Terrorism's Toll Is Rising in West, but Not around the World ; Deaths from Such Attacks Seem to Be Falling in the Most Dangerous Places

By Sanger-Katz, Margot | International New York Times, August 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

Terrorism's Toll Is Rising in West, but Not around the World ; Deaths from Such Attacks Seem to Be Falling in the Most Dangerous Places


Sanger-Katz, Margot, International New York Times


Terrorism fatalities in the most dangerous countries in the world are falling. But deaths in North America and Western Europe, still rare, are up.

If it feels as if terrorism deaths are rising in the West, it's because they are. Yet the numbers remain relatively small, and globally, deaths from terrorism appear to be declining, not rising.

According to two big databases, the number of people who died in terrorist attacks in North America and Western Europe rose markedly in 2015, claiming more than 200 lives. This year, according to one count, it is on track to be even worse.

But terrorism in the West is rare. In the parts of the world where it is more common -- deaths in those regions are in the thousands rather than the dozens -- terrorist attacks appear to be decreasing.

And as bad as terrorism has been in the West recently, it was worse in the 1970s and 1980s.

High-profile attacks in cities that include Brussels; Paris; Orlando, Fla.; and San Bernardino, Calif., have fed public fears of terrorism in the United States and made it a big issue in the presidential campaign. President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump have all highlighted the risk of terrorism at home.

Analysts who monitor terrorist attacks around the world note that risk perception doesn't always correspond to actual risk. The groups committing acts of terrorism over time have changed, of course. But data from the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, which has cataloged terrorist attacks since 1970, shows last year's terrorism death toll would have been fairly typical for an earlier era.

The Global Terrorism Database releases public data on attacks once a year. That means its numbers don't include any information about 2016, omitting the big attacks in Brussels; Nice, France; Orlando; and several smaller ones in Europe.

IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center, which monitors terrorist events in real time for militaries, intelligence agencies and defense contractors, offers more recent numbers. The Jane's numbers for 2015 are different from those in the Global Terrorism Database, so it's impossible to make a direct comparison. But Jane's documented a total of 204 terrorism deaths last year in North America and Western Europe, compared with 219 through Aug. 3 of this year, meaning this year's total is on track to be higher than last year's, according to this count.

All methods of measuring terrorism involve imperfect data and rely on judgment calls. Analysts must comb through news media and other credible reports of violence, then decide what is terrorism and what is more typical criminal attacks. The counters generally look for violence committed by nonstate actors conducted for a political purpose.

They don't always agree. Jane's included the Nice attack in its total for 2016. But Erin Miller, the program manager for the Global Terrorism Database, said analysts there were still waiting for more information from the event's investigation before they made a final decision on whether the attack had a political motivation necessary to count as terrorism.

Because the number of terrorist fatalities in the West is small, individual decisions can make a big difference. If you don't count the Nice attack, which killed 86 people, including the perpetrator, the Jane's 2016 number would look a lot smaller.

Tactics associated with the Islamic State have made these judgments particularly tricky. …

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