Terrorism is the defining political phenomenon of our age. When historians look back at the beginnings of the 21st century, they will see a world where suicide attacks and car bombs have become a standard tool of political warfare; where the distant actions of fundamentalists and zealots shape the foreign policy of the world’s biggest powers, who are powerless to stop it.
Understanding terrorism – how often it really occurs, where it occurs, what drives it – is therefore perhaps the most pressing problem facing politicians and policy-makers today. This is where the Global Terrorism Index comes in. The Index ranks countries by the impact of terrorism, including social and economic dimensions. It crunches this data to create a comprehensive and compelling account of what terrorism really looks like in the modern world. The overall picture is not encouraging.
Terrorism is getting worse
The Global War on Terror has failed, miserably. Thirteen years of the world’s pre-eminent superpower throwing trillions of dollars into fighting the problem has failed to diminish or even contain it. In fact, the opposite is true: terrorist attacks are becoming more frequent, more widespread, and more dangerous.
First, a note: what exactly is a terrorist attack? This question is far from straightforward (‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ goes the Politics 101 aphorism). The Global Terrorism Index defines it loosely, as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation”. The incident must be intentional, it must be committed by a non-state actor (lucky for you, Presidents Bush, Obama, Netanyahu, Putin, etc.), and it must be designed to send a message to a larger audience than just the victims.
The GTI recorded 9,814 such incidents in 2013, up from 6,825 in 2012 – that’s a frankly terrifying 44% increase. Sure enough, there was a corresponding 61% increase in loss of life, with 17,958 deaths in 2013 compared with 11,133 in 2012.
Most of these casualties (over 80%) occurred in just five countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Somalia. Nonetheless, excluding the data from here, some 60 other countries experienced terrorist attacks in 2013, with 3,721 attacks killing 3,236 people. This is more than 50% more than in 2012.
Overall, since 2000, there has been an over five-fold increase in the number of deaths from terrorism.
What does a terrorist attack look like?
In popular imagination, suicide attacks are still a terrorist’s primary modus operandi. These, however, account for just 5% of global attacks since 2000. Far more prevalent are more conventional attacks, with explosives (60%) and firearms as the weapons of choice. In fact, suicide bombs are more likely to end in failure than other forms of attack: 56% of assassination attempts using suicide bombers end in failure. When they do work, however, suicide attacks are far more deadly and thus generate more attention.
Not all terrorist groups are created equal
In 2013, just four groups were responsible for 66% of deaths from terrorist attacks. These are: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). Interestingly, all four of these most deadly organisations are broadly aligned with the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, and have some association with Al Qaeda.
Of these, Boko Haram is the outlier – its links and historical association with Al Qaeda are far more superficial, and its tactics are also markedly different. “The nature of terrorism in Nigeria is different to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” observes the GTI report. “Terrorist activity in Nigeria has more in common with the tactics of organised crime and gangs, focusing on armed assaults using firearms and knives than the bombing or suicide tactics of other large terrorist groups. Armed assault has claimed 85 per cent of deaths in Nigeria while bombings or explosions account for five per cent of deaths. Suicide attacks are very rare, approximately 12 per cent of terrorist attacks are kidnappings or hostage takings.”
Boko Haram attacks are also among the most deadly in the world, with an average of nearly eight deaths per attack.
What causes terrorism?
The most interesting section of the GTI report looked into the root causes of terrorism, correlating terrorist activity against other economic, social and development indicators. Its findings are not entirely expected.
Most surprisingly, there is no link between poverty and terrorism, nor to broader development indicators such as the Human Development Index. Life expectancy, years of education, and GDP growth don’t factor either.
Instead, the report found a strong correlation with indicators that can be grouped into three main factors:
Is there a solution?
Yes – but the Global War on Terror is certainly not it. Instead, an analysis of all former terrorist groups since the 1960s shows that only 7% were eliminated by military crackdowns. Another 10% disappeared when those groups achieved their goals, making their struggle redundant.
So what did work? One successful strategy was the initiation of a substantive political process, whereby terrorist groups become political parties and engage in legitimate opposition politics. Admittedly, this is unlikely to help when it comes to tackling the likes of Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, who are ideologically opposed to the very foundations of the nation states in which they operate. Another effective solution has been good police and intelligence work, which has broken up groups by targeting key leaders. DM
Read the full 2014 Global Terror Index report here.
Photo: Fire rages through the buildings of hotel complex close to Mombasa, late 01 September 2003. EPA PHOTO/EPA/ANTHONY KAMINJU.
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