Will terrorism continue to decline in 2019?

Lost in the headlines, rapidly accelerating news cycles and the pervasive fear generated by terrorist threats is the fact that terrorist attacks worldwide have actually been declining – in some areas substantially.

Terrorism researchers like me have long noted that the number of terrorist attacks rises and falls in waves – generally lasting several decades.

I’m the founding director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, and one of the original creators of the Global Terrorism Database. My colleagues Laura Dugan, Erin Miller and I define terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by non-state actors to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation.” The database shows that the world has been gripped by a wave of terrorist attacks that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

My research using the START database shows the extent of this spike. From 2002 through 2014, worldwide terrorist attacks increased by 12 times and terrorist fatalities increased by more than eight times. Especially hard hit were Iraq and Afghanistan in the Middle East, India and Pakistan in South Asia, and Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa.

The most active terrorist organizations driving this worldwide boom were the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, the Islamic State Group (also known as IS), the Communist Party of India–Maoist and Boko Haram.

But since 2014, the picture has changed dramatically – a development that has gone largely unreported in the media.

Let’s examine that change.

A downward trend

In 2015 total terrorist attacks decreased by 11.5 percent and total terrorism-related deaths by 12.7 percent.

In 2016, we saw a further 9.2 percent decrease in attacks and 10.2 percent decline in total terrorism-related deaths.

The downward trend continued in 2017, the most recent data available, with a 19.8 percent drop in attacks and a 24.2 percent decline in fatalities.

Taken together, these 36 months have witnessed the single largest three-year decline in attacks and fatalities since the Global Terrorism Database began in 1970 – nearly a half century ago.

The recent declines are geographically dispersed. In the peak year of 2014, five countries – Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Somalia – accounted for 57.2 percent of the world’s total terrorist attacks and more than half of the worldwide terrorism-related fatalities.

By the end of 2017, all five of these countries had experienced sizable declines in attacks.

Three of these countries also experienced a dramatic decline in fatalities: a 53.6 percent drop in Iraq, a 55.4 percent drop in Pakistan, and a 97.1 percent drop in Ukraine. The violence in Ukraine was concentrated in 2014 and 2015 and associated with the rapid rise of the Euromaidan revolution and culminated in the overthrow of the Russian-backed Ukrainian president.

During the same period, fatalities increased by 12.5 percent in Afghanistan and 203 percent in Somalia, but these increases weren’t big enough to offset the declines in Iraq, Pakistan and Ukraine.

Major groups less active

Attacks and fatalities claimed by the world’s most active and dangerous terrorist organizations have also declined during the last three years.

In 2014, the five most active terrorist organizations in the world were the Islamic State Group, or IS, the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Donetsk People’s Republic – a separatist organization operating in Ukraine and receiving military backing from Russia.

A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic forces, one of the world’s most active terrorist organizations, in the rebel-controlled village of Yelenovka outside Donetsk, Ukraine. Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko
By the end of 2017, attacks by the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Donetsk People’s Republic had all declined. Total attacks by IS decreased by 2.2 percent from 2014 to 2015 but then increased by 7.7 percent from 2015 to 2017.