The continuing decline of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, combined with an increased emphasis on counterterrorism worldwide, has paid off: deaths from terrorism fell for the third consecutive year in 2017, and the trend is expected to continue.
That’s according to the latest Global Terrorism Index, which is released annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace based on data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Global Terrorism Database.
While ISIS’s clout has diminished in Europe, Iraq, and Syria—the number of deaths caused by the organization fell by 52 percent overall, dropping 75 percent in Europe alone—it remained the deadliest terrorist group in 2017. Its spread to North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia is ongoing.
While Europe saw the biggest reduction in deaths from attacks in 2017, the number of terrorist incidents increased. According to the report, this highlights ISIS’s reduced capacity to plan and coordinate larger scale attacks.
Meanwhile, North America saw the largest increase in the impact of terrorism from 2016 to 2017, with the majority of terrorist activity taking place in the United States. This is the fourth successive year that terrorist-related deaths have risen in the region, from 65 in 2016 to 85 in 2017.
This is also the first year the report has distinguished far-right wing terrorism as a growing trend—white power extremists were responsible for nine attacks and seven deaths in North America in 2017, the report notes. This trend is expected to continue, based on the October 2018 attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead.
“The threat of far-right political terrorism is on the rise,” according to the report. “There were 66 deaths from terrorism caused by far-right groups and individuals from 113 attacks for the years from 2013 to 2017. Of those, 17 deaths and 47 attacks occurred in 2017 alone. In Western Europe, there were 12 attacks in the U.K., six in Sweden, and two each in Greece and France. In the U.S., there were 30 attacks in 2017 which resulted in 16 deaths. The majority of attacks were carried out by lone actors with far-right, white nationalist, or anti-Muslim beliefs.” Far-right groups and individuals accounted for nearly 60 percent of extremist-related American deaths in 2017, the report later notes.
It’s important to put reports like the Global Terrorism Index in context, emphasizes Michael Center, vice chair for subject matter experts and growth with the ASIS International Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council. When it comes to defining and quantifying terrorism trends, digging into the data to understand who committed attacks and what their motivations were can be enlightening.
“The report wrapped all forms of terrorism into one statistic—it makes the problem look bigger than it is,” Center, a western Europe security advisor based in Brussels, tells Security Management. “Especially in the United States, if you use the word ‘terrorism,’ you’re really talking about Islamic terrorism. When the report talks about the number of incidents in the United States, that includes groups like anti-Semitics, left-wing radicals, and white supremacists, all of whom outnumber Islamists these days. While the report defines the different groups, it doesn’t break down what those numbers are.”
One trend the report focuses on is the high rate of terrorism in countries classified as being “in conflict”—they had at least one conflict which led to 25 or more battle-related deaths. There is a correlation between battle-related deaths and deaths from terrorism, the report found—in 2017, almost 95 percent of total deaths from terrorism occurred in countries involved in violent conflict. Additionally, just 10 countries accounted for 84 percent of all deaths from terrorism in 2017, and all 10 of those countries were classified as being in conflict. “Countries involved in conflict are more susceptible to terrorism in part because of the lack of a fully functioning state,” the report notes. “Terrorism is also one of many tactics employed by insurgencies and paramilitaries in a civil conflict.”
Center notes that it can be hard to distinguish terrorism from insurgency in such situations, especially depending on how terrorist acts are defined.
“In a country that’s going through conflict, if you have a conflict death as the result of violence due to wanting to create and instill fear for political gain, that’s a real gray area,” Center says. “Is it terrorism or insurgency? If I want to be a purist, and I’m looking at Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, these are open conflict countries and the parties involved are all fighting with each other. Is that really terrorism?”
Much of the report focuses on emerging trends gleaned from the START database, including the ongoing spread of terrorism activity. Despite the decline in terror-related deaths, 2017 saw the second-highest number of countries affected by lethal terror attacks. This is evident by the ongoing decentralization of terror groups, as well as the spread of terror activity into areas such as Africa’s Maghreb and Sahel regions, Southeast Asia, and Nigeria’s Middle Belt.
The report also mentions ongoing speculation about the threat of the estimated 40,000 radicalized foreign fighters who traveled to Iraq and Syria to aid ISIS.
“While thousands of foreign fighters have returned to their home countries and even more are expected to do so over the next year, the threat of battle-hardened and skilled returnees carrying out terrorist attacks remains a serious security concern,” the report states. Indeed, from 2014 to 2017, an estimated 18 percent of terror attacks in the West were carried out by returned foreign fighters, according to the report.
“The topic of returning foreign fighters is complex, and it’s still being studied, but among the people I deal with, there’s not that much talk about them anymore because they’ve mostly returned and entered judicial systems,” Center points out. “They’re not just sitting around without being observed.”
He does note that many Russian-speaking foreign fighters have been able to return home more easily—and covertly—than fighters from other European countries. “People should be looking at former Soviet satellite countries for future moves—terrorists will start emerging from that area more,” Center predicts.
The report also focuses on the nexus between crime and terrorism, especially when it comes to recruiting and radicalization in Western Europe. While conflict remains the primary driver of terrorism in most areas, countries with high levels of economic development are impacted by terrorism for different reasons: social alienation, lack of economic opportunity, and involvement in an external conflict. These hallmarks can lead to an affinity between disgruntled outsiders and jihadist groups and ideologies. Additionally, the report repeatedly cites studies finding that, in Western Europe, more than 40 percent of foreign fighters and those arrested for terrorist activity have some form of criminal background.
“It is difficult to know whether individuals with a criminal background are being deliberately targeted by terrorist recruiters,” the report states. “However, there is little doubt that there is considerable synergy between the needs of disaffected young criminals, and the needs of terrorist organizations.”
Center says the latent radicalized population in Europe is something that existed before ISIS and will continue to exist—the question is whether individuals will feel empowered to act.
“In Europe, you have a population of radicalized Muslims—just like you have people in the Ozarks in middle America who have a firm foundational version of their Christian beliefs—technically they are radicals within that population, but not all radicals are prepared to kill people,” Center explains. “Even though ISIS came and went, the radicalized population in Europe has not changed—they still exist, but nobody is talking about their motivation. Let’s say you have 10 radicalized people, and out of that 10, only one would be prepared to kill people. But given the fall of the ISIS caliphate, is that one person still prepared to fight? To kill?”
Similarly, Center points out that some factions of al Qaeda and other terror organizations joined ISIS during its rise, but it is yet to be seen whether those groups will stick with ISIS through its decline, regroup under the original franchise, or fall apart. The fate of these types of shifting identities will have a large impact on the global terror outlook in 2019.
“Political instability will certainly continue to grow, and violence will follow,” Center says.