How global is terrorism?

Adnán Leal
4 min readDec 14, 2020
“Vigil in Lille for the victims of the Ch” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by le calmar

Terrorism is considered as one of the most challenging issues the world is facing. It is regarded as a global phenomenon too, with indeed many polls in many countries showing that citizens put terrorism among their main societal concerns. The terrorist attack(s) committed by Al Qaeda in the US back in 2001 and the ascent of Daesh and their actions are acknowledged as the origins of the multiple counter-terrorism strategies set in place by governments and organizations all over the planet. In short, the record of global terrorism fatalities from 1987 to 2017 suggests that the increasing number of deaths caused by terrorist attacks are, or could be, behind terrorism becoming a prominent global matter and behind those aforementioned counter-terrorism strategies being implemented.

The visualization above tells a story by itself: the amount of terrorism fatalities has skyrocketed in the XXI century. Specifically, in the second decade of the XXI century, where most yearly deaths caused by terrorist attacks are identified in the timeframe recorded (1987 to 2017). While the period from 1987 to 2000 halted the count at 91.328, with the worst year (1997) recording 10.924 fatalities, from 2001 to 2017 a total of 267.061 casualties were filed, around three times more than the former period, although it is fair to note that the latter includes more years (16) than the former (13). In any case, there are certainly clear signs about the rising numbers of terrorism victims during the XXI century. This critical picture may not explain by itself how global terrorism is, but it could indicate why is regarded as so.

For terrorists, reactions matter more than actions

Terrorism casualties seeing its peak in the XXI century makes then understandable that the issue is being treated as it is. But objective numbers do not necessarily recite the whole tale. Indeed, it is of fundamental importance to keep in mind that the worries about terrorism do not have to be connected to the record of fatalities, because the primary aim of terrorism is not to kill but to send a political message, one to which fear and uncertainty are capital. If through death the perpetrators achieve to cause fear and uncertainty, then that sets the deal for them. That circumstance, however, does not mean that the number of fatalities does not matter, and so it is also relevant to put those numbers into perspective.

Across the years, different regions have been struck differently. The Middle East & North Africa, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are, by far, the regions where terrorism has hit the most. If, for example, the numbers recorded in the Middle East & North Africa, with 132.490 deaths, are compared to those in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, together amounting to 9.909 casualties, it is seen that the first has 13 times more fatalities than the second. In that same period (1987–2017), South Asia got almost then times more casualties than Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa over seven times more comparing it with the fatalities in European soil as well. Moreover, the figure in the worst year recorded in the Middle East & North Africa, found in 2014 with 20.080 deaths, is 45 times higher than the worst year in Western Europe, registered in 1988 with 437 fatalities, and 13 times higher than the worst year in Eastern Europe, registered in 2014 with 1.467 casualties.

From 1987 to 2017, Iraq alone records eight times more fatalities than Europe

If by looking at regional fatalities the reader still does not have a full picture on how global terrorism is, an additional frame can be added: that in which the fatalities are looked country by country. Straight to the point? Within the 30 nations hurt the most through terrorism fatalities from 1987 to 2017 there is only one Western, the United States. The rest are distributed throughout the worst-hit regions mentioned above, with some exceptions found in Latin America such as Colombia (ranks 9th) or Peru (ranks 13th). Topping the list, Iraq alone has experienced almost twice as many fatalities as the one country ranking in second place, Afghanistan. On top of it all, Iraq, with a population of 38 million, has also seen almost eight times more casualties than Europe, which population hits 741 million.

As seen above, countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, India or Syria join Iraq and Afghanistan in the sad list of being the primary victims of terrorism, which already suggests that casualties caused by terrorist attacks are not equally distributed across the globe. Indeed, further exploration points at another similar event. Scanning which of all countries have recorded at least 2.000 fatalities in a single year, the record tosses 33 data points distributed around eight different countries and, again, pretty much all of them are located in the Middle East or South Asia. In this list, once more, only one Western country is found: the United States, where the 9/11 attacks took 3.008 lives.

Overcoming fear

In his book “21 lessons for the XXI century”, Yuval Noah Harari reflects that the less terrorism in a country, the worse the public concussion when it hits. He also indicates that, in terrorism, the visuals play a great role. Harari´s views on terrorism are useful to explain why a single terrorism fatality in France can lead to a national crisis, and why the attacks in US soil, worldwide broadcasted, shocked entire populations. However, the historical data available show that terrorism, at least in fatalities, is not that global, as the casualties are pretty much concentrated in two or three concrete parts of the world. What seems to be global is fear, and overcoming it in those regions and countries that are not hit by terrorism as much as others do, could eventually lead to think more about finding solutions to those that actually suffer terrorism the most.

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