A woman walks past soldiers at a checkpoint in Gwoza, Nigeria, in April, 2015, shortly after the town was liberated from Boko Haram. (photo: Lekan Oyekanmi/AP)
The Facts About Terrorism
By John Cassidy, The New Yorker
25 November 15
On Monday, I posted a long piece about how we perceive acts of terrorism in the age of social media. Today, prompted by the publication of a new report by the London-based Institute for Economics and Peace (and by a post on the report by Richard Florida), I’d like to focus on the facts about global terrorism.
If you have a sense that the problem is growing, you’re right. Last year, the number of people killed by terrorist attacks rose by about eighty per cent, reaching an all-time high of close to thirty-three thousand. Since 2000, the annual death toll from terrorism has increased ninefold. Not only that, but terrorist attacks are becoming more focused on civilians and less focused on military, political, and religious targets. Thanks largely to the deadly activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group based in northeastern Nigeria, the number of civilians killed in terrorist attacks jumped a hundred and seventy-two per cent in 2014, to more than fifteen thousand.
Relative to other causes of premature death, terrorism is still a minor phenomenon. For every person killed in a terrorist attack, roughly forty people die in traffic accidents and roughly eighty die of alcoholism. Still, violent attacks on civilians have great salience, psychologically, and, according to the I.E.P. report, they are getting more common, especially in non-Western parts of the world. In 2014, five countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria—accounted for almost eighty per cent of the deaths caused by terrorists. Twelve years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq remains at the top of list, with close to ten thousand lives lost. Nigeria was the second most affected country, with more than seven thousand five hundred deaths.
Globally, the two leading purveyors of death and destruction are ISIS and Boko Haram. Last year, in fact, Boko Haram overtook ISIS to “become the most deadly terrorist group in the world,” the report says. The authors attribute six thousand six hundred and forty-four deaths to Boko Haram last year, and six thousand and seventy-three deaths to ISIS. The vast majority of these fatalities resulted from attacks carried out in Nigeria and Iraq. In Nigeria, Boko Haram killed an estimated six thousand one hundred and eighteen people; in Iraq, ISIS killed five thousand four hundred and thirty-six people.
The report doesn’t dwell on this, but few of these deaths attracted much attention from the Western news media. Sadly, that’s hardly surprising. In Iraq, kidnappings and suicide bombings are daily occurrences. In Nigeria, the deadliest massacres are often carried out with firearms, but suicide bombings are increasingly common. Just this past weekend, according to media reports, a girl detonated explosives at a military checkpoint in the city of Maiduguri, killing herself and seven others.
The I.E.P. report doesn’t include the recent attacks in Paris, or the ones carried out there in January, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket; the authors drew on data collected by the Global Terrorism Database, an open-source project maintained by researchers at the University of Maryland. Since the database is updated annually, it doesn’t yet account for the attacks in France. But the longer-term trends that the report describes regarding Western countries are still worth looking at.
In 2014, terrorist attacks caused just thirty-seven deaths in Western countries, 0.11 per cent of the global tally. Relative to this year, last year was a peaceful one, but it wasn’t a complete outlier. During the fifteen years from 2000 to 2014, there were three thousand six hundred and fifty-nine terrorism-related deaths in Western countries, and they accounted for 2.6 per cent of the over-all total around the world. The vast majority of these deaths resulted from four incidents: the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the transit bombings in London in 2005, and the 2011 gun massacre and bombing in Norway. As I noted in my previous post, spectacular attacks on Western targets are a reality that we have to deal with. Mercifully, however, they are still pretty rare.
The report also has a section on the United States. In 2014, it says, nineteen incidents classed as terrorist attacks took place here, resulting in eighteen deaths. Most of these attacks were carried out by individuals. “Four out of the 19 attacks in the US had a jihadist element,” the report says. Three of the four were shootings believed to have been carried out by Ali Muhammad Brown, a Seattle man who claimed that he was responding to U.S. foreign policy. The other incident came when Zale Thompson, a Muslim convert, attacked some police officers in Queens with a hatchet. (The police shot Thompson dead; there were no other fatalities.)
In 2014, at least, violent attacks associated with Islamist extremism in the U.S. were outnumbered by attacks involving right-wing individuals and groups. The report notes that eight attacks last year were undertaken by “individuals or people with an affiliation to Sovereign Citizens, which is a network of individuals that have antigovernment views.” The authors identified a similar pattern throughout the West. “Lone wolf attackers are the main perpetrators of terrorist activity in the West, causing 70% of all deaths over the past 10 years,” the report notes. “Islamic fundamentalism was not the main driver of terrorism in Western countries: 80% of lone wolf deaths were by political extremists, nationalists, racial and religious supremacists.”
What is the message of these figures? Clearly, they don’t imply that there is no threat whatsoever of a large-scale attack in the United States by Islamist extremists. If ISIS and its supporters could find a way to carry out such a strike, doubtless they would do it. The two attacks in Paris are a reminder of the group’s deadly ambitions outside the Levant. Al Qaeda still represents a potential threat, too. But the figures do demonstrate that terrorism isn’t exclusively an Islamist phenomenon, and that most of its victims are located in troubled countries. The figures also suggest that, at the global level, large-scale terrorist attacks are associated with civil wars, failed states, and big flows of displaced people. “Ten of the eleven countries most affected by terrorism also have the highest rates of refugees and internal displacement,” Steve Killelea, the executive chairman of the I.E.P, said in a press release accompanying the report’s release. “This highlights the strong inter-connectedness between the current refugee crisis, terrorism and conflict.”
If we want to reduce the level of terrorism, or even contain it, we will have to deal with both its immediate manifestations and its underlying causes. This certainly involves coming to terms with ISIS, which the report depicts as an organization that is growing in strength and focused on killing civilians. It points to an attack on the Iraqi city of Badush in June, 2014, when ISIS forces killed six hundred and seventy prisoners, and an attack on Sinjar, also in Iraq, in August, 2014, when five hundred people were killed. (Other sources say that the number of fatalities in Sinjar was much higher.) In the first half of 2015, the report estimates, at least seven thousand more foreign fighters joined ISIS.
But dealing with ISIS is far from the only task. Putting an end to terrorism, or even containing it, means treating the conditions that give rise to it. In the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, that involves ending civil wars, resolving ethnic and religious differences, strengthening state structures in ways that don’t discriminate against minorities, and providing economic opportunities for youthful populations. In many Western countries, it means tracking and marginalizing groups that advocate violence, and finding ways to prevent young people, particularly young Muslim men, from becoming radicalized.
If these challenges seem huge, that’s because they are. But in treating any problem, the first step is to gather all the facts.
C 2015 Reader Supported News
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