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on security

Aug 28, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

8 mins read

Understanding Terrorism Is More Than a Numbers Game

Global Security Analyst, Stratfor
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Highlights
  • Statistical measurements are crucial to assessing terrorist and militant threats, but they provide only a starting point.
  • Beyond the numbers, it is essential to assess the ultimate objective of attacks, the specific threats of terrorists' tactics and even the novel tactics that can amplify the political impact of nonlethal attacks.
  • Focusing on such qualitative aspects, rather than on merely the quantitative, can temper overreaction to deadly events and highlight emerging threats before an attack.

A report on global terrorism grabbed attention recently with a striking statistic: The number of terrorism-related deaths in North America jumped by a whopping 70 percent in 2017 compared with the previous year. And the source of the report, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), is not one to pull a number out of thin air either; on the contrary, it is an authoritative resource on terrorist and militant attacks. Shocked as we were by this ostensibly massive increase in deaths from terrorism, we dug further into the report. It turns out that the GTD classified the 2017 Las Vegas attack, a massacre that left 59 dead, as an incident of terrorism. We've already put in our two cents about why the mass shooting was not an act of terrorism — even if it was one of the deadliest attacks in American history — since it lacked any political or ideological motive.

Removing the Las Vegas attack from the list radically alters perceptions of the year, revealing that there was actually a 10 percent decline in the number of terrorist-related deaths from 2016 to 2017. The bigger issue here, however, is not what constitutes a terrorist attack (we've covered that before), but how statistics can be misleading when it comes to measuring terrorist and militant activity. Statistical analysis might break down what are ultimately highly complex events into discrete numbers, allowing analysts to chart data on a graph or run figures through a statistical modeling program, but examining quality — rather than quantity — will ultimately lead to a better understanding of terrorist threats.

The Big Picture

Terrorist attacks continue to threaten political stability around the world. While casualties are tragic, death tolls don't fully capture the threat posed by various organizations. Instead, a better understanding of more intangible qualities such as objectives, specific tactics and even creativity presents a fuller picture of the capabilities of a militant group and helps one avoid becoming another somber statistic.

The Numbers Never Lie?

Statistics are certainly helpful when assessing terrorist threats, because a sudden spike in attacks or a decline in overall casualties can help focus attention on changes in trends. Where is more security needed to counter a growing threat? Where is the threat subsiding, creating more hospitable environments for investment and development? But answering key questions like these requires more than a knowledge of the number of attacks and fatalities attributed to a certain group over a certain period. Assuming that a rising death toll stems from an increasing threat can trigger overreactions, just as waiting for a group to mature into a lethal threat leaves one vulnerable. So why wait for bodies to start piling up before determining that there is a threat?

In analyzing terrorist and militant attacks, aggregated death tolls and the frequency of attacks make for good supporting evidence, visuals and, most certainly, headlines, but they alone cannot determine the strength and staying power of a terrorist or militant threat. For that, it's necessary to take a critical look at terrorists' objectives, tactics and even creativity.

Assuming that a rising death toll stems from an increasing threat can trigger overreactions, just as waiting for a group to mature into a lethal threat leaves one vulnerable.

Objectives

When it comes to assessing the current and future threat of a terrorist or militant group, words matter — particularly in terms of measuring the objectives of the group or individual against their actions on the ground. The five-month siege in Marawi City, Philippines, in 2017 undoubtedly represented a tactical success for the militants who launched it, but the leaders of the operation weren't just trying to kill people and destroy property — the assault was supposed to trigger a wave of jihadist attacks across the southern Philippines akin to the Islamic State's seizure of Mosul in 2014. Since Philippine security forces were able to contain the uprising to Marawi City and destroy 20 to 33 percent of the jihadist forces in the region in the process, their gambit was ultimately a strategic loss. Indeed, jihadist activity in the southern Philippines, including kidnappings of foreigners, has decreased dramatically in the 10 months since the siege ended.

In the end, terrorism is propaganda of the deed: Without a clear political motive, attacks are mere violence. Due to the political element of terrorist attacks and militant campaigns, leaders and soldiers tend to identify explicitly what they wish to achieve. Whether it is the Islamic State intending to establish a caliphate, jihadists in the Philippines seeking to emulate them or anarchists in Berlin battling commercial globalism, the violence they perpetrate is undergirded by a (generally) public explanation of their reasons. Studying these communiques is crucial in determining an objective, for only then do the numbers of attacks and casualties, as well as the types of attacks, targets and tactics, acquire proper context.

Tactics

While databases and statistical analysis can help track weapons, targets and tactics, slotting individual attacks into specific categories typically results in overgeneralization. As we've noted before, overgeneralizing the nature of explosive attacks has led to an exaggeration of the threat that Islamic State fighters returning from Syria and Iraq posed to the West. The construction of improvised explosive devices in the Middle East tends to involve repurposed military ordnance — high-grade, weaponized explosive material. Such ordnance is not readily available in Europe or North America, where explosive attacks tend to involve homemade explosive materials, such as TATP, or triacetone triperoxide — a highly volatile material that leaves many telltale signs. Conducting explosive attacks in the West requires a different skill set than what is required in the Middle East, so the threat does not translate as seamlessly suggested by an analysis of the number of returning fighters and the tactics they employed in a war zone.

Another tactical variable that is more important to assess than death toll alone is targeting. Casualty rates are a function of target types, because softer, civilian targets are more vulnerable than hardened, secure targets such as military bases or sensitive government buildings. A purely quantitative analysis of the two competing factions fighting under the umbrella of the Islamic State West African Province (once known as Boko Haram) in Africa's Lake Chad region might suggest that the Shekau faction is the greater threat due to the higher death tolls associated with its attacks. The Shekau faction, however, tends to attack civilian areas such as markets and mosques, while the Barnawi faction focuses on military and government targets. Attacking harder targets tends to produce fewer casualties but arguably poses a greater threat to government control over territory.

The “X” Factor

A final element to consider in the qualitative assessment of terrorist and militant groups is their creativity and ability to devise new tactics and angles of attacks. Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, the chief bombmaker for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the late 2000s and early 2010s, may not have succeeded in several attempts to use creative bomb designs to target Saudi leaders and international flights, but his innovations helped his organization punch above its weight when it came to international terrorist attacks. The ubiquity of full-body scanners at airports across the United States stems in part from al-Asiri's bombs and the perceived threat of AQAP, even though the group has never managed to kill anyone on American soil.

The ubiquity of full-body scanners at airports across the United States stems in part from al-Asiri's bombs and the perceived threat of AQAP, even though the group has never managed to kill anyone on American soil.

The emergence of charismatic leaders such as Venezuela's Oscar Perez, who used a helicopter to throw hand grenades at government buildings in Caracas in 2017, is another example of creativity amplifying the threat of an attack without necessarily causing casualties. And perhaps Perez inspired opposition groups to launch an equally creative attack at a rally headed by President Nicolas Maduro using explosives strapped to drones on Aug. 4. The attack only injured a few people (more likely due to the ensuing stampede than the explosions themselves), but the image of soldiers breaking formation and fleeing in front of Maduro's dais was invaluable to the opposition in terms of anti-government propaganda. Novel and innovative terrorist tactics do not necessarily need to kill people in order to have the intended psychological impact. Terrorism is part theater, and the ability to attract attention while embarrassing the government is the sign of a creative operator who knows how to leverage violence for political change. A handful of such nonlethal or low-casualty attacks can erode government control faster than a grinding terrorist campaign that kills civilians and only further entrenches partisan divides.

The Case for Qualitative Analysis

As in all fields, statistics can be just as helpful as they can be misleading. Because of that, the significance of the numbers is the crucial ingredient in reaching any proper conclusion. When assessing terrorist and militant threats, statistical analysis tends to exaggerate the significance of attack rates and casualty figures simply because those variables translate most easily into numeric values. But such numbers alone reveal little about whether a group is meeting its objectives, employing tactics that threaten specific interests or using creativity to amplify the political impact of their attacks. Qualitative analysis, accordingly, can help temper the reaction to an alarmingly high death toll — or highlight an emerging threat before the headlines confirm it.

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