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Ben Affleck is in the news for more reasons than new thriller Gone Girl. The activist-actor’s defense of Islam in a confrontational appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher is generating headlines of its own.
Maher argued in two recent shows that the beliefs and actions of Islamic State, while widely decried as extreme, are not all that different from the core tenets of Islam practiced by Muslims around the world. Affleck called that an unfair generalization of Muslims, which number about 1.6 billion people and represent the world’s second-largest religion.
Affleck then used a tongue-in-cheek comparison to speak to the size of the Islamic State versus the number of Muslims worldwide.
"ISIS couldn't fill a Double A ballpark in Charleston, W. Va.," Affleck said.
It’s clear Affleck’s comment was at least partially intended to draw laughs, but he used it to strengthen his argument that the number of Islamic State fighters pales in comparison to the Muslim population overall.
That’s worth a second look. So for this fact-check, we wanted to learn what we could find out about the size of the Islamic State and see how it stacks up to the seating capacity of the minor league baseball team he had in mind.
The size of the Islamic State
The U.S. government has had a hard time pinning down the precise number of jihadist fighters within the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.
Part of the problem is the group has grown quickly as it has captured more ground in Syria and Iraq.
Over the summer, it was widely reported that the U.S. government estimated about 10,000 fighters in the al-Qaida-linked group.
In September, the CIA more than doubled the group’s estimated size to between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. In a statement to PunditFact, the CIA public affairs office explained the figure is based on intelligence reports collected from May to August. The CIA attributes the growth to "stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence."
At least 2,000 of the fighters reportedly have Western passports, too.
Non-U.S. reports say the Islamic State is potentially much larger. RT, the Russian government-sponsored English news organization, quoted an Iraqi intelligence adviser as saying the Islamic State numbered 100,000 in August. Al Jazeera reported that the Islamic State had an army of 50,000 troops in August. A Kurdish security official told 60 Minutes in September there were 40,000 Islamic State fighters.
It’s hard to say which estimate is the best, but we think using the U.S. figure is certainly defensible, given that the other estimates do not come from named or official government sources.
So would ISIS members fail to fill the "Double A ballpark" in Charleston, W. Va., that Affleck had in mind?
The West Virginia Power
Affleck’s example of a small-scale baseball stadium is not a hypothetical. There is indeed a minor league team in Charleston.
The city is home to the West Virginia Power, a Class A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates since 2009.
The Power plays at Appalachian Power Park, which has a maximum seating capacity of 4,500 for baseball games, said Adam Marco, the team’s radio broadcaster and marketing director. The park could hold up to 11,000 people for charity events and concerts that would allow people onto the field, he said.
So, assuming Affleck meant stadium seats, even the lowest estimate of Islamic State fighters would be way too much for the stadium.
The story for Double A teams, which is what Affleck said even though the West Virginia is Class A, is no different.
The largest Double A team stadium belongs to the Jacksonville Suns, which can hold 11,000 fans, said Minor League Baseball spokeswoman Mary Marandi.
Curious, we asked Marco why he thought Affleck, a rabid Boston Red Sox fan, would allude to the West Virginia Power on TV. His theory: Affleck’s wife, actress Jennifer Garner, grew up in Charleston.
"I know Jennifer was at a game this past summer," Marco said. "But in my five years here, I can’t say that I’ve seen him at a game. But that’s not to say it hasn't happened."
Affleck said, "ISIS couldn't fill a Double A ballpark in Charleston, W. Va."
It’s not every day we consult the CIA and a minor league baseball team for the same fact-check (of an Oscar-winning actor), but here’s what we found:
The minor league stadium in question would not provide enough seating room for Islamic State fighters, even when using the U.S. government’s outdated, low estimate of 10,000. The CIA now uses a much higher estimate of 20,000-31,500 fighters, and other reports indicate it could be even higher.
The Islamic State is small, but not Double A-baseball park small. We rate Affleck’s claim False.
Real Clear Politics, "Bill Maher vs. Ben Affleck On Islam: ‘Mafia That Will F**king Kill You If You Say The Wrong Thing’" Oct. 3, 2014
Interview with Todd Ebitz, CIA Office of Public Affairs media spokesperson, Oct. 7, 2014
Interview with Adam Marco, West Virginia Power broadcaster and director of marketing and communications, Oct. 7, 2014
Interview with Mary Marandi, Minor League Baseball spokeswoman, Oct. 7, 2014
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