The facts about terrorism

The recent attacks in Paris have once again got everybody fretting about the terrible scale of Islamic terrorism, and the extraordinary danger it poses to Western, in particular European, society. But how dangerous is terrorism really? The chart below from Maclean’s magazine, based on the statistics of the Global Terrorism Database, provides the answer:

eu terrorism1

As you can see, the number of terrorist incidents in Western Europe has increased since the low point of the mid-2000s, but the number remains well below that of the peak period between 1975 and 1995. There are presently about half the number of incidents per year that there were in the 1980s. Moreover, despite four mass killings in the past 11 years, the average death toll from terrorism is substantially lower than it used to be. In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, terrorists regularly killed 100-300 people a year in Western Europe. Nowadays, most years they only kill about a dozen. The facts are clear: terrorism is much less of a threat today than it was in the past.

It is true that when religiously-motivated terrorists strike, they tend to be very lethal. Fortunately, they strike rarely, as the charts below show.

euterrorism2

euterrorism3

As for North America, you can get a sense of the evolution of the threat from these pictures:

usterrorism1

usterrorism2

In June I gave a talk saying that by historical standards the world is not a dangerous place. I stand by that thesis.

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13 thoughts on “The facts about terrorism”

  1. The “world” is a safer place. So. Are we to equate “the world” with the U.S. and the European Union? Does “state terrorism” (Shock and Awe, the anti-Sandinista “contras”, bombing civilian targets and infrastructure in Gaza, and the like) have a place in this scheme? Is ” terrorism” only “terrorism” when directed against white people?

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    1. If you look at the statistics for violence more generally, you see also that the amount of war, revolution, etc etc, in the world is substantially lower now than it was in the midst of the Cold War – fewer people are being killed not just in the Western world but elsewhere. Of course, there are regions where this is not the case, but overall, that is true.

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  2. I also posted your article in some other areas, and similar comments or questions regarding whether your statistics can also cover the non-West. Do we include the ME, Russia, Asia? I do believe your overall assertion, but that is still what will hound your argument unless we can find sources that give a more all-round and global overview.

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  3. Just to be clear, your points are true as their intent is to find cause with the fear-mongering in both North-America and Europe. This is an extremely important point to make, because in the wake of the Paris bombings (and the already hardly mentioned Russian plane bombing) there is a major threat that governments will make the same mistake that Bush made. Even if it is not a mistake of the same magnitude of Bush – Iraq really was a foolish move – the inherent inertia of fear in public opinion might move governments to dictate a similar type of course. Russia is not necessarily different from that, apart from wanting to work within UN and sovereignty frameworks. How do we move our response to the perceived larger-than-life terrorist actions from a military swat-the-bacteria-and-hit-elephants to a more intelligent approach?

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    1. Good question, Josh, and I wish I knew the answer. All we can hope that is that sooner or later the failure of existing approaches becomes so obvious that governments have to start paying attention. Unfortunately, they seem to be rather immune to reality, and so this hope may be in vain.

      As far as worldwide terrorism is concerned, over 80% of it takes place in just 5 countries – Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. There has been a big increase in terrorist acts in those places in the past few years, but elsewhere in the world there hasn’t been any increase at all. In other words, if you live in one of those 5 countries, there is a serious danger. Elsewhere, not so much. Persuading people of this is, however, extremely difficult, even if you show them the statistics. Stats aren’t very emotively compelling.

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  4. I have only one question to this obviously skewed to the West analysis:

    If we compare 1970 to 2015 how did the “terrorist” situation went in the SU/Former SU? Also “great improvemments”, like in “the White West”?

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    1. Indeed, it is, and that in part is my point. We in the West are being continually told how much terrible danger we are in, and this is then used to justify hundreds of billions of dollars in defence spending, invasions and bombings of other countries, and ever-growing powers for our security agencies. It is necessary to point out that this narrative is not true.

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      1. I agree, and do count my blessings, but unfortunately this has a tendency to turn into some weird triumphalism, the idea that the world is in a great shape and getting better every day.

        Meanwhile, the number of refugees in the world is at all times high, while only 10 years ago, I remember, it was the lowest on the record, half of what it was in the 80-90s. Things change fast; some local conflicts, some governments collapse, and before you know it everything’s going to hell in a handbasket. The current patterns seem to predict more chaos, less stability.

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