Paris Attacks Conform to Larger Terrorism Trends

It’s been an exceptionally good year for terrorists, militants, and insurgents the world over. Last week’s massacre in Paris – and this week’s subsequent deadly raid in a Parisian suburb – corroborate larger, and far deadlier, global trends.

Recently published data and analysis paint a supremely grim picture.

In its third annual Global Terrorism Index 2015, the Institute for Economics and Peace – using data compiled by the US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Reponses to Terrorism (START)*, revealed that more than 32,500 people were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide in 2014 alone. That is a stunning increase of 80 percent over the previous year (see Figure One).



Source: Institute for Economics & Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2015, p. 15.

There’s more bad news.

Mass-fatality terrorist attacks, defined as attacks resulting in the deaths of more than 100 people, excluding perpetrators, are also up. Dramatically.

Between 1970 and 2013, an average of only four mass-fatality terrorist attacks occurred annually worldwide. In 2014, 26 such attacks took place, in eight different countries – an exponential increase in number (see Figure Two).



Source: START Background Report, “Mass-Fatality, Coordinated Attacks Worldwide, and Terrorism in France,” November 2015.

Preliminary data for 2015 are no less damning: in the first six months of the year, 11 such attacks took place. The Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) was responsible for seven of these attacks. To that list we can add more recent major IS assaults in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, and of course, France.

Other trends illustrate that more countries recorded a terrorist attack in 2014 over 2013 (up to 93 from 88 states), and that eleven states suffered over 500 terrorism deaths in 2014, up from only five states in 2013.

Naturally, details are buried in the data. Some extrapolation and inference is possible.

So, for instance, Boko Haram – a nightmare of a group active in northern Nigeria and beyond – led the 2014 terrorism death count. It killed over 6,600 people that year. By comparison, terrorism deaths in Pakistan dropped to 1,760 in 2014 (from 2,356 in 2013), a change of over 25 percent.

That is partly attributed to the continued fracturing of Pakistan’s Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) – a Sunni Islamist alliance formed in 2007 and best known for having facilitated the failed 2010 car bombing at Times Square, New York City and for its 2014 massacre of Army Public School students in Peshawar, Pakistan. We might infer, then, that as Boko Haram continues to lose ground against a US-assisted and African-led multilateral counterterrorism surge that began in earnest in early 2015, that its ability to match its 2014 record of death and destruction may well diminish. Instead, we might cautiously expect Boko Haram’s tally in next year’s Index to follow current TTP trends. Time will tell.

In other ways, the data are somewhat skewed.

For instance, 2014 figures blame Islamic State for having killed roughly 6,000 people in terrorist attacks, less than Boko Haram’s total.

But the group is also responsible for over 20,000 battlefield deaths with state and non-state adversaries, and for countless other executions. And IS has likewise inspired smaller, less sophisticated attacks in Canada, the US, Australia, Denmark, France, and elsewhere.

Furthermore, in compiling its data, START records the name of the terrorist organization at the time of attack. So IS’s recent name changes, from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), to Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), to ISIS/IS, can substantively alter figures and trends. Ditto the fact that attacks carried out by self-declared provinces or territories of Islamic State – in Sinai or Tripoli, for instance – are likewise usually attributed to the local affiliate rather than IS. By any combined measure, then, Islamic State was by far the deadliest terrorist group in 2014.

Islamic State is unique in other disturbing ways, too.

It continues to recruit foreigners into its ranks. Thousands have travelled to IS territory to fight, train, and die. The Paris attacks seem to have involved at least half a dozen European radicals. Some had travelled to Syria, and appear to have been purposefully dispatched by IS back to Europe to help co-ordinate last week’s events.

While exact figures are hard to come by, estimates suggest that up to 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq over the past five years. Many have since joined IS. These figures, if accurate, far surpass the number of foreign recruits Al-Qaeda was able to attract to Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s.

Some new phenomenon is at work here. And despite efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, some 7,000 nonetheless slipped through in the first six months of 2015 alone. That is troubling.

All told, the Paris attacks, while brutally shocking, are part and parcel of much larger, inherently global, and more troubling trends. We should brace ourselves: 2014 records may well be dwarfed in 2015 and 2016.

*Full disclosure: I was a visiting fellow at START in 2012.

This article was originally published by the CDA Institute.