Potentially Misleading Statistics on Global Terrorism
Recently, the 2015 statistics were released by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), hosted at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Prior to making the data publicly available, of course, scholars associated with START took the liberty of publishing their own articles while access was monopolized. The State Department also got a head-start on putting out its 2015 report on terrorism, based largely on START’s work. This is somewhat fitting, as START’s funding comes exclusively from federal dollars. Aside from a little monopolization of publicly funded databases, there are some important misleading conclusions that the layperson might be inclined to draw. I will explain how and why this is the case.
In considering the recent GTD data release, Andrew Flowers (of FiveThirtyEight) did interpret something correctly when he observed that “Terrorism Declined Last Year- but Not in the West.” In his brief article, he correctly cited START’s GTD statistics that support the claim that terrorism was reduced abroad from the previous year (2014). However, in his search to understand why, he interviewed the GTD’s program manager, Erin Miller, who stated that “it’s possible that ‘2014 was just a really bad year and 2015 was still violent but somewhat less so by comparison.'” This is somewhat incomplete, because it doesn’t take into account the shifting sands, so to speak, in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) transnational terrorist army. For instance, the introduction of Russian Airstrikes would have had some impact on the Islamic State’s ability to act effectively in carrying out terrorist attacks in the region. Additionally, the combined efforts of the Iraqi/Iranian governments and U.S. (and allied) air support had to have hindered some of the key logistical elements that IS would have needed to attack locally.
Another area in which START’s GTD is less than helpful is in their methodology. The GTD claims, and Ms. Miller is cited by Flowers as stating that, the classification for terrorism includes “threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a nonstate actor…”[Emphasis added.] The problem is that the database doesn’t include failed or foiled attacks; many of which were Islamist-inspired. In 2015 alone there were at least 56 arrests on ISIL-related charges in the U.S. (note that the figure might be higher, as the report only covered the period ending November 12, 2015). This statistic is not captured in GTD’s database, while many of the alleged “terrorism” events didn’t meet their own criteria to be so labled (6 out of 38, or 16%). Yet, Flowers cites Miller’s example of church arsons in what appears to be an effort to claim racially motivated (read: right-wing) violence. The implication one might incorrectly discern is that there are fewer instances of Islamist violence, or planned violence, than other sorts of terrorism, or suspected terrorism.
A more appropriate set of conclusions to be drawn are two-fold. First, terrorism abroad has been hindered in the Middle East as a result of a broad offensive against its primary perpetrators. Much of the IS-related attacks in the region have been carried out as operational-level strikes that support the ongoing insurgency. The second conclusion is that domestically, terrorism has been on the rise, but Islamist-inspired terrorist plots have been disrupted far more frequently as a result of law enforcement’s due diligence.
Although Mr. Flowers mentions “the killing of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina” as the “fourth-deadliest attack in the U.S. last year,” he doesn’t mention that even the GTD doubts it was motivated by anti-Muslim hate. Absent in many discussions of global terrorism trends (including the piece under review here) is that of the 10 most deadly terrorist organizations in 2015 a full 90% were Islamists (mostly allied with IS and a couple with al-Qaeda). This is, of course, obscured by focusing on the extremely rare instances in which Muslims are killed by non-Muslims and ignoring the patent fact that most Muslims (and many non-Muslims; especially in the Middle East and Europe) are victims of Islamist terror.
David Firester is the founder and CEO of TRAC Intelligence (Threat, Reporting, and Analysis Consultants), which is a premier threat analysis firm. TRAC Intelligence provides threat assessment in the private sector.