Good news as 2020 begins. In many places across the globe acts of terrorism are down. The collapse of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate across Iraq and Syria—the site of so many atrocities and mass killings—has led to a steady decline in attacks attributable to ISIS. Globally, deaths from terrorism fell for the fourth consecutive year after peaking in 2014. The total number of deaths worldwide was down 15 percent between 2017 and 2018. Still, a staggering 15,952 people were killed by acts of terror in 2018.
Washington D.C – At a forum sponsored by the Barcelona-based CIDOB think tank on Jan. 28, Serge Stroobants, Director of Europe and the MENA region at the Institute for Economics and Peace, discussed the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) project and its key components and trends.
The 2019 report, released in November, is based on data from 2018 and the index uses four components to create a composite score for 163 nations: incidents, injuries, deaths and property damage. Morocco was ranked #92 of 138 ranked nations, meaning the kingdom scored better (i.e., less impact from terrorism) than Finland, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria or Tunisia, among others.
Afghanistan now holds the distinction as the nation most affected by terrorism, including more than 7,300 terror-related deaths. Additionally, seventy-one countries had at least one death from an act of terrorism. This represents the second-highest number of countries recording one or more deaths in the past twenty years, the report noted.
Iraq and Somalia experienced the largest decline in the number deaths from terrorism during 2018, largely the result of less activity from ISIS and al-Shabab as both groups face sustained pressure from local and international military and security forces. For the first time since 2003, Iraq was not the country most impacted by terrorism according to Global Terrorism Database data.
The Far-Right Threat
The index also shows incidents of far-right terrorism have been steadily rising across Western Europe, Oceania and North America with the total number of documented incidents increasing by an alarming 320 per cent since 2014. Though relatively low, the number of deaths from far-right terrorism in the West has also been slowly increasing over the past three years and the trend continued in 2019 with 79 deaths attributed to far-right terrorism including the attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that killed 51 people.
The threat from far-right extremist groups has drawn the attention of national police and security agencies across Europe. Last May, a German federal police report indicated that the number of far-right extremist groups in the country had increased 50 percent in just two years.
Stroobants noted that the number of deaths on a yearly basis in the West from terrorism—either international-related or domestic—is very small compared to the number of deaths seen annually in several countries including Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia. He also noted that heavy media coverage of terror events in the West often leads to an exaggerated sense of risk among national populations in the West.
Stroobants also observed that data shows that the level of political terrorism in the West was much higher in the 1970s and 1980s; far-left groups like West Germany’s Baader–Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigades in Italy regularly conducted acts of terror (kidnappings and murders) against government and business elites. He also discussed the growing phenomenon of eco-terrorism and similar activities that draw attention to the perils of climate change and environmental degradation issues. Even when such acts do not result in deaths or significant property destruction, the actions are often meant to harass, disrupt and to shock the public, he noted.
The GTI ranking for the United States improved in 2018—now ranked #22. It was driven by a 32 percent reduction in deaths from terror acts. Additionally, there were no recorded attacks by a known formal terrorist group in the U.S. in 2018.
Separately, in the U.S., the number of hate crime incidents reported to the FBI dropped slightly from 2017 to 2018. American law enforcement agencies reported 7,120 hate crimes to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report program in 2018.
A re-evaluation and vigorous discussion is underway in academic, media and political circles in the U.S. as to when hate crimes should rightfully be labeled as domestic terrorism—particularly after mass casualty events like the October 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that resulted in the deaths of 11 people.
In an essay for the Council on Foreign Relations following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, international security expert and Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman noted the similar prerequisites for hate crime acts and terrorism: “Neither terrorism nor hate crime exists in a vacuum. Both erupt along society’s fault lines and reflect the era in which they malignantly surface. They are products of atmospheres of acute contentiousness, profound alienation, increasing polarization, and unbridled enmity.”
Youth Alienation & Ideology
In a interview with on Qatar’s Lusail TV last October, former FBI agent Ali Soufan, a veteran of counter-terrorism efforts during the pre- and post-9/11 era, discussed the initial impulses for individuals to turn to terrorism, be it ISIS, al Qaeda or neo-Nazi extremists: “So terrorism has nothing to do with ideology.
It has nothing to do with religion or ideas. You can see this even with the white extremists, the neo-Nazis – there are political issues, economic issues, social issues, cultural issues. These are the issues that cause them to adopt that ideology [of violence].”
Soufan’s macro observation was affirmed by research into the allure of far-right extremist groups in the European Union. The motivation for young people to join such movements is multifaceted, often based as much on the desire to be part of a group that provides a sense of belonging than a fervent embrace of doctrine or ideology.
“I couldn’t get my head around school, so fighting seemed attractive to me. That’s what got me into the movement …,” said one 20-something member of a Swedish neo-Nazi group to a BBC interviewer in 2014. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously noted that many of the disillusioned young men who raced to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria five years ago were “losers, misfits, adventure seekers and young men who had never held power, a job or a girl’s hand and they joined ISIS to get all three.”
The Global Terrorism Index now informs international organizations, security agencies and policymakers on a pressing global challenge. Additionally, the index report calculates the direct costs of terrorism (deaths, injuries, property destruction, diminished GDP) in 2018 at $33 billion, an enormous loss of economic as well as human potential. Often it is young people who bare the burden of these lost opportunities.
Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who was shot in the head by a Taliban would-be assassin in 2012 represents both the brutal damage that terrorism inflicts on people as well as the power of human resilience. Her wisdom is applicable to policymakers, researchers, security agencies, military leadership and faith leaders alike: “With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”