Public awareness of terrorism fluctuates depending on the proximity and level of terror threat. Terrorism came into sharp focus for Australians with incidents such the 2002 Bali bombings and last year’s Martin Place siege.
The recent Paris attacks have reminded us, however, that terrorism is always in our midst.
For three years, the Global Terrorism Index has compiled comparative data on global terrorist incidents. Produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace and based on the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database, the Index provide valuable—and sometimes surprising—indicators of the changing drivers and trends in terrorism. The 2015 edition (PDF) of the Index draws upon data covering the past 15 years of terrorist incidents, focusing on 2014.
Media coverage of terrorist attacks typically provides information on the fatalities and immediate impact of attacks, and those responsible, when known.
Less easily accessible in the public domain is data on the bigger picture: How active are the groups involved? How far is their reach? Are new groups emerging or splintering off from old groups? What are the trends on location of attacks? Are they increasing or decreasing in number? Who are the targets and are they changing?
The Index provides the statistical basis for some interesting findings.
We are all aware of the impact of terrorism since 9/11. But 2014 was by far the most lethal year since then, with an 80% increase in terrorism-related deaths from the previous year amounting to 32,658 reported deaths.
Sadly, less surprising is the data on location and lethality of terrorist attacks—Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria account for 57% of terrorist incidents and 78% of terrorist-related deaths.
Of particular concern is the data on Boko Haram’s high level of activity in Nigeria, which lead to a dramatic increase in terrorist-related deaths—7,512 in 2014 up from less than 1,000 the year before.
The report finds that Boko Haram had marginally overtaken ISIL in numbers of terrorist-related fatalities—6,644 by Boko Haram compared with 6,073 by ISIL. But ISIL’s broader impact persists, with the Index reporting it was also responsible for more than 20,000 deaths in the conflict zone of Iraq and Syria during 2014. This number isn’t included in the ‘terrorist acts’ collated in the Index.
The most lethal five terrorist groups include those two as well as, unsurprisingly, the Taliban and al-Shabaab. New to the top grouping of lethality is the less well-known Nigerian terrorist group Fulani. The group is drawn from Muslim Fula nomadic cattle herders, and said to have become aligned with Islamist extremist groups.
The report provides some thought-provoking insights into how terrorism is affecting countries outside the high-level conflict zones of the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Relatively few terrorist incidents and deaths occur in ‘western’ countries, accounting for around 4.4% of terrorist incidents and 2.6% of terrorist-related deaths since 2000; most of those deaths are attributed to 9/11. Attacks were typically carried out by ‘lone wolf’ actors—defined in the database as three or fewer people acting in support of a movement without material support from that group—accounting for 70% of deaths since 2006.
The majority of ‘lone wolf’-style attacks in the west were committed by adherents to extreme political views, primarily right-wing extremism—which is seen by some to be a growing danger. Surveys of US law enforcement in 2014 indicate a rise in the perceived threat of the Sovereign Citizen anti-government group, considered a serious threat by 52% of officers surveyed, with Islamic State considered a serious threat by 32%.
2014 saw 37 terrorist-related deaths in western countries, comprising 0.11% of terrorism-related deaths globally. Islamic extremism accounted for only 19% of deaths, but four of the five most lethal incidents in western countries, being the attacks in Brussels, Quebec, Ottawa and Sydney. All of those occurred in three months following ISIL’s 22 September 2014 call to attack the west. The most lethal incident in 2014 was an anti-government motivated attack in Las Vegas where five people were killed.
Overall, the Index finds that, globally, Islamic extremism remains the greatest cause of terrorist incidents, providing the ideological basis for the most active and lethal terrorist groups. It also finds that Middle-East and South Asia-based terrorist groups are primarily focussed on domestic attacks rather than attacks in the west.
In addition to reporting ‘what’ has happened, the 2015 Index also dives into the data to identify ‘why’ in the broader drivers of terrorism. This should be of particular interest to policy makers examining how terrorism might be prevented.
The report finds high levels of terrorist activity are strongly correlated to both the existence of broader armed conflict and state-sanctioned violence. The research indicates 92% of all terrorist attacks over the past 25 years occurred in countries where state sponsored political violence was widespread, while 88% of attacks occurred in countries that were involved in violent conflicts. Indeed, only 0.6% of attacks occurred in countries lacking either factor.
Statistical analysis of the drivers of terrorism takes this further, indicating differences between wealthy and poor countries. The report finds a correlation between conflict and a history of armed conflict, corruption and weak business environment in poorer, non-OECD countries. By comparison, drivers in OECD countries correlate more closely with youth unemployment, drug-related crime and views on media, democracy and immigration. Factors common to terrorism across countries include lower respect for human rights and the United Nations, policies targeting religious freedom, political instability and group grievances.
A poignant finding for the bean counters is the financial cost of terrorism, which is estimated to have reached a record high of US$52.9 billion in 2014—a 61% increase on 2013. But efforts to contain terrorism, estimated broadly based on aggregated global national security expenditure, more than double this amount to US$117 billion.
Once again, the Global Terrorism Index has brought together—in an easy-to-digest form—an impressive array of data that will be used and referred to by those interested in current affairs, as well as academics, policymakers and community leaders. Among the emotion and politics that typically accompany consideration of terrorism, it’s a useful contribution.
The Australian launch of the Institute for Economics and Peace Global Terrorism Index 2015 will be held at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on 9 December 2015.