The Decline of Terrorism
How not to let a positive trend get in the way of a good story
On the afternoon of Valentines Day, 2019, a massive explosion rocked a police convoy travelling in a district called Pulwuma, in the Indian state of Kashmir. Adil Ahmad Dar, a young local man who had reportedly been harassed and humiliated by Indian security forces in 2016, drove an SUV loaded with about 350kg of explosives into a bus, killing 40 people. Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist organisation based in Pakistan, quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, instantly heightening tensions in what is already a pretty tense part of the world.
The tragedy comes at a sensitive moment. India has elections coming up in a few weeks, and Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, came out swinging. The president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri was in the country on an official trade visit, and the two held a joint press conference stating they both agreed that “terrorism is a serious threat to world peace and stability.” In the immediate aftermath Indian officials announced the revocation of ‘most favoured nation’ trading status for Pakistan, and the government put on hold an initiative designed to promote exchanges between the youth of each country.
Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, denied involvement and insisted on seeing evidence, promising the country would retaliate if India uses force. The bombing, which is the deadliest terrorist attack India has suffered in two-and-a-half years, has put Modi in a bind. If his government’s response to the attack is perceived by an angry Indian public to be too weak, Modi risks losing votes. However, any military action could provoke a wider crisis in which events could spiral beyond control. In other words — tense.
What Modi is almost certainly not going to do is point out that terrorism in India is less of a threat today than it has been in almost a decade.
That would be political suicide.
It would also be true.
Despite several high-profile incidents like Pulwuma in recent years, the frequency and severity of terrorism in the country have witnessed a steady decline since 2002 and are well below the highs of the 1990s. More than 1,000 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks each year in India between 2005 and 2008. That has dropped to around 200 a year since 2015. Far from being a serious threat to world peace and stability, terrorism is the last resort of people who have absolutely no chance. It’s an act of desperation — and it’s less of a problem in India today than it has been in decades.
This improvement is part of a much bigger, sustained global trend. In 2017, terrorist groups caused 18,814 deaths around the world, 27% less than the year before. Preliminary analysis suggests that 2018 was even better, with worldwide terror attacks decreasing by a third, and non-militant fatalities down by more than a quarter to 13,483. That would represent the fourth consecutive year of improvement, an incredible, yet widely unheralded achievement.
The steepest drops have come in places like Iraq, Turkey (due to fewer strikes by Kurdish rebels), Yemen (where incidents fell despite the civil war) and Syria. The Islamic State’s retreat in particular has contributed to the decline, as it has lost territory and been forced to switch to lower intensity insurgent operations. The main faction of the terrorist network, active mostly in Iraq and Syria, authored fewer attacks and its local factions, operating in countries like Libya and Egypt, also had less impact. The smaller reduction in fatalities also reflected the Islamic State’s continuing inability to conduct periodic incidences of mass-casualty violence, most notably in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and West Africa.
The situation is also a lot better in Europe, which is now at the end of a wave of violence that began with the Paris attacks. In 2015, 150 people were killed in terrorist attacks, followed by 135 in 2016 and 62 in 2017. In 2018 though, there were only 20 fatalities — a major decline from the previous three years. And in the United States there’s also been a dramatic but unheralded decline in foreign-inspired terrorism. Since 2016, more Americans have been killed by white supremacists or anti-Semites than by radicalised Muslims. As Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University points out:
“If you had told officials after 9/11 that in the next 17 years there would be only 104 deaths from terrorist attacks in the United States, they would have raised a glass of champagne. Back then, we were worried that we’d lose that many people in a week.”
Of course, nobody expects politicians to say this kind of stuff. No politician ever lost votes because they were tougher on terrorism — but you can certainly lose votes if you say “terrorism is no longer a problem.” If something does happen, your opponents will never let you hear the end of it. The political calculus doesn’t stack up. You run the risk of a spectacular terror strike such as the incident in Pulwama, or an increase in casualties in the future, which is a great way to hoist yourself by your own petard. Far safer to rattle the sabres and talk tough, regardless of the actual threat.
You know who could report on terrorism’s decline though?
The purpose of terrorism is to spread terror.
Terrorists want people to feel afraid. They want to cause maximum disruption in the lives of as many people as possible. The greater impact, the greater the success. By definition this is, well, terrifying. The randomness is what’s so scary. It happens in places where people are supposed to be safe. If death and destruction can strike while you’re on a police bus, or drinking coffee at the Café Bonne Bière, or shopping for tomatoes at the al-Ashaar Market, then it can strike anywhere.
It’s an emotional issue, which is why it doesn’t matter how many times someone insists you’re more likely to be killed by a coconut falling on your head. The statistical improbability of being killed in a terrorist attack doesn’t sink in. What does sink in is the potent imagery of wild-eyed, knife-wielding madmen, shards of hot metal and maimed bodies. The lack of control is what makes it such an effective imaginary threat. Sitting underneath a palm tree is a choice you’ve consciously made, but there’s no sign on a café door in Paris saying “careful, you could get blown up here.”
Like any symbolic or emotional issue this makes terrorism a great subject for partisans. The right get to point at the scary outsiders, justifying their positions on everything from crime, to family values and immigration. The left gets to wag their fingers at the right and insist they’re manufacturing a crisis, accusing them of racism, intolerance and hypocrisy. Both sides work themselves into a lather, meaning the media gets to report not only on the grisly details of the attack, but also everyone’s reaction to the attack, and that makes both sides even angrier, and there’s more finger-pointing and more anger, and everyone’s scrolling to the next story and the images of flying shrapnel and irate spokespeople sink ever deeper into our brains.
It’s perfect fodder for a media business model that thrives on inaccurate perceptions of risk.
As Tobias Rose-Stockwell points out in one of my favourite Medium articles ever, the way the media reports on terrorism bears almost no resemblance to its actual impact, or potential impact. Terrorism-related homicides are a tiny fraction of the overall homicide rate, particularly in the United States, and yet they account for a majority of the coverage. This is illustrated by a two year sampling of front page stories collected from the New York Times in 2015 and 2016.
Take a careful look at those numbers, and let the implications sink in. Traditional, respectable, fact-checking, editorially sound journalism is the worst possible way to get an accurate understanding of why people kill each other in the United States.
It’s the news that makes people scared of terrorism — not terrorists.
This kind of fear-mongering has real world effects. For a start, it affects public discourse. In 2015, terrorism tied the economy as the number one concern for Americans, with 51% of those polled saying they feared they or someone in their family would be a victim of terrorist violence. In the 2016 US presidential election, terrorism was the number two issue of concern, with 80% of voters citing it, just four points behind the economy. Forget Facebook, or teenagers in Macedonia. The real news was a far bigger source of disinformation in 2016, and it was hiding in plain sight.
The media also warps our understanding of where, and why terrorism happens. Most terrorism for example, takes place in war-torn countries. Since the year 2000, more than 99% per cent of global deaths from terrorism occurred in impoverished countries already dealing with conflict or political terror. The story of how terrorism has gotten better in the last four years is intimately tied up with the rise and decline of war in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.
It’s a complex phenomenon. Go and visit any research department or scholar specialising in terrorism and this is the first thing they’ll tell you. The media caricature of the lone wolf or even worse, the young jihadi radicalised by Youtube videos is a fiction. Terrorists are not created in a vacuum by viewing Islamic State propaganda online. Radicalism comes from an unpredictable cocktail of family background, socio-economic status and random life events. It respects no political boundaries or clichés.
Islamic teachings, for example, prohibit terrorism and the use of violence against civilians, and Muslim leaders and scholars around the world have repeatedly condemned its use. A survey of 1,200 foreigner fighters by the Combating Terrorism Center revealed that over 85% had no formal religious education and were not lifelong, strict adherents to Islam. In the United States, the number of terrorist acts committed by people who have sneaked across the border with Mexico is exactly zero. Not zero in 2018; zero since the federal government began keeping records. Meanwhile, right wing extremists account for almost twice as many terrorist incidents as Muslims.
None of this however, gets in the way of reporting a good story. The majority of media coverage still focuses on radical Islam. Research by the University of Alabama showed terrorist attacks committed by non-Muslims receive an average of 15 press reports, while those committed by Muslim extremists receive 105. That’s 357% more media attention.
Once again, reputable journalism is the worst possible way to get an accurate understanding of what actually motivates people to carry out terror attacks in the United States.
Perhaps the biggest problem with all of this however, is that it’s allowed politicians to continue to justify bad policy far past the point at which it makes any rational sense. Thanks to the repeated banging of the drum by media in the United States, Europe and Australia, terrorism has dominated foreign policy discussions in those places to the exclusion of almost any other issue, and has poisoned the debate in other policy areas such as immigration and taxation. Polls and surveys still suggest that most Americans and Europeans rate the prevention of terrorist attacks as the top priority for policymakers.
Those priorities have translated into real tax dollars. A recent report from the Costs of War Project showed the US is on track to spend $6 trillion on the war on terror by October 2019. For that amount, the country could have built 20 walls, given a tax cut to billionaires AND the middle class, built a new national highway system, eliminated all student debt and still had some spare change left over to top up the inauguration fund. Instead, the money’s been spent on a hopeless war, which has amplified the exact problem it was meant to solve. Here’s Michael Scheuer, a former CIA intelligence officer and former chief of the Osama bin Laden tracking unit:
The bottom line in all of this is the uncontestable fact that there would be no ISIS today if there had not been a US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. There is no question that the… Iraq war afforded the Islamists opportunities to successfully internationalize their movement, expand their manpower and financial resources, and seize and hold large tracts of territory.
From Eliza Manningham-Buller, ex-head of MI5:
The war was also a distraction from the pursuit of al-Qaeda. It increased the terrorist threat by convincing more people that Osama Bin Laden’s claim that Islam was under attack was correct. It provided an arena for the jihad for which he had called, so that many of his supporters, including British citizens, travelled to Iraq to attack western forces . . . And our involvement in Iraq spurred some young British Muslims to turn to terror.
And the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies…
We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives . . . The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.
The terrorist threat isn’t over. Although the Islamic State has been defeated, the group still has plenty of fighters in the field who went to ground instead of trying to combat a vastly more powerful foe, and will mount an offensive sometime soon. Terrorist groups thrive in conflict zones, and the continuing chaos in Yemen is a perfect setting for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to grow its forces. The challenge of dealing with foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria will continue to occupy governments around the world. Terrorism is still at a historically high level, and isn’t likely to decrease to its pre-2001 levels anytime in the foreseeable future. It’s a fact of the contemporary world, that can be managed but not eradicated.
However, we should celebrate the fact that the level of terrorist violence globally has been declining for the last couple of years. The media has a responsibility to report accurately on this as a phenomenon. News organisations were happy to sound the alarm four years ago. Their silence today is deafening. The decline of global terrorism is a newsworthy event, and one that deserves our attention.
The bad news habit has become such an ingrained part of the cultural sphere in English-speaking countries that it blinds us to our successes. It infects the public debate, allowing cynical politicians to justify their worst behaviour, and leaving us all in a state of terror that bears no resemblance to the threats we actually face. Remember that, the next time you hear about a terrorist attack. Remember that the newspaper or website that’s reporting it didn’t report on how those incidents are becoming increasingly rare. The story of terrorism is far more complex than our news media is willing to tell. It’s high time we start insisting they tell it.