The World

Does the World Have a Terrorism Problem or a Civil War Problem?

A Jabhat Al-Nusra fighter waves the movement’s flag at the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, on July 28, 2014. 

Photo by Rami al-Sayed/AFP/Getty Images

The Institute for Economics and Peace has released its annual Global Terrorism Index, and the main headline, as reported by the BBC and several other outlets,  is that the number of deaths from terrorism increased 61 percent between 2012 and 2013. The number of attacks increased 44 percent to nearly 10,000.The news is all the more dispiriting since, just two years ago, the index reported that global terrorist violence had flatlined between 2007 and 2011. The big reason why it’s picking up again is pretty simple: Syria.

Iraq has led the world in nine of the last 10 years, but things took a turn for the worse last year, with the number of deaths rising 162 percent, thanks largely to the destabilizing effect of the war in neighboring Syria and the emergence of ISIS. Iraq accounted for more than a third of all terrorism deaths last year. Syria itself recorded zero deaths from terrorism for the two years before the war began in 2011 but now has the fifth-most in the world with more than 1,000 last year. Obviously, many more people than that died as a result of violence in Syria, but the index classifies most of these deaths as the result of conventional warfare rather than terrorism.

That distinction gets into a tricky question about this data. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, terrorism is a global problem but also a relatively localized one. Last year, 82 percent of terrorist attacks counted by the GTI occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. In all of these countries, there are large regions where the government is fighting with militant groups for political control. These attacks were primarily carried out by four groups: the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS, and various affiliates of al-Qaida. All of these could be described as “part-time” terrorist groups, organizations that employ terrorist tactics but often act more like insurgent or guerilla groups. In other words, when ISIS is fighting with the Iraqi army or the Kurdish Peshmerga for control of towns, it’s not engaging in what’s traditionally considered terrorism. But when it executes its American hostages or sets off bombs at the Baghdad airport, it is. 

While these five countries dominate global terrorism, the report also notes that there were nine additional countries last year that had more than 50 terrorism deaths, bringing the total number to 24—the highest in 14 years. These were: Algeria, Central African Republic, China, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan.

Algeria is on that list largely because of one horrific incident. Lebanon’s terrorism is closely tied to Syria’s. CAR, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan are all experiencing various states of intrastate warfare.

So the issue here may be less a global increase in terrorism than a set of worsening civil wars (one war in particular) in which the traditional tactics of terrorism—kidnappings, suicide bombings, etc.—are employed by the combatants.

This is more than just a semantic issue. Developed countries are often drawn into costly military interventions in the name of preventing terrorism against themselves, though they experience only a tiny percentage of terrorist violence. Not counting Turkey and Mexico, only 16 people were killed by terrorism in OECD countries in 2013, the year of the Boston Marathon bombing. (The 2014 numbers are sadly going to be higher because of recent events in Israel.)

In the popular imagination, we tend to think of “terrorism” in terms of decentralized radical groups targeting the citizens of wealthy and powerful countries. But around the world, the vast majority of it occurs in the context of battles over territory in some of the most unstable places on Earth. And the strategies being employed to stop it obviously aren’t working.