A key argument advanced both by neoconservatives who want further military intervention in Iraq and by surveillance advocates anxious to justify further state intrusions on individuals’ rights is that terrorism is on the rise.
“Deaths from terrorism worldwide rose by more than 60 per cent last year,” the UK Telegraph grimly reported in May. “Terrorist attacks rose 43% worldwide in 2013,” The Guardian revealed. “World terrorism deaths rise by a third,” SBS told viewers. A rise the year before had already been used by Australian security industry apologists to justify more spending. The Australian’s resident stenographer for intelligence officials, Cameron Stewart, invoked the same figures to justify the government’s draconian new anti-terrorism and surveillance laws.
So what was the terrorist surge in 2013 and 2012?
The source all those reports draw on is the global terrorism database maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, with funding from the United States government. It records terrorism incidents throughout the world since 1970, although significant methodological problems plague the data for 1993 and between 1998 and 2007, when data collection was done retrospectively using media reports, rather than in real time. But with over 125,000 entries, it still offers a useful tool for assessing the prevalence of terrorism, particularly since 2007.
And there was indeed a surge in terrorist incidents in 2012 and 2013: from around 5000 attacks in 2011 worldwide to nearly 8500 in 2012 and nearly 12,000 in 2013 — making those three years the biggest ever recorded for terrorism. Even assuming steady improvements in data collection and access to information about events, it’s a significant increase. But break down the data and a more complicated story emerges.
If you split the data between Western countries and non-Western countries, it immediately becomes apparent the vast bulk of the increase occurred outside the West — something only some of the media reports acknowledged. In 2013, terrorism in Western countries rose from 140 incidents to over 250 incidents. But terrorism outside the West rose from over 8000 incidents to over 11,000 incidents. And that increase was driven mostly by the rise in attacks in Iraq and Pakistan. Attacks in Iraq rose from just over 1400 to over 2800. Attacks in Pakistan rose from 1651 to over 2200. There were also big rises in the Philippines and Egypt, while in Afghanistan there was a slight fall.
But what about the rise in terrorist attacks in Western countries? Is that not evidence of the greater threat to our security from Islamic militants, and thus the need for ever more surveillance, ever more spending on security and ever more draconian laws to address the insidious threat of Muslim extremists?
Alas, no: the bulk of the rise in terrorism in Western countries occurred in just two places: Northern Ireland and Greece. In Northern Ireland, terrorist incidents increased from 45 each in 2011 and 2012 to 117 in 2013. And the number of incidents in Greece more than doubled from 22 to 53 in 2013. The upsurge in Greece has been driven by austerity-induced violence by both Left and Right. In Northern Ireland, dissident republicans have driven the upsurge in terrorism.
So the rise in terrorism in the West in 2013 was actually driven not by Islamist militants but white Catholic men and Greek anarchists and neo-Nazis, none of whom attract a fraction of the outraged headlines and political hysteria that Muslim terrorists do. We’re far more relaxed in the West about white people engaging in terrorism than people with dark skins and beards.
And more to the point, despite the big rise in terrorist incidents in the West, fewer people than ever are dying as a result of terrorism: there were just 12 recorded fatalities in all Western countries from terrorism last year, including two in Northern Ireland and two in Greece. That’s a fall from 17 the year before, and a big fall from 79 in 2011, when neo-Nazi Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway. Compared to the 1970s and 1980s, when hundreds of people died at the hands of separatist, left-wing, right-wing and Palestinian terrorists in Western countries, Western citizens are now remarkably safe.
The story’s different outside the West: the number of victims of terrorist attacks has risen along with the number of attacks. The number of non-Western victims reached its highest ever level in 2013, with over 22,000 fatalities (including perpetrators). Most of the rise has been in Iraq, where the death toll has increased massively, from just under 2700 to over 7000.
The only positive from the figures outside the West is that the upsurge in attacks in Pakistan hasn’t produced anything like a similar rise in fatalities — they’ve only increased by about 100 (to just under 2900), and overall the intensity of attacks is continuing to diminish. Terrorist attacks on average kill far more people outside the West than here: since 2007, when the NCSTRT resumed real-time monitoring of terrorism, terrorist attacks in Western countries have killed around 0.15 people per attack; outside the West, the average is two — the numbers themselves don’t matter so much as the big difference between Western and non-Western terrorism. But it’s also worth noting that even outside the West, terrorist attacks now kill fewer people than in previous decades.
So the rise in “terrorism” in the West being used to justify yet another security crackdown in Western countries has virtually nothing to do with Islamist militants, involves few instances of lethal attacks, and is part of a long trend toward less, and less effective, terrorism. And the rise in terrorism outside the West is to a large degree the continuing toxic legacy of illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, by the very governments that now want to go back there.