What Statistics Don’t Tell Us About Terrorism

Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin Former Brookings Expert

May 30, 2008

Terrorism, contrary to what you may think, isn’t what it used to be. So says Fareed Zakaria in his column in this week’s Newsweek. The proof, he contends, is in the statistics.

Zakaria hangs his argument on a new study from Canada’s Simon Fraser University that reviews the main terrorism databases. The report breaks down the data and observes that the annual double-digit increases in the death toll from terrorism that have made headlines in recent years are misleading because they include large numbers of fatalities in Iraq. “This makes no sense,” Zakaria writes. “Iraq is a war zone, and as in other war zones around the world, many of those killed are civilians.” We don’t count deaths in other civil wars, such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sierra Leone, as terrorism fatalities, so why in Iraq? Take away the Iraqi deaths, and the databases indicate either a decline in terrorism-related deaths or a flat line. Ergo, terrorism is not the threat that the great scare machine of the U.S. government, press, and terror experts make it out to be.

For those who believe, as I do, that there has been a relentless exploitation—read, scaremongering—of the terrorist threat for political advantage and a horrifying distortion of our foreign policy into a reckless global war on terror, this is an attractive argument. Zakaria, one of our smartest foreign-policy analysts, is not the only one making it. The problem is that even if the current administration has misused the issue—and John McCain, with his relentless talk of the “transcendent challenge of our time: the threat of radical Islamic terrorism,” is following in Bush’s footsteps—the focus on statistics is misplaced.

That’s because in order to judge the magnitude of the threat, we need to look at an array of indicators, not just total fatalities. Some of the criteria are not even quantitative. For example, Zakaria and the Simon Fraser researchers want to cordon off Iraq, and their arguments about the flaws in the data have some merit. But the critical role the jihadist movement has played in derailing the U.S. occupation is deeply significant. The insurgency was not even primarily jihadist, but major attacks such as the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 had a catalytic effect. The Sunni Awakening in Anbar Province and the U.S. military’s surge have done real damage to al-Qaida in Iraq, but it would be a huge mistake to overlook what the jihadists achieved.

The case is similar in Pakistan, where jihadists assassinated Benazir Bhutto—or so most evidence indicates—rocked the government with the occupation of the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad, and are currently deeply entrenched in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas. From their safe haven in the FATA, Afghan Taliban are harassing U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, and Pakistani Taliban last year launched 56 suicide attacks inside Pakistan, a record number. Yes, Pakistanis are less enamored of Osama Bin Laden than they used to be, and the chances of a radical takeover of the country are slim. But as Pakistan experts point out, it is not just the FATA that is a problem; major terrorists and Taliban leaders are living semi-openly in Quetta, and perhaps one-third of the country is now a permissive zone for jihadists. These facts make the overall threat more worrisome than one might think when looking solely at the declining fatality statistics. To put it another way, looking at terrorism-related deaths alone tells us nothing about the geopolitics of the threat or the enhanced danger that comes with safe havens.

Numbers tell you about the plots that succeeded, but to gauge the threat, we also need a sense of the jihadists’ ambition. In the last two years, serious terrorist conspiracies have been uncovered in Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom, among other places. The Heathrow plot, whose alleged conspirators are now on trial in London, involved an effort to blow up seven widebody planes flying trans-Atlantic routes. Had it succeeded, there would likely have been quadruple-digit fatalities, and commercial aviation would have been severely disrupted. In all these cases, the possession of a sanctuary in the tribal areas gave al-Qaida the opportunity to play a critical role in setting events in motion. This is not a group that is thinking small.

Numbers are deceiving in other ways. Zakaria and others also rely on public-opinion statistics to suggest that al-Qaida and its allies are on the run. In many countries, support for the group is down, sometimes dramatically so, because of revulsion at tactics that have killed thousands of Muslims. What happened in Iraq seems now to have happened in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, where, apparently because of disgust at the killing of Bhutto, “support for Osama bin Laden plummeted from 70 percent in August 2007 to 4 percent in January 2008.” That is clearly good news, though some researchers, like my colleague Shibley Telhami, still find surprisingly strong support for al-Qaida, with 30 percent of those polled in eight Arab countries saying that they sympathize with the group for standing up to the United States.

More important, though, is the relative unimportance of numbers. It has been clear—and somewhat reassuring—since the immediate post-9/11 period that al-Qaida was not going to mobilize vast numbers of Muslims to take up arms against us. What matters, instead, is that it continues to accrete—intelligence services around the world report that the group is consistently picking up recruits. Since terrorism is a problem of small numbers and large consequences, this is the bad news. Indeed, one could go further and say that tragic as the fatalities are in these statistics, almost all were strategically insignificant. What matters are the strategically significant ones—the catastrophic attacks that may happen two, five, or 10 years apart. And that threat isn’t going away.

What is scary about statistically based arguments is that they tend to be an invitation to complacency, and we have been there before. In July 2001, former CIA and State Department official Larry C. Johnson published an op-ed in the New York Times that looked at the most recent statistics about terrorism and concluded that the threat had been wildly hyped. Despite the fascination politicians and the media had with radical Islam, he concluded, “The greatest risk is clear: if you are drilling for oil in Colombia—or in nations like Ecuador, Nigeria or Indonesia—you should take appropriate precautions; otherwise, Americans have little to fear.” In response, Steven Simon and I submitted an op-ed that month to the Los Angeles Times making arguments along the lines of the ones in this article. It was still awaiting publication on 9/11.

The United States and its allies have done well at thwarting terrorist attacks and dismantling cells, as CIA Director Michael Hayden tells the Washington Post, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think the statistics show a vanishing threat. We’ll be making real progress when ordinary Muslims are not just repelled by al-Qaida’s tactics but are turning on its followers and helping eliminate safe havens, not just in the most traumatized countries like Iraq but around the world. We’re a long way from making that happen.