Trends in terrorism
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) publishes a Global Terrorism Database, creating graphs showing the extent of terrorism in every year from 1970 to 2007. The graph shows a startling trend: terrorism hit a peak in 1992 and collapsed after that. The end of the Cold War coincides with a dramatic decline in terrorism.
Here in Ireland the 1990s saw the successful peace process that ended most paramilitary terrorism. The GTD allows users to pick specific countries or regions. This is how Northern Ireland looks:
And here is South America:
Several South American countries emerged as stable democracies in this period, Cold War superpower support for rebel groups dried up and terrorism declined.
This brings us to an early observation. Today most terrorism that makes the news is by Islamist organisations. In the recent past terrorism was widely employed by nationalist organisations, left wing and right wing groups. The decline in terrorism in the 1990s was a deeply significant process that has improved security for millions of people.
But the GTD statistics so far show only the number of attacks, equating any tiny, bloodless attack on property with mass-murder. Europol have observed that European Islamists make up a tiny proportion of all terrorist attacks, but tend to aim for mass carnage, while the Basque, Corsican and Irish terrorist attacks are more common but on a much smaller scale. Unfortunately GTD does not include a graph showing numbers killed every year. They do, however, have this graph, showing how many people died in each attack around the world:
We can remove the attacks with 0 or unknown fatalities. It then looks like this:
This is still a little misleading. There are so few terrorist attacks with more than 100 victims that they barely appear on the graph, yet these rare, high-impact attacks can cause massive damage, and excite great emotion and political reaction.
Still, we see that fatalities did seem to drop in the 1990s. Far from a growing risk, by 2001 terrorism was, for most people, a much lower risk than it had been a decade earlier.
Another way to look at the risk of terrorism is by examining the prevalence of 'High Casualty Terrorist Bombings'. The Center for Systematic Peace show trends in such deaths as follows:
1999: 341 dead
2000: 392 dead
2001: 3,275 dead. Excluding the 9/11 attacks this is 293 dead.
2002: 974 dead
2003: 1,041 dead
2004: 2,338 dead
2005: 2,626 dead
This continues to worsen, with massive deaths in Iraq, until 2008 when the situation begins to stabilise and Iraq deaths begin to fall. This shows that there was a significant increase in attacks after 9/11, but the increase really took off after the invasion of Iraq.
Now we can see what regions of the world experienced continued reductions in terrorist attacks, even after the 1990s. This graph shows North America, Central America and Carribbean, South America, East Asia, Central Asia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, USSR (and newly independent post-Soviet states) and Australasia and Oceania:
All these regions show very low numbers of attacks in the 2000s. A caveat of course - this graph shows only the number of attacks, and not their severity. Still, the rest of the world looks quite different. Here are Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa:
All show steep increases in terrorist attacks, after 2003. This brings us to the next observation.
After 2003, consistent declines in terrorism reverse in several regions of the world. 2003 was the year Iraq was invaded. The World Trade Center attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan were in 2001. There are fairly small increases in terrorism in their immediate aftermath.
This is an important point in understanding Islamist terrorism since a goal of Al Qaeda was to use 9/11 as a spark to detonate a wider Muslim revolution that would overthrown secular government and establish an Islamic Caliphate. However there is only a small increase in Muslim terrorist activity in the year following 9/11. As political theatre designed to ignite a wider conflict, it failed, although wider conflict did kick in after the invasion of Iraq.
Still, we need to be careful again here - the world is not so easily understood. An uptick in terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa begins in 2004. Who knows what reasons are behind this. Terrorism was already increasing in South Asia after 1998, stabilised in the year following the invasion of Iraq and then dramatically increased. Much of the Middle Eastern increase in terrorism is explained by violence in Iraq alone:
Looking at the aims of war
Advocates of the War on Terror point out that there has not been a repeat of 9/11 on American soil. In order to judge whether the struggle has been a success or a failure, we need to know what its stated goals were. On September 20th 2001, President Bush declared his intentions in an address of Congress:
Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.
So far this has not been achieved. The attempting bombing of a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day 2009 was carried out by a Nigerian man, educated in London, trained in Yemen and attempting an attack in Detroit. The Europol Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2010 includes this map showing external regions influencing EU terrorism:
Terrorist groups of global reach are still operating, and terrorism in some regions - particularly those with large Muslim popultions - dramatically increased after the invasion of Iraq. The stated aims of the War on Terror have not been achieved yet.
Another way to judge this military approach to destroying terrorism is by examining how terrorist groups ended in the past. In 2008 the Rand Corporation did just this, looking at 648 terrorist groups active between 1968 and 2006. They found that 43% of groups move into peaceful politics - Northern Irish nationalists being a good example. 40% are destroyed by policing or intelligence. 10% achieve victory. Only 7% are destroyed by military action.
Rand concluded that Al Qaeda were almost certainly going to fail in their goals, however the military method used by the US government after 9/11 was also failing.
Despite some successes against al Qa’ida, the United States has not significantly undermined its capabilities. Al Qa’ida has been involved in more attacks in a wider geographical area since September 11, 2001, including in such European capitals as London, than it was before that date. Its organizational structure has also evolved. This means that the U.S. strategy in dealing with al Qa’ida must change. A strategy based predominantly on military force has not been effective. Considering al Qa’ida’s organizational structure and modus operandi, only a strategy based primarily on careful police and intelligence work is likely to be effective.
The Sri Lankan experience
Some supporters of a military solution to terrorism uses Sri Lanka as an example of success. It is beyond the scope of this article, but worth taking a brief look. Sri Lanka suffered a civil war which ended with the military victory of the government last year. The GTD graph goes only to 2007:
Note the collapse of terrorist attacks in 2002, during a ceasefire. In 2002, only 15 people died of terrorism in Sri Lanka, compared with 3,791 in 2000 and 15,565 in 2009.
Of those killed in 2009, the majority died during the climax of the war. The Tamil Tigers admitted defeat in May; 17 people died in the months following victory. A few others have died in 2010. If more people die after victory than during the negotiated ceasefire perhaps it is too early to use Sri Lanka as a positive example of a military solution to terrorism.
The costs in winning that war were high too, with hundreds of thousands displaced and thousands of civilians killed. This brings us to a final point.
Costs to coalition of the War on Terror
The Iraq war has killed 4,715 coalition military personell, 4,397 of them American. The Afghan war has killed 1,764 troops, 1,071 of them American. Combined the US has suffered 5,468 military fatalities since 2001, far more than died in the 9/11 attacks to start with.
The debate is muddied by the Iraqi front; some commentator support the Afghan war and not the Iraq war. This article considers them together, which may be misleading.
But so far the War on Terror has not eliminated international terrorism. It coincides instead with a widespread increase of terrorist violence, particularly in Iraq. Either the War on Terror has had no impact, has made things worse, or is thus far incomplete. Declines in Iraqi violence in recent years might render the GTD's data out of date - there might be a happy ending just around the corner. At the moment, though, it does not look good.