Professor Gary LaFree
University of Maryland
Researchers have long noted that terrorism rises and falls in waves (Rapoport, 2002; LaFree, Dugan, and Miller, 2015). According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, at the University of Maryland, the world has been gripped by a wave of terrorist attacks that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks. From 2002 through 2014, worldwide terrorist attacks increased nearly 12-fold (from 1,333 to 16,903), and terrorist fatalities increased by more than 8 times (from 4,805 to 44,490). Especially hard hit were Iraq and Afghanistan in the Middle East, India and Pakistan in South Asia, and Nigeria in Sub-Saharan Africa. The most active terrorist organizations in driving this worldwide boom were the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, the Islamic State, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and Boko Haram.
But since 2014, the picture has changed dramatically. According to the GTD, 2019 was the fifth consecutive year of declining global terrorist attacks (Miller, 2020). Total attacks worldwide decreased 50 percent between 2014 and 2019, and the total number of deaths decreased 54 percent. This is the single largest 5-year decline in attacks and fatalities since the GTD began data collection in 1970—a half century ago.
To be clear, terrorist attacks and fatalities are not declining everywhere and every year. In 2019, attacks and fatalities increased in Yemen, Colombia, and Burkina Faso; in 2018, attacks and fatalities increased in Afghanistan and Nigeria; and in 2017, attacks and fatalities increased in India, the Philippines, and Nepal. Also, while worldwide attacks have declined, a
large number of countries are still being targeted: more than 100 different countries in recent years.
It is also important to emphasize that not all reasons for declines in terrorist attacks are positive. For example, an argument can be made that in several years when terrorist attacks declined in Afghanistan, they did so in part because the Taliban had been so successful in taking back control of the country (Felbab-Brown, 2017; Nordland, 2018). A similar outcome but with the regime rather than the terrorist perpetrators gaining control of the situation no doubt explains declining terrorist attacks and fatalities in Syria (Cook, 2018).
While we have observed major declines in terrorist attacks and fatalities from 2014 to 2019, both attacks and fatalities remain at historically high levels. The number of attacks in 2019 is about the same as in 2012 and attacks are still more than 40 percent higher in 2019 than they were during 1992—the peak year for an earlier wave.
At present, the GTD is only available through the end of 2019. However, in late December of that year, a previously unidentified coronavirus, now called COVID-19, emerged from Wuhan, China, quickly spread throughout China, then expanded globally, eventually affecting all countries of the world. To the best of my knowledge, at the time of this writing there are no published empirical studies dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist attacks and fatalities. However, there are several reasons to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic could increase the number and deadliness of terrorist attacks. While societies are preoccupied with responding to the pandemic, it could open up opportunities for terrorist perpetrators to plan and carry out attacks. Moreover, epidemics might increase economic and political stress, sharpen individual frustration, and thereby encourage radicalization and extremist violence. On the other hand, the pandemic could hamper the ability of would-be terrorists to perpetrate terrorist activity as much as it has hampered a host of noncriminal activities.
As we move into 2021, a number of terrorism-related developments appear on the horizon. While the Taliban engages in peace talks with the United States, terrorist attacks and fatalities associated with the group continue to mount. In 2019, Afghanistan accounted for 41 percent of worldwide terrorist fatalities (including assailants) and 21 percent of all terrorist attacks (Miller, 2020). While Islamic State violence continues to decline in Iraq, the group’s international reach continues to grow. By 2019, the Islamic State and its affiliates had staged terrorist attacks in a total of 57 countries (up from 21 in 2014). Boko Haram continues to be extremely active in Nigeria, and in
2019, it also increased its activity in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In 2019, there was a sharp increase in the number of attacks motivated by various strands of far-right extremism in Australasia, North America, and Western Europe. It remains unclear to what extent these attacks are being fueled by anger and frustration over government efforts to combat COVID-19.
One thing is certain: the number of terrorist attacks in a particular region or the world as a whole will eventually reach an apogee and then decline. What goes up must eventually come down. It seems logical to conclude that the chaos and disorder that follow in the wake of terrorist attacks provide strong incentives for societies to adopt strategies for countering them. Few individuals or communities prefer living endlessly in chaos and violence. As the deadly impact of COVID-19 eventually subsides, we can only hope that we have reached that tipping point. At the same time, we must humbly admit that prediction is the most precarious task of the social sciences.
Cook, S. A. 2018. “The Syrian War Is Over, and America Lost: Bashar al-Assad Won. It’s worth thinking about why the United States didn’t.” Foreign Policy, July 23. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/23/the-syrian-war-is-over-and-america-lost/.
Felbab-Brown, V. 2017. “Afghanistan’s Terrorism Resurgence: Al-Qaida, ISIS, and Beyond.” https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/afghanistans-terrorism-resurgence-al-qaida-isis-and-beyond/.
LaFree, G., L. Dugan, and E. Miller. 2015. Putting Terrorism in Context: Lessons from the Global Terrorism Database. London: Routledge.
Miller, E. 2020. GlobalTerrorism in 2019. College Park: University of Maryland, START. https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_GTD_GlobalTerrorismOverview2019_July2020.pdf.
Nordland, R. 2018. “The Death Toll for Afghan Forces Is Secret. Here’s Why.” New York Times, September 21, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/21/world/asia/afghanistan-security-casualties-taliban.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FTaliban&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection.
Rapoport, D. C. 2002. “The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11,” in The New Global Terrorism: Characteristics, Causes, Controls, C. W. Kegley Jr., ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Ward, A. 2014. “Do Terrorist Groups Really Die? A Warning.” The Rand Blog, posted December 2, 2014. https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/04/do-terrorist-groups-really-die-a-warning.html.
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