HELENA – U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke has wrongly stated in two debates this week that 80 percent of terrorist attacks in a Central African conflict are carried out by children, as he advocates for halting refugee resettlements until new background check procedures are developed.
Refugee resettlements have emerged as a major issue in Montana's election campaigns this year, after Missoula County's decision to host 100 refugees annually led to protests across the state.
Zinke's statements about potential child terrorists from Africa come as Missoula prepares to resettle about two dozen refugees by the end of September after they escaped war in Congo. Last month, a Congolese family of six arrived the same week Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte began mailing anti-refugee resettlement fliers that featured an armed man whose face was covered by a kaffiyeh.
Zinke said in debates Monday and Thursday against Democratic challenger Denise Juneau that refugee women and children can be terrorist threats.
To illustrate his point, Zinke said in Monday's debate in Frazer that four out of five terrorist attacks carried out by the Islamic insurgent group Boko Haram are conducted by children. On Thursday in Billings, he repeated that claim, except he did not specify that the attacks involving children were limited to Boko Haram.
"As far as our refugees go, I'm a humanitarian. I understand it. But I've also seen it," Zinke said. "And you should realize that women and children can be a threat if they are under the influence of evil. Just like at San Bernardino, just like in Boko Haram.
"Four out of five terrorist attacks are conducted by children. They're under the influence and oftentimes drugged," he concluded to applause.
Zinke's campaign cited as its source a news article about a UNICEF report released in April. The report, titled "Beyond Chibok: Over 1.3 million children uprooted by Boko Haram violence," contains different numbers than what Zinke cited.
The report says that children account for nearly one out of every five suicide bombers in the conflict in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
UNICEF spokesman Thierry Delvigne-Jean said Thursday the April report looked at attacks in those four countries from January 2014 through February 2016. A more recent study released last month by UNICEF put the rate of suicide attacks carried out by a child in those countries as about 25 percent, or one in four, he said.
"It's important to say that these children are victims – not terrorists," Delvigne-Jean said. "Government reports indicate that these children are, in several cases, unaware of the explosives they are carrying."
Campaign spokeswoman Heather Swift said Friday that Zinke misspoke. He meant to say that of the children who conduct attacks, four-fifths are drugged or otherwise under the influence, Swift said.
"If he was slightly off on the percentage, then he misspoke, but he's not wrong on the issue," she said in an email. "Boko Haram drugs children and uses them as terrorists."
Neither UNICEF report contains data that support Zinke's claims of the number of child suicide bombers who are drugged by Boko Haram.
Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson said the refugee issue in Montana is part of the national debate on immigration sparked by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Zinke, an ardent Trump supporter, is trying to play to fears that terrorists may slip in with refugees, Johnson said.
"Both candidates need to turn out to the polls the highest numbers of voters who will support them," Johnson said. "I think he's trying to appeal to the same voters in Montana that Trump appeals to."