By one measure at least, the world is getting less dangerous. There were 10% fewer deaths from terrorism in 2017 than the year before, according to the latest Global Terrorism Index compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). It was still the second deadliest year on record though, with 29,376 people killed in terrorist attacks.
Despite news coverage which often seems to suggest that terrorism is an ever-present threat all around the world, the reality is that a small number of countries suffer disproportionately. On the basis of the IEP’s definition of terrorism – illegal violence by non-state actors designed to intimidate or coerce others, or in pursuit of a political, economic, religious or social goal – more than 72% of terrorist deaths last year occurred in just five countries, and although there were 274 known groups that carried out terrorist attacks, just four of them (Islamic State / ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and Al Qaeda) were responsible for 74% of all deaths.
In addition, it is often countries that are already consumed by civil wars or other conflicts that suffer the most – more than 90% of terrorist deaths in 2015 occurred in countries engaged in violent conflicts. The costs resulting from these attacks is huge, estimated at $89.6bn last year alone.
The five worst affected countries in 2018 were all in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and, in almost all cases, it was Islamist extremists who were responsible for most of the deaths – the one exception to this was India.
In reverse order, the countries ranked highest in the Global Terrorism Index, based on the number of incidents, deaths and injuries and the amount of property damage, were as follows:
The most lethal conflagration in the Middle East continues to cause huge suffering and loss of life, with more than 400,000 deaths to date. Much of the carnage is due to the actions of President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces and his Russian and Iranian allies – but these are not counted in the terrorism figures as they are state actors. Excluding them, there were 384 terrorist incidents last year, causing 2,761 deaths and 2,830 injuries. That was a 63% increase in the death toll compared with the year before.
There was a substantial drop in terrorism in Pakistan last year, with 45% fewer attacks and 38% fewer deaths. Even so, some 1,086 people still lost their lives and 1,337 were injured in the 1,008 incidents recorded in 2015. Terrorism is now at its lowest level since 2006, in part because of the army’s Zarb-e-Azb operation which has removed militant safe havens in the North Waziristan region. The deadliest group is the Tehrik-i-Taliban, which was responsible for 36% of the deaths last year.
Nigeria also saw a decline in terrorist incidents last year, with 34% fewer attacks in 2015 compared to 2014. That is largely because of a decline in activity by Boko Haram, after the group came under sustained pressure from the Nigerian military and forces from neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Overall, there were 588 terrorist attacks, resulting in 4,950 deaths and 2,786 injuries.
While the situation may have improved in Pakistan, in neighbouring Afghanistan it has got much worse. Last year there were 1,715 terrorist incidents, which caused 5,312 deaths and 6,249 injuries. The deadliest came in September 2015, when Taliban forces stormed a prison in Kunduz in the north of the country, resulting in 240 deaths. The total number of deaths since 2000 from such incidents has now reached 22,730.
There were 2,415 terrorist incidents in Iraq last year, causing 6,960 deaths and 11,900 injuries. The death toll was actually 30% lower than in 2014, but it still means that Iraq suffered more from terrorism than any other country. More than 40 different groups have launched terrorist attacks in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, but two of them have proved particularly deadly: Islamic State and Al Qaeda. To date, Islamic State forces have been responsible for at least 11,000 deaths, although the actual figure may be far higher – around two thirds of the 50,538 deaths caused by terrorism since 2000 have gone unclaimed.