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October 28th, 2013
03:56 PM ET

Terrorist attacks and deaths hit record high, report shows

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog co-editor

Washington (CNN) – As terrorism increasingly becomes a tactic of warfare, the number of attacks and fatalities soared to a record high in 2012, according to a new report obtained exclusively by CNN.

More than 8,500 terrorist attacks killed nearly 15,500 people last year as violence tore through Africa, Asia and the Middle East, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

That’s a 69% rise in attacks and an 89% jump in fatalities from 2011, said START, one of the world’s leading terrorism-trackers.

Six of the seven most deadly groups are affiliated with al Qaeda, according to START, and most of the violence was committed in Muslim-majority countries.

The previous record for attacks was set in 2011 with more than 5,000 incidents; for fatalities the previous high was 2007 with more than 12,800 deaths.

Headquartered at the University of Maryland, START maintains the Global Terrorism Database, the most comprehensive source of unclassified information about terrorist attacks, with statistics dating to 1970.

START, one of 12 Centers for Excellence funded by the Department of Homeland Security, plans to release its full database in December but shared its early findings after a request by CNN.

This year is expected to outpace even 2012’s record high. There were 5,100 attacks in the first six months of 2013, said Gary LaFree, START’s director, and the wave of violence shows few signs of ebbing.

In recent weeks, Al-Shabaab, a militant group based in Somalia, attacked a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, leaving 67 dead; suicide bombers killed 81 at a church in Pakistan; and the Taliban took credit for killing two police officers with a car bomb in Afghanistan.

To find and tally attacks like those, START's computers comb through 1.2 million articles from 50,000 media outlets each month with an algorithm to help identify and eliminate redundancies. Its 25-member staff then studies, categorizes and counts each attack.

START's definition of terrorism closely mirrors that of the State Department and other experts. To be counted as an act of terror, an incident has to be an intentional act or threat by a "non-state actor" that meets two of these three criteria:

• It was aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious or social goal.

• It was intended to coerce, intimidate or convey a message to a larger group.

• It violated international humanitarian law by targeting non-combatants.

Part of the observed increase in 2012 may be due to the fact that START has improved its data collection methods and is better than ever at finding and categorizing terrorism, LaFree said. But he said the dramatic rise is not just a matter of having better data.

“We are convinced that a big chunk of this is real change in the world,” LaFree said. “We’ve seen a fairly steep upward trajectory in the total of terrorist attacks and fatalities worldwide.”

Outside of small dips in 2004 and 2009, the number of attacks has steadily increased in the past decade, according to START. The upward trend increases the likelihood that 2012’s numbers are not an aberration, LaFree said.

Counterterrorism experts not affiliated with START also said attacks appear to be occurring with increasing frequency.

“There’s just a lot of killing going on along sectarian and religious lines,” said Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009 to 2012. “And that’s a worrisome thing.”

The reasons behind the rise are complex, experts say:

• Weak and unstable states and corrupt or ineffective governments.

• Poverty and high unemployment, particularly among young men.

• Access to more lethal weaponry and increasing use of tactics like suicide bombings capable of killing scores of bystanders.

• A spike in sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, where ancient grudges give rise to modern massacres.

• The increasing use of terrorism as a tactic in war.

“The distinction between the front line and home front has largely been erased as terrorism has become a growing feature of contemporary warfare,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser at the RAND Corp. and the founder of its counterterrorism program.

But Jenkins also cautioned that “terrorism” is notoriously difficult to define, and the increase in attacks does not necessarily mean the United States is “losing the war on terror.” He said it could just reflect a shift in strategy among Syrian rebels and Afghani radicals, for example.

Still, experts say the apparent increase in civilian casualties is alarming.

Gone are the days when terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army or Italy’s Red Brigade would try to keep casualties low by issuing warnings, LaFree said.

“If you’re a terrorist group now and you want to get your message out,” he said, “the more people you kill, the more ‘successful’ you’ll be.”

Sectarian attacks - such as the pitched battles between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan - tend to be disproportionately deadly, said Martha Crenshaw, an expert at Stanford University and a START board member.

“Sadly, it seems to be increasingly acceptable in certain belief systems to kill as many members of the other religious community as possible,” she said. “Moral restraints seem to be eroding.”

Bombings and explosions were used in 58% of terrorist attacks in 2012, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, START’s data also show a dramatic global shift in terrorist tactics and hot spots.

In the 1970s, most attacks were committed with guns and occurred in Western Europe. In the 1980s, Latin America saw the most terrorist acts. Beginning with the 1990s, South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East has seen steadily rising number of attacks, a trend that has accelerated in recent years.

Although terrorism touched 85 countries last year, just three - Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan - suffered more than half of 2012’s attacks (55%) and fatalities (62%).

In January, Sunni suicide bombers attacked scores of Shiite pilgrims in Iraq, killing at least 73. In February, a car bomb outside a café in Mogadishu, Somalia, left 15 dead. In March, a bombing in Thailand killed 14 and injured 340 in a commercial district.

Just eight private U.S. citizens died in attacks outside the United States in 2012, all in Afghanistan, according to the State Department. In the United States, seven people died in 11 terrorist attacks last year, six of them in a shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Despite the death of Osama bin Laden and capture of other key al Qaeda leaders, the group has exported its brand of terrorism to other militant Muslims, according to START and other counterterrorism experts.

“We’ve had success in stopping al Qaeda central,” LaFree said. “But we have been unsuccessful in stopping the message.”

Afghanistan’s Taliban was by far the deadliest group in 2012, when it launched 525 attacks that killed 1,842 people.

The second deadliest group was Nigeria’s Boko Haram, a jihadist group that orchestrated 364 attacks last year that killed 1,132 people.

The next most deadly were al Qaeda in Iraq, the Communist Party of India-Maoist, Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Pakistan’s branch of the Taliban.

Rhonda Shore, a spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism, said she hadn't seen START's latest numbers and couldn't comment on the report. But she offered a staunch defense of the Obama administration’s approach to al Qaeda.

“We have made great progress in our efforts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the larger al Qaeda organization in recent years,” she said.

“However,” she said, al Qaeda and its affiliates “continue to present a serious threat to the United States and its interests, and we must remain vigilant as we consider the range of tools and actions available to disrupt this threat.”

In April, START compiled a separate report for the State Department that counts fewer attacks (6,771) and fatalities (11,098) in 2012 than its own report because the U.S. government uses slightly different criteria to define terrorism.

Those lower numbers still represent an all-time yearly high in the number of attacks, according to START’s database.

Despite top terrorist groups’ affiliation - sometimes tenuous - with al Qaeda, some do not fit the mold created by its former head, bin Laden, and current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, said Benjamin, the former State Department counterterrorism coordinator.

Bin Laden was motivated by an apocalyptic vision, Benjamin said, and wanted to spark a global war between Christians and Muslims.

The power struggles in many Muslim countries, on the other hand, are driven as much by political as religious concerns, according to Benjamin and other terrorism experts.

“Al-Shabaab, for example, is a fractious and disorganized group,” he said, “and the overwhelming majority of its foot soldiers don’t care about al Qaeda. They are just fighting to stay alive.”

And while most terrorism in 2012 was committed in Muslim-majority countries, LaFree and other experts cautioned against viewing Islam itself as inherently violent.

“Not so long ago, terrorism was centered in Western Europe and Latin America,” LaFree said. “It moves. And, unfortunately, it has moved into the Muslim world right now.”

Like Benjamin, Rizwan Jaka, a Muslim leader based in Northern Virginia, said that political - not religious - motivations lay behind many acts of terrorism.

“It isn’t like they woke up and said 'I’m a Muslim; I’m going to go kill someone in a shopping mall,' ” Jaka said. “In their twisted mind, this is political retaliation.”

Still, American Muslims are working to reduce Sunni-Shiite tensions, said Jaka, a board member of the Islamic Society of North America.

The Fiqh Council of North America, an influential group that issues rulings based on Sharia, or Islamic law, released a fatwa endorsed by dozens of Muslims in 2005 categorically condemning terrorism.

More recently, the Islamic Society of North America has met with African and Middle Eastern leaders to urge them to protect the rights of religious minorities and discourage terrorism.

In September, Sunni and Shiite leaders meeting in Washington announced an agreement to set aside differences and address the “dire situation of unrest, destruction, genocide and refugees” in many predominantly Muslim countries.

“All Muslims are one nation, even if the schools of thought are diverse,” the scholars’ declaration said. “Such diversity is a source of intellectual enrichment and should not be the cause of accusations of disbelief, murder, and the desecration of sanctities.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Afghanistan • Africa • Crime • Fatwa • Foreign policy • Iran • Iraq • Islam • Islamic law • Middle East • Muslim • Nigeria • Pakistan • Terrorism

soundoff (901 Responses)
  1. Kate

    Prophecies come true. Watch this video, it's a chance for you to learn what the media will not write about – the Truth.

    October 28, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Prediction

      Bend over, let me give you truth

      October 28, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • suzie669

      In physic, if you strike a ball against the wall with great force and velocity, it bounces back to you with great force. When Islam leads its followers to the path of violence and vengeance, the destruction caused by reaction is multiplied thousand folds. The door of blood, fire and hatred is widely opened.

      Likewise, it can be explained very well in chemistry, too.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  2. Americanman2012

    Governments that want to control the masses, wants them to cling in fear to a dependency to that government , so all the scares, insecurities , makes them all keepers, and believers. Even though the government is watching over the masses more than over the terrorists, they know little about the trap of Fascism !!

    October 28, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
  3. Ashrakay

    My question to anyone:

    Whose responsibility is it to control / eliminate terrorism?

    October 28, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • suzie669

      Ashrakay
      My question to anyone:

      Whose responsibility is it to control / eliminate terrorism?

      It is yours, mine and everyone's.

      October 28, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
      • Ashrakay

        I agree. Which is why I don't understand the blaming going on here.

        October 28, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
  4. cgowens

    Interesting to note that 700,000 Americans will die this year of heart disease.

    Take that Taliban.

    October 28, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • suzie669

      If you add up the number of those who die in terrorist attack since Islam was born, it is much greater than the number you just posted.

      October 28, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
  5. Jim in Florida

    What utter BS, CNN. You and the rest of the lapdog media have been telling the American public that everything was under control when it comes to terrorism. As has the Obama administration, not even wanting to tell the country the truth about Benghazi in the aftermath of 9-11-12.

    Now, apparently in order to protect Obama from the backlash (world wide) over an out of control NSA, etc. you get a report (exclusively to CNN) that chirps how terrorism has increased worldwide.

    Which is it CNN? My goodness, how dishonest you have been with the American public, all to proptect Obama. You are watchdogs of nothing, CNN, just a common lapdog media outlet for a very common POTUS.

    October 28, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      Florida, land of BS, alligators and idiots, second only to TX

      October 28, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Akira

      Gunmen associated with Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami attack the U.S. Consulate. Five people are killed.

      June 14, 2002. Karachi, Pakistan. Suicide bomber connected with al Qaeda attacks the U.S. Consulate, killing 12 and injuring 51.

      October 12, 2002. Denpasar, Indonesia. U.S. diplomatic offices bombed as part of a string of "Bali Bombings." No fatalities.

      February 28, 2003. Islamabad, Pakistan. Several gunmen fire upon the U.S. Embassy. Two people are killed.

      May 12, 2003. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Armed al Qaeda terrorists storm the diplomatic compound, killing 36 people including nine Americans. The assailants committed suicide by detonating a truck bomb.

      July 30, 2004. Tashkent, Uzbekistan. A suicide bomber from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan attacks the U.S. Embassy, killing two people.

      December 6, 2004. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda terrorists storm the U.S. Consulate and occupy the perimeter wall. Nine people are killed.

      March 2, 2006. Karachi, Pakistan again. Suicide bomber attacks the U.S. Consulate killing four people, including U.S. diplomat David Foy who was directly targeted by the attackers.

      September 12, 2006. Damascus, Syria. Four armed gunmen shouting "Allahu akbar" storm the U.S. Embassy using grenades, automatic weapons, a car bomb and a truck bomb. Four people are killed, 13 are wounded.

      January 12, 2007. Athens, Greece. Members of a Greek terrorist group called the Revolutionary Struggle fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the U.S. Embassy. No fatalities.

      March 18, 2008. Sana'a, Yemen. Members of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad of Yemen fire a mortar at the U.S. Embassy. The shot misses the embassy, but hits nearby school killing two.

      July 9, 2008. Istanbul, Turkey. Four armed terrorists attack the U.S. Consulate. Six people are killed.

      I would like to know why Benghazi has been the focus of so many investigations when the above attacks warranted only 3. For ALL of them.
      Spare me. I know. Issa witch hunt.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
      • suzie669

        Did you see something interesting? All of them are Islamic countries.

        October 28, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  6. Digital Dan

    COEXIST

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Anti-Coexist-Coexist-Bumper-Sticker-/121118493820?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item1c33398c7c

    October 28, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  7. cristo

    Al Qaeda is on the run – Joe Biden, Nov. 2012

    October 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • No

      Do you know how many different factions that claim fealty to AQ? No? Didn't think so.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
    • Prediction

      Now what would you do if half the planet decided that you needed to die. Give up and die.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
      • Prediction

        There god will not allow it. That iswhy the violence increased.

        October 28, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  8. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Why is this article here in the Belief Blog? (Other than the obvious, being that Daniel Burke wrote it. There's nothing in the article (based on data one would think would be available) that indicates that this violence is in any way related to religion.

    (Note, I am pretty sure you can correlate the two for terrorism in the last couple of decades, but when you present an article based on data, please *use* some data.)

    Most of the current violence occurs in predominantly Muslim countries. The heaviest casualties are tied to Al Queda. OK, but still nothing related to actual data. How much?

    Was the 1980's Latin American terrorism related to religion? (I'd say not.)

    October 28, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
  9. children of Israel

    Satan wants his kingdom backwards and upside down. The Koran is the devil's doings, Allah is the Ishmaelites god a rock (Deuteronomy 32:37)

    October 28, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • He also wants his name on some pieces of toast! Be careful!

      October 28, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  10. Jeff

    Another Obama failure – so what else is new!!!

    October 28, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      Which President did well against terrorism in your opinion?

      October 28, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Shut up, Jeffy; you've overstayed your welcome.

      Bet you would blame him if your pickup died, your wife cheated, and your dog ran away, too.

      What do you want him to do, sweetums? Invade yet another sovereign country that didn't attack us?

      Save it, Cowboy. You sound ill-informed as to what warring factions of Islam are capable of.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  11. joe

    "Terrorist attacks and deaths hit record high, report shows"

    In other words " What we are doing IS NOT WORKING"

    October 28, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      How many American terrorist victims are there?

      October 28, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • suzie669

      YOU R RIGHT

      October 28, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
  12. karenascofield

    “We’ve had success in stopping al Qaeda central,” LaFree said. “But we have been unsuccessful in stopping the message.”

    The name of the game with terrorism is **ideological warfare of the dark ages kind.** It's what people do when they can't get to the root of the issues and solve them. Instead, they regurgitate their ideological stuff all over the place and busy people with that while missing the point that they're missing the points. Burning rubber. Spinning wheels. Perpetuating vicious cycles . . . It's massive intellectual failure and it's massive failure of imagination at work.

    We do it too, we just don't tend to be violent about it. We don't just have an economic problem, we have a divisive ideological warfare problem too. US Americans stomp around doing the liberals vs. conservatives bullroar while some very toxic meta trends continue and deepen (financialism's sabotaging grip that can burst bubble after bubble, result in a shrinking middle class and so on). We tend to more vote and war on comment sections along ideological lines instead of really identifying and solving the nation's root problems. Divided we _____. It applies to us too.

    What else applies to us? Education is key, sound education that teaches people how to think more than what to think.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  13. AGNOSTICISM IS KNOWLEDGE

    We will get them, we have killed more terrorists over the last 4 years than we did since 2001-2008.

    well, if it were up to The right side... we would Stop the drone strikes, put MORE boots on the ground, Increase Defense spending...and rattle some sabers. ultimately attacking on bad interwebs info.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
  14. children of Israel

    If your name is not written in the Ellis Island hand book, you are a suspect immigrant terrorists. (Revelation 13:8)

    October 28, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • suzie669

      No. If the Islam religious book is not rewritten to promote humanity, love and forgiveness, NOTHING WILL BE CHANGED AND NO ONE WILL BE SPARED.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  15. poopyonastic

    Funny that CNN positions this article right under the article about Obama spying on Merkel. Clearly an effort to scare readers into excusing what Obama and the US did. This article also begs the question- if terrorism is on the rise, then why did we give up all of our freedoms this past decade? It doesn't seem like our policies are doing any good. Maybe we should try a different approach of getting out of other countries business, stop droning people, and give back our freedoms. Dems=GOP, and GOP=Dems. Can we try someone else? Ted Cruz, Ron Paul, Rand Paul...

    October 28, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • No

      No. Not now, not ever to the Teabertarians. No, no, and no.
      If they want to run as a separate party, fine, but they are ruining a once proud GOP, and their extremism will further tear this party apart.
      No no no no no.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  16. I crashed my car ....

    THANKS OBAMA!

    October 28, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
  17. Altee11

    The Islamic Society of North America has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood; is that really one of the only organizations that can be cited to promote moderation or convince people that Islam should not involve terrorism?
    The Fiqh Council Fatwa needs improvement because it says that only where Muslims live as minorities do they have to respect laws so long as there is no conflict for obedience to God. So what happens when Muslims become a majority?
    Just looking for even stronger statements against terrorism, hate and the sort of ethnic cleansing that keeps happening worldwide in the name of Islam.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • suzie669

      Dear Altee11,
      Your question "what happens when Muslims become a majority"? Do you know what happen between Sunni and Shia, and for how many years now they have been fighting each other if not centuries? Well, if they become a majority, do you know what happen to you, assuming you are not Muslim? Did you know the 8-year old girl who died from multiple gun shot wounds from head to toe outside a Coptic Orthodox Christian Church in Cairo, just about 2 weeks ago? This little girl is "nothing" in the Islamic world and she is an innocent little Christian girl but very insignificant in Islamic world. Sound pathetic to non-Islamic countries but it is true in Islamic countries.

      Solution Altee11: They ( the mullahs, the imams and the Muslims) need to acknowledge (stop living in denial) that their religious book fulls of hatred, vengeance and systemic discrimination against non-Muslims and even their own women. It is time to REWRITE their religious book.

      Altee11, no matter how many meetings between the leaders and religious leaders and community leaders, etc, NOTHING will be change if their mindset is NOT changed. NOTHING will be and definitely will NOT be change if this book is NOT changed.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  18. Steve Meadows

    We didn't have drones to kill terrorists back in the 1970's. One would think we should have been overwhelmed by terrorists without drones to chase and kill them back then.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • m1k320

      We didn't event terrorists until the late 70's. We trained the Afghan mujahideen to battle with the Soviets and from there came al-Qeada, etc. etc. etc.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • suzie669

      No matter how many drones you have or how advanced your weapons are, nothing will be changed as long as the Islamic ideology is fulled of hatred and vengeance and their mindset can not make a simple common sense.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
  19. Hadenuffyet

    Atta boy , Muslim zealots , keep the fight at home...

    October 28, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
    • niknak

      If we walked away from the ME, and stopped funding them, including Israel, peace in the region would work itself out after all the whackos killed themselves off.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
  20. gahh

    Bush and Cheney killed 461 thousand people in Iraq with their sorry war. How many of these were innocent men, women, and poor children, who were slaughtered by bombs being dropped on them, and by American soldiers who were told, if it moves it's a terrorist, so kill it.
    Bush and Cheney are still the biggest terrorists of them all, and they don't even have to worry about being arrested, because the people in Washington are gutless cowards.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.