Optimistic numbers on terrorism

The Only Thing We Have to Fear …

Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek writes about some interesting statistics on the incidence of terrorism in a report just published by Simon Fraser University (See the original Human Security Brief and an interview with the author, Professor Andrew Mack).

You know that we are living in scary times. Terrorist groups are metastasizing all over the globe. Al Qaeda has re-established its bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hizbullah, Hamas and other radical Islamic groups are gaining strength. You hear this stuff all the time, on television and on the campaign trail. Amid the din, it’s hard to figure out the facts. Well, finally we have a well-researched, independent analysis of the data relating to terrorism, released last week by Canada’s Simon Fraser University. Its findings will surprise you.

It explains that there is a reason you’re scared. The U.S. government agency charged with tracking terrorist attacks, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), reported a 41 percent increase from 2005 to 2006 and then equally high levels in 2007. Another major, government-funded database of terrorism, the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terror (MIPT), says that the annual toll of fatalities from terrorism grew 450 percent (!) between 1998 and 2006. A third report, the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), also government-funded, recorded a 75 percent jump in 2004, the most recent year available for the data it uses.

The Simon Fraser study points out that all three of these data sets have a common problem. They count civilian casualties from the war in Iraq as deaths caused by terrorism.

In a nutshell, if you take out Iraq the incidence of terrorism worldwide is declining. We can debate whether or not deaths in Iraq should or should not be included–there’s logic either way, it depends what you’re trying to illustrate. What’s more interesting is the finding by polls of a a dramatic drop in Muslim public support for violent groups.

AQI’s failure in Iraq parallels earlier failures of violent Islamist movements in the Muslim world—notably in Egypt and Algeria. In all three cases, growing revulsion at the policies and the indiscriminate violence of the militants generated a popular backlash and effective campaigns of often ruthless official repression.67 Similar negative reactions to Islamist political agendas are now evident throughout the Muslim world. Indeed, evidence that large and growing majorities of Muslims reject the Islamists’ harsh and repressive ideology is overwhelming. (from the report, p. 17)

If this is true it should lead lead us to rethink some conventional wisdom. If support for jihadist groups really is plummeting despite our staying in Iraq, does that mean the salience of Iraq is shifting? or that it wasn’t as pronounced or as universal as it was thought?

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