Incidents of terrorism declining, say researchers

A new report from Simon Fraser University in B.C. concludes there has been a sharp decline in the incidence of terrorist violence around the world, challenging assumptions that the global threat has been increasing.

A new report from Simon Fraser University in B.C. concludes there has been a sharp decline in the incidence of terrorist violence around the world, challenging assumptions that the global threat has been increasing.

The Human Security Brief 2007 says fatalities from terrorism have decreased by some 40 per cent in recent months. It also concludes the terrorist network associated with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden has suffered a dramatic collapse in popular support in the Muslim world.

The study analyzed data produced by three U.S.-based terrorism research centres: the National Counterterrorism Centre; the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism; and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.

Andrew Mack, the director of the Human Security Report Project, said all three "distort the global terrorism trend data" by counting civilian deaths in the civil war in Iraq as incidents of terrorism.

The project conducts research on global regional trends in political violence and is affiliated with the university's School for International Studies.

Mack said the decline in popular support for the Islamists in the Muslim world has affected the al-Qaeda network's ability to co-ordinate and launch attacks.

"The reduction in Islamist violence has attracted virtually no notice because the media don't report attacks that don't take place," he said.

Global threat overstated: analyst

Dr. Don Hubert, a security analyst with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the report suggests that "Islamic terrorism, and the wider notion of a clash of civilizations, is not the ever-increasing threat that some have suggested."

"Those who seek to articulate a global threat of terrorism and therefore a global war in response are not on solid ground," Hubert said. "The tactics may be common, but there are, in fact, very few international linkages between terrorist groups — most of whom are involved in very local struggles."

The director of the START project at the University of Maryland, Gary LaFree, said the authors are correct in arguing that terrorist events globally are generally down. But he said the attacks that do occur tend to be deadlier.

"I think the bottom line is that the total number of terrorist attacks globally has been generally declining. However, the ones we're getting tend to be more serious in terms of loss of human life," LaFree said. "While we find the number of attacks declining, the number of fatalities per attack has not been."

"Gone, for example, is the practice of warning populations in advance of bombings, a practice widely used by both ETA [the Basque militant group] and the IRA in the past." 

START maintains the Global Terrorism Database, which it calls the most comprehensive unclassified record of terrorist events in the world, listing information on about 80,000 different terrorist attacks since 1970.

LaFree agrees with the report's conclusions that al-Qaeda has become less effective.

"Virtually all of their central leadership has been wiped out," he said. "Al-Qaeda is becoming much more of a social movement or a kind of franchising arrangement than a formal organization. You are getting attacks now linked to al-Qaeda, where the individuals involved have never physically had a meeting with bin Laden or seem to have any direct connection to al-Qaeda central."

Definitions of terrorism disputed

However, LaFree disagrees with the report's conclusion that data from the war zone in Iraq should not be included.

"I would vehemently argue that it is not the case that there are no terrorist attacks going in Iraq," he said. "What I would say is they're very difficult to accurately count."

He said it is not unusual for a region of the world to dominate the statistics during a particular period, as was the case with terrorist activities in Western Europe 25 years ago.

Most researchers in the field agree there are inherent problems with trying to assess the global picture. For one, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. Even when experts agree on a definition, they disagree about whether or not the definition fits a particular incident. In addition, a co-ordinated series of similar attacks on a single day may be counted as a single incident or multiple incidents. 

But despite the battle over statistics, the threat of terrorism remains.

Hubert adds this note of caution: "The decline in global casualty rates does not necessarily mean that the likelihood of a catastrophic attack is reduced. Continued vigilance is still necessary, even if those who seek to perpetrate these crimes are weaker now than before. It takes very few people and very little money to launch a significant attack."

The data also doesn't assess new or unforeseeable threats.  

"Water supplies are very, very accessible targets for biological or chemical weapons," warns Donna Schlagheck, a political scientist at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who specializes in international terrorism. "There are so many potential targets — whether you are taking water from the ground or a river or a lake — and the vulnerability there is enormous."