Terrorism was down in 2017. That’s good. Right? Yes, but…

A very interesting report was just issued by the START center of excellence on terrorism at the University of Maryland on violent extremist trends in 2017.  It is worth a read.  Here are some good news highlights:

  • The total number of terrorist attacks worldwide in 2017 decreased by 23 percent and total deaths due to terrorist attacks decreased by 27 percent, compared to 2016.
  • Islamic State (IS) was responsible for more attacks and deaths than any other perpetrator group in 2017 However, ISIS carried out 23 percent fewer terrorist attacks and caused 53 percent fewer total deaths, compared to 2016.
  • The number of kidnapping victims and hostages declined 43 percent between 2016 and 2017.
  • Of the 18,753 people killed in terrorist attacks in 2017, 4,430 (24%) were perpetrators of the attacks – that means we have 4,430 fewer to worry about.

So three cheers for the ‘war on terrorism’!  Hip, hip…wait just a second.  Now for the not so good news:

  • On average, there were 715 terrorist attacks, causing 1,563 deaths, injuring 1,623 people, and involving 745 hostages or kidnap victims per month, worldwide in 2017.  That is 25 attacks A DAY on average.
  • In 2017, a total of 8,584 terrorist attacks occurred worldwide, resulting in more than 18,700 deaths and more than 19,400 people injured.  That is far too many people.
  • Fifty-nine percent of all attacks took place in five countries (Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Philippines), and 70 percent of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria).  These countries are really struggling with the whole terrorist threat.

Hmm, what does all this mean?  Simple.  No matter what anyone tells you – president, king, army general, terrorism expert, your local barista – terrorism has not gone away.  In saying this I am not ignoring all the great work carried out at multiple levels: military, security and law enforcement, religious leaders, community activists, etc.  But we still would be wise to keep a few things in mind:

  • Afghanistan and Iraq are very, very unstable countries which are disproportionately haunted by terrorism.  Both happen to have also suffered from multiple invasions and occupations (Afghanistan saw the Soviets then the US and its alliance move in while Iraq was stupidly invaded by the Bush administration back in 2003).  This should give EVERYONE pause – are you listening US boy-president? – when they muse about future military action.  Wars solve little.  They certainly do NOT solve terrorism.
  • Far too many people still die or are horribly wounded in terrorist attacks.  Even if the numbers are down.
  • Yes, the trend lines are falling since the disastrous spike in 2014.  But there was another spike, only a bit less ghastly, in 2015 and 2016 and we would be foolish to not prime ourselves for more spikes in the years to come.

What then should be the main takeaway from this data and this analysis?  A few things come to mind:

  • START should be commended for the work it is doing. It is data driven and not theoretical and although there are inevitable gaps in its work, as START acknowledges in its introduction, it is still probably the best we have.
  • Terrorism is a complicated beast.  Groups form, rise, fall, merge, re-rise, re-fall and adapt.  As a senior US counter terrorism official recently stated: “ISIS, al-Qaida, and their affiliates have proven to be determined, resilient and adaptable”.  Duh.
  • There is no easy answer to all of this and confronting terrorism (I almost wrote ‘battling’ but I realised it sounded too military and I am trying to avoid those kinds of metaphors) is multi-level.  We need to do a lot more further ‘left of boom’ to stop terrorist creation in its tracks.  I am not sure we are there yet, again despite some great works in many nations.

You know what really worries me at the end of the day?  That some in positions of authority will read this report, focus on the ‘progress’ we’ve made, and decide that we either continue business as usual (i.e. that damn military approach) or start to lift our foot from the gas pedal – “See, we’re winning so let’s look at something else to do – squirrel!”.  Either response is bad.

You will see more terrorism in 2018 and 2019 and 2020 and 2021 and…  You will see groups form you have never heard of.  You will see countries beset by terrorism you never would have considered.  You will see more terrorist plots – hopefully foiled ones – in your country.  Sorry to be in your face, but this is reality.

To finish off on a happy note, I suppose we should celebrate the positives outlined in the START report.  I’d like to start (no pun intended) by raising a glass and commend our collective efforts.  But in keeping with the point I am trying to make here, I’d like to do it in a Canadian way: quietly, understatedly and with the knowledge we are not out of the terrorist woods yet.  Please join me in a whispered hip, hip, hooray.


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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