Zakaria: The Only Thing We Have to Fear ...

You know that we are living in scary times. Terrorist groups are metastasizing all over the globe. Al Qaeda has re-established its bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hizbullah, Hamas and other radical Islamic groups are gaining strength. You hear this stuff all the time, on television and on the campaign trail. Amid the din, it's hard to figure out the facts. Well, finally we have a well-researched, independent analysis of the data relating to terrorism, released last week by Canada's Simon Fraser University. Its findings will surprise you.

It explains that there is a reason you're scared. The U.S. government agency charged with tracking terrorist attacks, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), reported a 41 percent increase from 2005 to 2006 and then equally high levels in 2007. Another major, government-funded database of terrorism, the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terror (MIPT), says that the annual toll of fatalities from terrorism grew 450 percent (!) between 1998 and 2006. A third report, the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), also government-funded, recorded a 75 percent jump in 2004, the most recent year available for the data it uses.

The Simon Fraser study points out that all three of these data sets have a common problem. They count civilian casualties from the war in Iraq as deaths caused by terrorism. This makes no sense. Iraq is a war zone, and as in other war zones around the world, many of those killed are civilians. Study director Prof. Andrew Mack notes, "Over the past 30 years, civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Bosnia, Guatemala, and elsewhere have, like Iraq, been notorious for the number of civilians killed. But although the slaughter in these cases was intentional, politically motivated, and perpetrated by non-state groups—and thus constituted terrorism as conceived by MIPT, NCTC, and START—it was almost never described as such." To take just two examples, Mack pointed out that in 2004, the Janjaweed militia killed at least 723 civilians in Sudan (as documented by independent studies). The MIPT recorded zero deaths in Sudan from terrorism that year; START counted only 17. In Congo in 1999, independent studies identified hundreds killed by militia actions. The MIPT notes zero deaths that year from terrorism; and START, seven.

Including Iraq massively skews the analysis. In the NCTC and MIPT data, Iraq accounts for 80 percent of all deaths counted. But if you set aside the war there, terrorism has in fact gone way down over the past five years. In both the START and MIPT data, non-Iraq deaths from terrorism have declined by more than 40 percent since 2001. (The NCTC says the number has stayed roughly the same, but that too is because of a peculiar method of counting.) In the only other independent analysis of terrorism data, the U.S.-based IntelCenter published a study in mid-2007 that examined "significant" attacks launched by Al Qaeda over the past 10 years. It came to the conclusion that the number of Islamist attacks had declined 65 percent from a high point in 2004, and fatalities from such attacks had declined by 90 percent.

The Simon Fraser study notes that the decline in terrorism appears to be caused by many factors, among them successful counterterrorism operations in dozens of countries and infighting among terror groups. But the most significant, in the study's view, is the "extraordinary drop in support for Islamist terror organizations in the Muslim world over the past five years." These are largely self-inflicted wounds. The more people are exposed to the jihadists' tactics and world view, the less they support them. An ABC/BBC poll in Afghanistan in 2007 showed support for the jihadist militants in the country to be 1 percent. In Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, where Al Qaeda has bases, support for Osama bin Laden plummeted from 70 percent in August 2007 to 4 percent in January 2008. That dramatic drop was probably a reaction to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but it points to a general trend in Pakistan over the past five years. With every new terrorist attack, public support for jihad falls. "This pattern is repeated in country after country in the Muslim world," writes Mack. "Its strategic implications are critically important because historical evidence suggests that terrorist campaigns that lose public support will sooner or later be abandoned or defeated."

The University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management (I wish academic centers would come up with shorter names!) has released another revealing study, documenting a 54 percent decline in the number of organizations using violence across the Middle East and North Africa between 1985 and 2004. The real rise, it points out, is in the number of groups employing nonviolent means of protest, which increased threefold during the same period.

Why have you not heard about studies like this or the one from Simon Fraser, which was done by highly regarded scholars, released at the United Nations and widely discussed in many countries around the world—from Canada to Australia? Because it does not fit into the narrative of fear that we have all accepted far too easily.

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