The following opinion piece was published by the Los Angeles Times on June 2, 2016 and is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.
The number of terrorist attacks and fatalities has shown its largest decline in more than a decade, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest report on global terrorism.
The report concludes that terrorist attacks declined by 13% and deaths by 14%, following years of striking increases.
While statistics like these are often sensationalized, it is important to take a critical look at what they represent. As is often the case with metrics on complicated phenomena, there are reasons to be encouraged and reasons for concern.
While the fact that more than 28,000 deaths and 35,000 injuries resulted from nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks in 2015 can hardly be regarded as good news, these numbers are an improvement over the previous year. In fact any decline, regardless of the size, is a welcome development given the record-breaking numbers that have been recorded recently. What does the 2015 decline mean?
Those who study terrorism note that it moves in waves, declining in some areas, while peaking in others. In the 1970s, terrorist attacks occurred most frequently in Western Europe. A decade later the greatest concentration was in Latin America. Today, attacks are comparatively rare in both places, but all too common in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
The decline in global terrorism in 2015 may mark a tipping point in the current wave of terrorism that has devastated these regions. It is still too early to be certain, but it is sensible to expect that this wave, like the others, will some day pass.
Terrorist attacks and deaths in 2015 dropped substantially in some of the countries that have suffered the most in recent years. In Pakistan, attacks were nearly cut in half and fatalities declined by more than one-third. Iraq and Nigeria also experienced considerable declines.
But worldwide statistics may obscure regional and national developments.
For example, violence worsened last year in conflict-ridden Afghanistan, which witnessed a 20% increase in attacks. Terrorism also increased in several countries where it had previously been less common, like Bangladesh and Egypt. Perhaps most troubling, the decades-old conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party, which once showed promising signs of coming to an end, reignited, resulting in a large increase in attacks.
Breaking down the 2015 data also reveals important developments in the number of attacks committed by the world’s deadliest terrorist organizations. Some groups, like the Shabab in Somalia and Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan, were considerably less active, while others, like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Boko Haram in West Africa, carried out more attacks than in previous years.
Perhaps most notably, terrorist attacks carried out in Iraq by the Islamic State declined by 31% in 2015. While fewer attacks are undeniably better than the alternative, this is obviously not the only metric by which to gauge the strength of terrorist organizations. Groups are sometimes most active when they are desperately trying to engender support. However, healthy organizations may also curtail their activity, especially when they have consolidated power in certain states, and secured regional allies in others.
So, while it is encouraging that Islamic State was considerably less active in Iraq in 2015, the group’s activity in Syria increased, and it managed to expand operations into several new countries, as well as attract the allegiance of numerous additional affiliates and allies. This suggests that while Islamic State may be changing, it may nevertheless pose a serious threat for years to come.
Interpreting patterns of terrorism is a complex challenge because situations can, and often do, evolve in unexpected ways. Despite a welcome decrease in the total number of terrorist attacks and fatalities that occurred worldwide, trends are not universally positive. Nor is there a guarantee that global declines will continue. Nevertheless, these latest numbers provide a bit of good news in an area where it has been in short supply.
The authors work with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, which prepared the Statistical Annex for this year’s “Country Reports on Terrorism 2015” released by the U.S. State Department. These conclusions are those of the authors and do not represent the official policies of the U.S. government