Why it is important to go beyond the ‘headlines’ when talking about terrorism

Far right terrorism may indeed be ‘on the rise’ – or is it? In any event this form of political violence is a mere shadow of its Islamist cousin

Far right terrorism may indeed be ‘on the rise’ – or is it? In any event this form of political violence is a mere shadow of its Islamist cousin.

Why is it that our media work the way they do? Why is some information highlighted while other is downplayed? Why do we fail to see the ‘bigger picture’ on many issues?

I do not want to dump on those who give us the news. They are, after all, a business and they have decided that certain things are more apt to get eyeballs and ears attuned to their offerings than others. What is it that they say: “If it bleeds, it leads”? Sensational stories are often featured in headlines for those very reasons.

I am starting this perspective in this manner because I want to speak to the recently-released Global Terrorism Index 2020, issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace. It is a comprehensive report, based on a wide variety of data, and is a very good read. I am certain there are other similar studies but this is the one I am most familiar with. I had the pleasure of having one of the authors speak at the University of Ottawa last year.

The 2020 edition did get some play in world media and the one overarching theme seemed to be “the far right is rising – run for your lives!”. Indeed, the researchers did find a 250% increase in attacks attributed to the nebulous far right (RWE) and a whopping 709% increase in deaths from 2014-2019. This should scare even the hardiest of us.

The devil, however, is, as they say, in the details.

Despite a 15% decrease in terrorism deaths around the world in 2019 – a welcome trend for sure – there were still 13,826 fatalities. The top twenty countries afflicted by terrorism are what they have been for a long time: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, India, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Philippines, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Mozambique, Libya, Central African Republic, Turkey, Colombia and Sri Lanka. What do 19 of these 20 have in common? All the attacks were Islamist extremist in origin. Nary a RWE death among them.

Furthermore, if we look at raw numbers, of the 13,826 deaths in 2019 how many were at the hands of RWE? 89. 89 out of 13, 826 or 0.6 %. And 51 of those came in ONE attack (the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand in March). If we take those away, and also remove the single largest attack anywhere in 2019 – the Easter Sunday ISIS-inspired massacre in Sri Lankan churches which killed 266 – we are left with a grand total of 13, 509 deaths of which 38 were at the hands of RWE, or 0.2% . This paints a slightly different picture, no?

Yet we focus on a 709% increase in deaths over a five-year period. Everyone knows that if you start with one death and go to four, that is a 300% increase. When your base is tiny any growth is magnified.

In addition, it is not as if RWE has suddenly appeared in our midst. As the Global Terrorism Index notes:

Although both the number of far-right attacks and deaths has increased considerably over the past few years, the total level of political terrorism in the West is still lower than its historical high during the 1970s, as shown in Figure 4.11. During the surge in far-right terrorism over the past decade, there have been 451 terrorist attacks. By contrast, between 1970 and 1980 there were 1,677 far-right and far-left terrorist incidents. There were 295 terrorist attacks in 1977 alone.

When you put these figures into context, there has been a tremendous DECREASE in RWE over the decades (and a tremendous INCREASE in Islamist terrorist attacks during that same time span), even if we are now seeing a slight uptick.

WATCH Time to pull resources away from jihadi terrorists and move them to the far-right?

In other words, yes the increase in general RWE extremism is of concern but it is neither universal (there is no RWE in Afghanistan for example or anywhere else that is not the ‘West’) nor anywhere near as lethal as jihadi terrorism. The numbers simply do not lie. As I have said before, you can make up any theory or future forecast you wish but you cannot make up your own data.

I think I may know why media accounts of this ‘trend’ were emphasised. To my mind this was due to one or several of the following:

  • political correctness (it is no longer seen as ok to talk of ‘Islamist’ terrorism);
  • fatigue after two decades of jihadi-this and jihadi-that;
  • the fact that we in the West see so little Islamist terrorism, which is a daily scourge in 95% of the world. In other words, terrorism still occurs, for the most part, ‘over there’. As the report stated: “Terrorism in the West makes up a small fraction of total terrorism in the world. Between 2002 and 2019 there were 236,422 deaths from terrorism globally. Of these, 1,215 occurred in the West, or just 0.51 per cent of the total.”

I am not blaming the media for how they do their jobs – they can choose to feature whatever they want. But those of us who consume news have a responsibility, at least to ourselves, to get the story ‘right’ by doing our own analysis with all the facts, even if we have to go elsewhere to look for them. Nothing is served by misrepresenting the terrorist threat in 2020.

In truth the report is less reflective of the current situation as it is already a year out of date. For instance, I found this phrase in one section: Austria recorded no terrorist attacks in 2019. In light of the attacks a few weeks ago in Vienna this ‘fact’ seems irrelevant.

I do want to commend the authors for a tremendous report: it is rapidly becoming one of the ‘go-to’ sources on terrorism. It is worth reading – all of it. Not just what the press decides to show you.

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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