(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What, actually, is terrorism? It seems strange question to ask 17 years after President George W. Bush told Americans we were at war with it. But it’s a slippery issue to this day.
We tend to think of terrorists as being non-state actors such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabab in Somalia. Yet we call Islamic State a terrorist group even though it (at one point) ruled over a vast territory, imposed taxes, had courts of law and engaged in sophisticated conventional military operations. How can we designate as terrorist groups Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which are uniformed services of national armies? Or consider Yemen’s Houthi rebels — in truth a self-governing tribal group now in control the capital city of a failed state. Yet the Obama administration’s counterterrorism office sanctioned its leaders, and the Trump administration is reportedly considering adding them to the official terrorist group list.
Adding to the semantic farrago are killers who fall under that old American cliche: the nut with a gun. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is invariably called the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, but there’s no evidence Timothy McVeigh ever belonged to any far-right group. Various authority figures, from the county sheriff to Lady Gaga, insist that last year’s Las Vegas concert massacre was a terrorist act, but the shooter’s brother says that Stephen Paddock was just “bored with everything.” We can continue this debate if we want — the San Bernardino office, the Orlando nightclub, the Charlottesville rally, the Pittsburgh synagogue, and on and on — but that would achieve nothing but despair.
In any case, if somebody has to define terrorism, I’m glad it’s not me. That job falls to, among others, Steve Killelea, the founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace in London. Killelea, an Australian software entrepreneur and philanthropist, created the institute in 2007 “to analyse peace and to quantify its economic value.” Well, compared to that, deciding what is and isn’t terrorism should be a breeze. The institute just released its annual Global Terrorism Index, an inventory and analysis of every terrorist incident around the world, which weighs in at a disheartening 90 pages. Here is an edited transcript of a discussion we had this week:Tobin Harshaw: Steve, this is a massive and unbelievably detailed index. Putting it together must be like herding cats. But it raised one obvious question: How do you distinguish between terrorist killing in war-torn countries and other types of killings — traditional warfare, crime and the like?
Steve Killelea: Yes, it’s a ton of work for our team, but our criteria are relatively straightforward. In order for an attack to be counted as terrorism, it must meet three conditions: First, it has be intentional — the result of a conscious calculation on the part of a perpetrators. Second, it must entail some level of violence or threat of violence — including property damage as well as violence against people. Finally, the perpetrators must be sub-national actors — we don’t not include acts of state terrorism.
But in addition to this baseline definition, the act has to meet two of the following three criteria to be included in the Global Terrorism Index: the aim is attaining a political, economic, religious or social goal; there must be evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate or convey some message to a larger audience than just the immediate victims; and the attack has to violate the precepts of international humanitarian law.
TH: So how do you actually track all global activity — do you depend on media accounts, government-released data, reports from NGOs or what?
SK: The GTI is constructed using the Global Terrorism Database, which is produced by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism — known as Start — based at the University of Maryland. The statistical information it collects comes from a variety of open-media sources. They don’t add any data unless and until it has been determined that the sources are credible.
TH: Globally, deaths have now been dropping for several years in a row. Is that simply because Islamic State has been nearly destroyed?
SK: Yes, the bulk of the decline in terrorism can be attributed to the collapse of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Deaths attributed to the group fell 52 percent from 2016 to 2017. But that wasn’t the only factor: Terrorist activity by Boko Haram, the world’s second-deadliest group, has fallen steadily from 2014.
Still, one big takeaway from the index is that, more generally, the level of terrorism has been dropping in most regions around the world.
TH: In a snapshot, what are the other most important trends in terrorism globally?
SK: Well, there’s the good and the bad: Although the total level of terrorism has fallen, it remains a global phenomenon, with 67 countries recording at least one death from terrorism in 2017. As the Taliban has ramped up and ISIL has been decimated, Afghanistan has overtaken Iraq as the country with the most deaths from terrorism. As we look for some sort of negotiated settlement after 17 years of war, the continuing escalation of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan is a significant cause for concern.
Remember also that radical Islam isn’t the only driver: In Western Europe and North America, an increase in political volatility and social unrest has coincided with the growth of far-right terrorism. While the total number of deaths and incidents carried out by far-right groups and individuals remains relatively low, it is certainly a troubling trend. In the U.S., for example, there were nine attacks and seven deaths attributed to white-power extremists in 2017.
TH: What are the hotspots we should worry about in the near future?
SK: The 2018 GTI looks at three emerging hotspots of terrorism.
First is the Sahel region of Africa. Perhaps the most notable development has been the growth of al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups, after many years of falling terrorist activity
In Nigeria, although there has been a significant fall in attacks carried out by Boko Haram, the conflict between Fulani pastoralists — tribes of nomadic herdsman — and farmers has intensified. Although the data is only preliminary at this stage, it looks as if 2018 will have seen a record number of deaths caused by Fulani extremists.
Last, in Southeast Asia, both Myanmar and the Philippines recorded their highest levels of terrorist activity this century. The Philippines in particular faces the dual threat of Islamist and political terrorism — with both ISIL affiliates and the Maoist New People’s Army being highly active.
TH: Somalia is the big gainer in deaths, up more than 700 — but nearly 600 came in the al-Shabab truck-bomb attack in Mogadishu. So was that an isolated event or a sign of things to come?
SK: It’s true that most of the increase in deaths can be attributed to a single attack. However, even when it is excluded from the analysis, there was still an increase in both deaths from terrorism and terrorist incidents in Somalia, and the longer-term trend shows a consistent rise in terrorist activity over the past decade.
There has also been a considerable increase in terrorism elsewhere in Africa, and not just in the Sahel. This should raise some significant red flags about the ability of governments in Africa to deal with the threat of terrorism, particularly in remote areas where counterterrorism efforts are far more costly and more difficult to implement.
TH: Finally, in Europe, deaths were way down but attacks were up. Can you explain that dynamic?
SK: Although it is impossible to state with certainty that the fall in deaths can be attributed to more robust counterterrorism measures, it does appear as if they have had an impact on the ability of ISIL and other groups to carry out the kind of attacks seen in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016. In France, Belgium and Germany — all of which experienced high levels of terrorism in 2016 — no single attack killed more than three people in 2017. This trend seems set to continue for 2018, with fewer than 10 deaths from terrorism recorded in Western Europe as of October.
Increased counterterrorism efforts can take many forms. At the street level, it might be as simple as increased police or military presence, or the installation of traffic barricades and other safety devices. For intelligence agencies, it might take the form of a continual reassessment of which individuals are most likely to be at risk of radicalization.
The last few years have complicated the traditional understanding of how people are radicalized, and how quickly the process can occur. But nonetheless, intelligence agencies today have a far better understanding of which groups and people are more likely to carry out the sort of attacks we have seen in Europe over the past five years. That said: The terrorists will always be changing their methods and techniques as well, and will find some ways to get around our defenses.
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Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security and the military for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.
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