A Fresh Perspective on Global Terrorism
Over the past year, there has been increasing discussion of terrorism and terrorist attacks in the news, on social media and in political debates. Judging by some of the artifacts online and on television, people appear to have exceedingly differing opinions on the subject. Some claim terrorism is on the rise while others protest that it’s steadily decreased for years. Some say the U.S. should prepare for attacks by the Islamic State and others say you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a terrorist attack. All of these arguments hint at the question, “Have terrorist attacks on U.S. soil increased or decreased in the last couple of decades?” This seemingly simple question quickly spawns many others. When have these surges and regressions occurred? How has terrorism changed over the years? Is terrorism becoming deadlier? Which terrorist groups are responsible for the majority of the attacks?
After the Brussels bombings, social networking sites were immediately flooded with people responding to the attacks. Some took to social media to show support while others used the platforms to accuse Western media of being biased. This same exact response occurred less than four months earlier directly following the attacks in Paris. In both instances, people wanted to know why some terrorist attacks got heaps of coverage and caused public outcries while others, like the equally devastating attacks in Beirut, were never even mentioned (2015). People condemned the double standard and accused news outlets of being racist and valuing certain lives over others. The root of the issue seemed to center around how media affects our worldviews. James Sturgeon, a writer for IVN, explained that, “It all comes down to how we Americans view the world, and how the media reinforces those stereotypes” (2016). Other writers bluntly defended the disproportionate coverage by explaining that some attacks are simply more newsworthy than others (2015).
The purpose of this project is not to support one side of the debate, but rather to address a handful of the excellent questions that the general discourse around this relevant subject has raised. It seeks to answer questions such as, “Where in the world does terrorism occur, and which groups are the main offenders?” The upcoming visualizations shed light on where terrorist attacks occur and provide information on terrorist group activity.
One hundred percent of data used for this project came from a veritable data goldmine known as the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The GTD is a humungous open-source database that houses information on over 140,000 international terrorist attacks from 1970 to 2014. According to the GTD, it houses “the most comprehensive unclassified database on terrorist events in the world” (2016). The amount of detailed information provided for each attack is mindboggling. There are at least 45 measures recorded for each attack, and some have over 120. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has published this data online in order to help people understand, study and defeat terrorism.
The data found in the GTD came from a number of credible sources. Information for terrorist attacks from 1970 to 1997 was collected by the Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services (PGIS), a group of researches trained to identify and record terrorism incidents from “wire services, government reports, and major international newspapers in order to assess the risk of terrorism for their clients” (2016). In 2006, START and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS) began using funding from the Department of Homeland Security to retrospectively collect information on terrorism incidents since 1997. Finally, a number of research teams worked to collect data in real-time on attacks from 2008 to 2014. In the last 16 years alone, more than 4 million news articles and 25,000 news sources were analyzed to collect data (2016).
The first trio of visualizations seek to address top-level questions regarding global terrorism. The symbol map on the top half of the dashboard provides information about the prevalence of terrorism per country and the human cost of terrorism around the world. Some of the counts for terrorist attacks since 1970 are astounding, but one thing is for certain: The majority of deaths from terrorism do not occur in the West. On the other hand, Iraq’s huge bubble practically jumps off the map. Since 1970, it has experienced over 16,000 terrorist attacks and lost nearly 50,000 people because of them. On the other hand, the U.S. has suffered roughly 2,600 attacks and lost about 3,500 people. Iraq has not only suffered more than eight times the amount of attacks that the U.S. has, but the attacks it experiences are much deadlier as well. Other countries that stand out for being historical terrorism hotbeds since the 1970s include, but are not limited to, Pakistan (11,522 attacks and 19,952 killed), Afghanistan (7,765 attacks and 20,850), India (9,069 attacks and 17,960 killed), Peru (6,075 attacks and 12,746 killed) and Colombia (7,942 attacks and 14,460 killed). Because the symbol map also uses color to indicate terrorism’s death toll, it is clear which countries have lost the most people despite experiencing a relatively middling amount of attacks. For example, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Algeria and Sri Lanka have all experienced less than 3,000 attacks since 1970, but each country has suffered over 10,000 fatalities as a result of said attacks.
Manipulating the symbol map’s year filter provides some stimulating results. It is apparent that some countries and regions have experienced high levels of terrorism for decades. In the 70s, Europe and Central America experienced more terrorism than any other place on the planet. In the early 80s, Central and South America suffered the largest amount of attacks. In the late 80s, South America and South Asia received the greatest share of attacks. While terrorist attacks seemed spread out across the globe during the 90s, they were heavily concentrated in the Middle East and Southern Asia in the 2000s. In 2014, the countries that suffered the most attacks (in descending order) included Iraq (3,925), Pakistan (2,146), Afghanistan (1820), Ukraine (889), Somalia (862) and India (859). However, the countries that experienced the most death as a result of terrorism were Iraq (13,098), Nigeria (7,773), Afghanistan (5,425), and Syria (3,301). This goes to show that terrorist attacks are highly concentrated. The pie chart in dashboard one illustrates this point by showing that five countries (Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan) accounted for over 70% percent of all terrorist attack deaths in the world that year.
The stacked bar graph on the lower half of dashboard one shows how the number and nature of terrorist attacks since 1970 have changed. The data from GTD shows that terrorist attacks have increased dramatically since the early 2000s. While there were a little over 2000 attacks recorded in the year 2000, there were over 16,000, or eight times as many, recorded in 2014. According to data from the GTD, the number of yearly terrorist attacks has increased nine out of the ten past years. Interestingly enough, the greatest surge in terrorism occurred after Bush’s “War on Terror.” 2014 marked the worst year of terrorism in the past 40 plus years. From a global perspective, terrorism skyrocketed from 2011 to 2014. The graphs colored bars, which differentiate attack types, also provide some interesting information. It is instantly apparent that bombings have been, and most likely will continue to be, the most common form of terrorist attack. A great deal of both armed assaults and assassinations occurred in the 80s and 90s, but armed assaults became exceedingly more common than assassinations after the turn of the millennium. Armed assaults and bombings appear to account for over 75% of the attacks in 2014. While unarmed assault and hijackings have been historically uncommon, facility attacks and hostage taking have both seen significant increases in recent years.
In order to find where in the world terrorism has increased the most, users can select countries on the symbol map and then look at the attacks over time bar graph. An action filter enables this integrated experience. The data shows that the recent rise in terrorism has been concentrated in the Middle East. Despite suffering the most deaths as a result of terrorism since 1970, there was hardly any terrorism reported in Iraq until 2003. In fact, there were less than 50 recorded attacks from 1970 to 2002 combined. The difference in the number of attacks from 2002 to 2014 is astounding. There was a single terrorist incident in ’02 and approximately 4000 in 2014. Other countries that have seen dramatic increases in terrorism in recent years include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ukraine and Syria. The history of attacks in the U.S. is quite the opposite. The U.S. experienced hundreds of attacks in the 70s, but has seen fewer and fewer attacks since. If Iraq’s distribution was skewed left, the U.S.’s is skewed right. Although bombings have been the most common attack in the U.S., our country experienced an unusually high number of facility attacks. Facility/infrastructure attacks are defined by the codebook as acts “excluding the use of an explosive, whose primary objective is to cause damage to a non‐human target” (2016). It’s not all bad news though. Some countries which experienced hundreds of attacks in the 80s, such as Peru and El Salvador, now experience only a handful of attacks each year.
The purpose of the second set of visualizations is to educate people about some of the most dangerous terrorist groups on the planet. A quick glance at the line graph on the top half of the visualization shows that the deadliness of terrorism is on the rise. Groups like Boko Haram, the Taliban, ISIL, Al-Shabaab and the Fulani Militants have all become significantly more lethal in recent years. In addition, the number of attacks that these terrorist groups have been executing have risen in recent years as well. 2014 has marked the deadliest year in the last decade for half of the groups, and eight groups performed more attacks in 2014 than any other year in recent history. Although Boko Haram did not execute as many attacks as ISIL did in 2014, the group killed a similar amount of people. While the recent surges in terrorist group activity are startling, it’s important to keep in perspective that the world has seen similar swells before. The data shows that similar surges occurred in the 80s and early 90s. Groups that were responsible for these rises include the Shining Path, The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and the Kurdistan’s Worker Party.
The bottom half of the second dashboard shows that private citizens are the most common targets of terrorist attacks among the selected groups. Over one-third of ISIL and Boko Haram attacks target this group. That being said, not all groups target private citizens the most. The Taliban’s main target is police. Al-Shabaab, New People’s Army and the Kurdistan’s Worker Party all target the military the most. While some groups attack a number of different targets evenly, others focus their attacks on a single enemy. For example, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia attack many different targets whereas the Fulani Militants almost exclusively attack private citizens (90 percent of attacks).
Barnard, A. (2015, November 15). Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten. Retrieved May 02, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/16/world/middleeast/beirut-lebanon-attacks-paris.html?smid=tw-share
National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2015). Global Terrorism Database [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd
Phillips, B. J. (2015, November 16). This is why the Paris attacks have gotten more news coverage than other terrorist attacks. Retrieved May 02, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/16/why-have-the-paris-attacks-gotten-more-news-coverage-than-other-terrorist-attacks/
Spurgeon, J. (2016, March 25). An American Perspective to Global Terrorism – IVN.us. Retrieved May 02, 2016, from http://ivn.us/2016/03/25/american-perspective-global-terrorism/