Who are the real victims of terrorism?

It is natural for like to gravitate to like.  We tend to associate with people that look like us, think like us, have the same fundamental beliefs as us.  We also tend to read news items with which we agree, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias.  There is probably something to do with evolution behind all this.

When it comes to terrorism we pay more attention to attacks where the victims are like us, i.e. Westerners.  We focus on what happened in Paris, in Brussels, in Orlando, in San Bernardino, in Ottawa.  These are places we are familiar with and are packed with our kind of people, people like us.

As a result, when we think of terrorism we think that those that carry out attacks are targeting and killing us – disproportionately.  We magnify what has happened and we extrapolate our views beyond what is defensible based on facts.  So, we think that most of the victims of terrorist attacks are like us.

We couldn’t be more wrong.

Even a cursory glance at statistics over the past fifteen years shows categorically that the vast majority of innocent lives lost to the actions of Islamist extremist groups like Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Taliban and others are Muslim.  In other words, so-called Muslims are killing fellow Muslims.  For all the rhetoric that these groups issue, about how the West is evil and is the eternal enemy of Islam, when they get around to carrying out their heinous crimes they target other Muslims.  Despite the fact that these terrorist organisations say that they are keying on Westerners, the reality is quite different.  Far from the self-styled defenders of the faith, they are its destroyers.

The truth behind just who dies in actions taken by Islamist extremist groups was pointed out years ago by the Counter Terrorism Center at West Point in the US. It was brutally emphasised in a story that appeared on a Middle East Web site the other day.   In January of this year alone, nearly 400 Iraqi civilians were killed by terrorists.  400!  If we add up all the victims in Western attacks after 9/11 (Madrid 2004, London 2005, Paris 2015, Nice 2016, etc.) we would come up with a figure that is probably slightly higher.  But those innocent Iraqis died in the course of a single month, not over fifteen years.  That is a truly horrible statistic and one that should give us pause when we think we know everything about terrorism.

Furthermore, there are some people out there, and a few high up in the Trump administration, who are convinced that we are under siege by Muslims and that Islam is our mortally enemy.  Far from a ‘religion of peace’ (a highly problematic term that is neither accurate nor helpful) it is a ‘religion of terror’, or so they believe.  Not only is this completely wrong but it defies logic, if we look at facts.  If the vast majority of those who die at the hands of Islamist extremists are Muslim, how can the majority of Muslims support terrorism?  This makes absolutely no sense.  For a group of people to support a tactic that results in their own deaths would be insane.

Alas, facts are not what they once were, the bedrock of debate and truth.  As some would say ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good argument’.  If the counsellor to the US President can make reference to the ‘Bowling Green massacre’ that never took place, I suppose anyone can say just about anything.

But facts do matter and it is an undeniable fact that more Muslims than non-Muslims have died in terrorism since 9/11.  It is important to remember that when we think about terrorism and plan ways to deal with it.  If you want help with stopping terrorist violence, it is generally a good idea to involve the victims in the solution, not alienate them.

That is just a fact.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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