In Western Europe and the United States, total terrorist attacks are down sharply from the 1970s. In 2017, Western Europe accounted for only 2.7 percent of worldwide attacks and the United States for less than 1 percent of attacks.
That may seem surprising given the amount of media attention generated by a small number of high profile attacks. In 2015, attacks in Paris took the lives of 130 and injured another 400. In 2016, Western Europe experienced a series of mass casualty attacks carried out by IS and its affiliates in Nice, Brussels and Berlin.
While the total number of attacks in the United States remains extremely low, the public was shocked in 2015 by the 14 victims of the attack by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, California, and the nine people killed by Dylann Roof’s attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
In 2016, Americans witnessed the 49 deaths linked to the assault carried out by Omar Mateen in Orlando, Florida. And in 2017, Americans learned of the eight deaths in New York City linked to Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov who claimed an affiliation with IS.
Some hotspots remain
Terrorist attacks and fatalities are not declining everywhere and every year.
The START database shows that in 2017, attacks and fatalities increased in India, the Philippines and Nepal. In 2016, attacks and fatalities increased in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Turkey. And in 2015 attacks and fatalities increased in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Egypt.
Also, while worldwide attacks have declined, a large number of countries are still being targeted. Thus, while terrorist attacks took place in a total of 100 countries in 2014, total countries experiencing attacks was 99 in 2015, 108 in 2016 and 100 in 2017. Countries only experiencing attacks in 2016 included Kazkhstan, Panama and Switzerland.
This effect was especially apparent with IS and its affiliates, which claimed fewer attacks and deaths in 2017 but at the same time carried out attacks in a larger number of different countries.
Not all reasons for declines in terrorist attacks are positive.
A similar outcome – but with the regime rather than the terrorist perpetrators gaining control of the situation – no doubt explains declining terrorist attacks and fatalities in Syria.
While we have observed major declines in terrorist attacks and fatalities from 2015 to 2017, both attacks and fatalities remain at historically high levels.
The number of attacks in 2017 is 27.9 percent higher than in 2012, and deaths 70.6 percent higher.
Even more strikingly, attacks were more than twice as common in 2017 as they were during 1992 – the peak year for an earlier wave.
An end to chaos?
One thing is certain: The number of terrorist attacks in a particular region of the world as a whole will eventually peak and then decline.
It seems logical to conclude that the chaos and disorder that follow in the wake of terrorist attacks provide strong incentives for societies to adopt strategies for countering them.
Few individuals or communities prefer living endlessly in chaos and violence. We can only hope that we have reached that tipping point in 2019. At the same time, we must humbly admit that prediction is the most precarious task of the social sciences.