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Terrorism: Facts and statistics

Since the turn of the millennium, few themes have shaped the global discourse as much as terrorism. Following the 9/11 attacks in New York, on September 20, 2001 George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror” and sent America to war with Al-Qaeda. This phrase has now become synonymous with American foreign policy in the Middle East. Many commentators argue that, rather than solve the problem, the War on Terror served only to validate the use of terrorist tactics. There is evidence to support this view, with Afghanistan, Syria and India reporting the highest number of terrorist attacks nationally in 2019. Overall, 2019 saw just over 8,300 terrorist attacks worldwide, and around 25,000 fatalities from terrorism.

How is terrorism defined?

Generally, terrorism is defined as an unlawful use of violence designed to further political aims by creating fear. Shootings are the most common forms of violence used by terrorists, owing to the widely-felt destruction they cause. Consistent with the motive of instilling fear in the public, the most common target of terrorist attacks are private citizens and property. Note that although this definition is adequate at a general level, it is too broad to operate as an internationally agreed legal definition. For example, it is not clear on the status of violence in wars of national liberation and self-determination. This lack of universal agreement has hampered the ability of the international community to coordinate efforts to combat terrorism.

When did terrorism start?

Terrorism is by no means just a 21st century issue, with attacks that could be described as terrorist dating back as far as the Roman Empire. As for the word ‘terrorism’, its usage emerges from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution – although the fact that the violence was conducted by the state ironically means it likely does not qualify as terrorism. Turning to more modern times, looking at the number of terror attack victims in Western Europe since 1970 shows more victims in the 1970s and 1980s than in the 2000s. Much of this violence was enacted by nationalist movements (such as the IRA), or political extremists on both the left and right.

How many terrorists attacks are there in the world?

Two dominant trends shape terrorism in the 21st century. First is the overrepresentation of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia in the number of terrorist attacks by region. Together, these regions account for over 74,700 of the 98,328 terrorist attacks worldwide between 2002 and 2019. Second is the high high number of attacks by terrorist groups that are both ideologically religious, and aiming for political control of territories in the aforementioned regions. Perhaps the two most infamous such organizations are Islamic State and the Taliban, who were responsible for a combined 1,836 terrorist attacks in 2019 alone. Despite these high numbers, such organizations have a relatively small presence in America, with only 12 jihadist terrorists arrested or killed while conducting a terrorist activity in the U.S. in 2020.

Interesting statistics

In the following 4 chapters, you will quickly find the 29 most important statistics relating to "Terrorism".


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