syria and has suffered a series of brutal attacks, both from Islamic militants and in its long-standing conflict with the Kurdish PKK. The confluence of factors makes Turkey one of the Trump brand’s riskiest locations. The Trump Century Tower in Manila also lies close to the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf militant group, although experts say that group is less active in the capital than other parts of the Philippines. …

Where the president-elect lucked out security-wise, however, was in abandoning plans for Trump Tower Europe. (His name remains on a handful of golf courses and hotels in Britain, but those are buffered by the relative safety provided by the English Channel.) The real estate tycoon eyed Germany for what would have been Europe’s tallest building 16 years ago. Mock-ups show the “Millennium Tower” looming over Frankfurt’s skyline. But it never materialized. Had it been built, Europe’s influx of returning foreign fighters and other would-be Islamic militants could have made such a tower a prime target. Instead, that honor falls to his first buildings in Europe: Trump Towers Istanbul.

We found no evidence to support the claim that Nance was advocating a terrorist strike on a Trump-licensed building in Istanbul. Instead, based on Nance’s current high profile position as a counterterrorism expert and his decades-long career of military service fighting terrorism, it’s not credible to assert that his tweet, while perhaps poorly worded, was in fact advocating terrorism.

  • Fondacaro, Nick. “MSNBC’s Malcolm Nance Nominates Trump Tower Istanbul for ‘ISIS Suicide Bombing.'”
      Newsbusters.org. 18 April 2017.

  • Kew, Ben. “MSNBC ‘Counter-Terrorism Analyst’ Calls for ISIS Bombing of Trump Property.”
      Breitbart.com. 19 April 2017.

  • Dewan, Angela. “Trump Congratulates Erdogan for Referendum Win.”
      CNN. 18 April 2017.

  • PressTV. Erdogan Calls for Removal of ‘Trump’ From Tower in Istanbul.”
      25 June 2016.

  • Baker, Stephanie. “Will America Pay to Protect Trump Buildings All Over the World?”
      Bloomberg. 6 December 2016.

  • Zavadski, Katie. “Trump Has Properties All Over the World. They’re Now Major Terrorism Targets.”
      The Washington Post/PostEverything. 3 January 2017.

  • Landler, Mark. “Trump Congratulates Erdogan on Turkey Vote Cementing His Rule.”
      The New York Times. 17 April 2017.

  • Hall, Kevin G. “Are Trump Towers and Hotels Across Globe Now Terror Risks?”
      McCaltchy. 22 November 2016.

  • Levy, Dan. “9/11 Witness: You Don’t Want to Remember It.”
      WNYT. 10 September 2016.

  • Revkin, Mara, and Mhidi, Ahmad. “Why ISIS Is Rooting for Trump.”
      Foreign Affairs. 24 August 2016.

Dear Reader,

Snopes.com has long been engaged in the battle against misinformation, an effort we could not sustain without support from our audience. Producing reliable fact-checking and thorough investigative reporting requires significant resources. We pay writers, editors, web developers, and other staff who work tirelessly to provide you with an invaluable service: evidence-based, contextualized analysis of facts. Help us keep Snopes.com strong. Make a direct contribution today. Learn More.

Donate with PayPal