Comprehensive Study Finds Incidence of Terrorism Declining Around the World

Terrorism Fatalities Decline as Muslim Support for al-Qaeda Terror Network Plummets

Number of Wars and Death Tolls in Africa Down Dramatically Since 1999

NEW YORK—Challenging the expert consensus that the threat of global terrorism is increasing, a new report from the Canadian research team that produced the much-cited Human Security Report in 2005, reveals a sharp net decline in the incidence of terrorist violence around the world.

The Human Security Brief 2007 demonstrates that:

  • Fatalities from terrorism have declined by some 40 percent, while the loose-knit terror network associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has suffered a dramatic collapse in popular support throughout the Muslim world.
  • There has been an extraordinary, but largely unnoticed, positive change in sub-Saharan Africa’s security landscape. The number of conflicts being waged in the region more than halved between 1999 and 2006; the combat toll dropped by 98 percent.
  • The decline in the total number of armed conflicts and combat deaths around the world that was reported three years ago in Human Security Report 2005 has continued.

The Brief was produced by the Human Security Report Project (HSRP) research team at Simon Fraser University’s School for International Studies in Vancouver, Canada. The HSRP’s research is supported by the governments of Canada, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland and the UK.

PART I: Explaining the Decline in Global Terrorism

Since the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda assault on the United States, the consensus among Western experts has been that the threat of terrorism, particularly Islamist terrorism, has grown. This was the view of the 2006 and 2007 US National Intelligence Estimates; of one hundred foreign policy and security experts surveyed by Foreign Policy journal in 2007, and a 2007 report on the terrorist threat to Europe from the director of the UK’s Security Service.

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The Human Security Report Project has analyzed the statistical trends created by three major terrorism research institutions in the US—The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland—and offers a different interpretation. The Project’s analysis is not only the most comprehensive to date, it also poses a major challenge to the expert consensus.

The NCTC is the official government agency charged with monitoring the incidence of terrorism around the world. Created in 2004, it is the best resourced of the three institutions, but it only has comprehensive data on terrorist attacks and fatalities from 2005. MIPT, and the relatively new START, have both been funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Each has statistics on domestic and international terrorism dating back to 1998.

The trend data generated by these institutions appear to support claims that the threat of terrorism is increasing. All three datasets estimate that global terrorism fatalities rose dramatically in the wake of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. In each dataset it is fatalities in Iraq that drive the global trend. MIPT’s data, for example, indicate that in 2006, Iraq accounted for a startling 79% of the global terrorism death toll; NCTC’s estimate was 64 percent.

Why the Expert Consensus is Wrong—and the Data Are Misleading

Terrorism is a contested concept that can legitimately be defined in very different ways. However, different definitions can have a major impact on global fatality estimates. When terrorism is defined one way, the trend data indicate that the incidence of terrorism increased to 2006; defined another way, they reveal a decline.

The MIPT and START trend data from1998 are misleading in two ways.

  • First, the intentional killing of civilians in wartime is not normally described as “terrorism”, but as a “war crime” or “crime against humanity”. However, both MIPT and START (as well as NCTC) depart from this traditional practice by counting civilian deaths in the civil war in Iraq as terrorism.
  • Second, the counting procedures that MIPT and START rely on aren’t used consistently. Both count thousands of civilians killed in Iraq’s civil war as victims of terrorism, but only a handful of the civilians intentionally killed in sub-Saharan Africa’s bloody civil wars. MIPT, for example, estimates that there are more than 2,000 “terrorism” fatalities in Iraq in 2004, but none in Sudan where hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians were deliberately slaughtered by the janjaweed and other armed groups during that year.

“It’s not clear what explains the inconsistencies,” says Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project, “but it’s very clear that they distort the global terrorism trend data.”