September 21, 2018

IntelBrief: The State of Global Terrorism Remains Intensely Local

Al-Shabab fighters march with their weapons during military exercises on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia. (AP Photo/Mohamed Sheikh Nor, File) .
  • Newly released data on terrorism suggests some surprising new trends, as well as a continuation of long-standing issues, including the clustering of terrorist groups and attacks in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
  • In 2017, there was a 23% decrease in terror attacks worldwide and a 27% decrease in deaths from these attacks, although in some ways the threat has atomized, as terrorist organizations break off into smaller, yet still lethal affiliates and splinter groups.
  • The data also indicates that a total of 8,584 terrorist attacks occurred worldwide, resulting in more than 18,700 deaths and more than 19,400 people injured.
  • The attacks and deaths remain concentrated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Pakistan, India, and the Philippines.


Terrorism in 2017 continued to be a global phenomenon with intensely local impacts and solutions. 2017 continued the trend of an overall decrease in global numbers of terror attacks and deaths after the dramatic spike in 2014.  As in previous years, terrorism remains mostly concentrated in a handful of weak and failed states.

On September 19, 2018, the U.S. State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2017’.The report highlights the overall decrease in attacks and deaths resulting from terrorism as groups like the so-called Islamic State experienced significant setbacks, even as al-Qaeda exercised strategic patience while it seeks to rebuild in Yemen, North Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. The report also looks at state sponsors of terrorism, with North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and Syria headlining that list. During a call with reporters to discuss the release of the report, the State Department mostly focused on Iran. Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department said that ‘Iran uses terrorism as a tool of its statecraft.’ Through a mixed bag of policies—abrogating the Iran nuclear deal, re-applying oil sanctions, and backing the Saudis and Emiratis in their catastrophe in Yemen—the U.S. is attempting to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.

The report shows overall good news in the ‘global’ fight against terrorism. There was a 23% decrease in the total number of terrorist attacks worldwide in 2017 and a 27% decrease in deaths. Overall, there were 8,584 terrorist attacks and 18,700 deaths from these attacks. These attacks were dispersed across 100 countries, although the majority of attacks (59%) occurred in only five countries: Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Of the nearly 20,000 people killed, roughly 70% were in just five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria. Dramatic and hard-earned success in Iraq against the Islamic State resulted in 1,000 fewer terror attacks in 2017 compared to the previous year. Still, there were close to 2,000 terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2017, resulting in 4269 deaths (there were almost 10,000 deaths from terror attacks in Iraq in 2016). The sharp decrease of attacks and deaths in Iraq (34% decrease in attacks) was enough by itself to lower the global rate.

Afghanistan witnessed a decrease in the number of attacks—1342 in 2016 to 1171 in 2017—but an increase in deaths—4578 in 2016 to 4672 in 2016. More people died in Afghanistan from terrorist attacks than in any other country. The report highlights that mass-casualty attacks were on the rise in Afghanistan, noting that, ‘Of the 54 occasions in 2017 when more than 50 people were killed in terrorist attacks on one day in a particular country, more took place in Afghanistan (16 days) than in any other country.’ 2018 will likely see a tragic continuation of this trend.

Some countries with smaller overall numbers still suffered from significant increases in deaths from terrorism. Egypt had a dramatic spike in 2017: 655 people killed in 2017 compared to 293 people in 2016. The United Kingdom saw a 356% increase in deaths, from nine people killed in 2016 to 41 people killed in 2017. There was a dramatic spike in non-lethal attacks in Sri Lanka (one in 2016 to 40 in 2017) and in Nepal (43 attacks in 2016 and 247 in 2017).

In the West, terrorism is primarily a law enforcement challenge while in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria, it remains a law enforcement and military challenge, especially considering the magnitude of the threat. Some of the most capable groups in these countries, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates, are more akin to insurgent organizations that utilize terrorist tactics as part of their overall strategy. Given the local concentration of terrorism, the most effective approach to lowering the overall global rate of attacks and deaths is relentless, intelligence-led policing in the West and working toward resolving the persistent armed conflicts in the countries that continue to suffer the most from terrorism.


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