October 28th, 2013
03:56 PM ET

Terrorist attacks and deaths hit record high, report shows

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog co-editor

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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 Religion Editor

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

soundoff (911 Responses)
  1. danita

    oh – thought they were talking about bamacare.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  2. Mary

    Women can get as many as they want.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  3. Shakira

    Keep feeding the fear CNN, you are more likely to be killed in a car crash here in America then as a victim of terrorism. However so much for Mission Accomplished eh

    October 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Susan StoHelit

      Who said that? No one in terms of terrorism.

      We've put a massive dent in the organization that hit us – did you think that somehow ended all terrorism?

      October 28, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
      • dencal26

        Looks like Al Qaida is stronger than ever. Maybe Obama arming them in Syria helps

        October 28, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
        • Yankee Mike Bravo

          dencal, read the article. It states al Qaeda's power is being eroded and that most terrorists groups are trying to advance their political agenda, not bin Laden's dream of a Muslim-Christian holy war. As for Syria, U.S. aid is going to Syrian moderates, who are now being attacked by foreign al Qaeda thugs. We are not now aided al Qaeda. So, you're zero for two.

          October 28, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
        • strangways

          well, Bush's taking out saddam who was vehemently ANTI al Quaeda didn't help either. Guess who's in Iraq now? Yup, Al Quaeda. Wonder what George and DICK have to say about that...

          October 28, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • Obama Sucks It

      Obama has gotten more US troops KILLED in Afghanistan and STILL is losing but you blame Bush? What a fool. FOUR DEAD IN BENGHAZI, WHERE WAS BARRY?

      October 28, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
      • Yankee Mike Bravo

        Bush was losing Afghanistan when he left office. Obama has turned that around. It will be stable enough for us to leave next year.

        October 28, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • PJM

      There you go...George Bush's fault. He's the reason the Saudi's are breaking off diplomatic relations with us...not because of what Obama has done in Syria. The reason terrorist attacks are sky rocketing has nothing to do with our weak response to Bengasi. In fact, the whole Middle East just loves our consistent application of diplomacy to Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Israel knows exactly what to expect from us with regards to Iran developing a nuke.

      October 29, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  4. Standard 0il

    Blame Bush.

    Herp derp.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • strangways

      why should he get a pass? his admin was AWFUL, did a lot of damage to us and the world.

      October 28, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  5. alan

    The number of attacks and deaths cannot possibly be going up. Obama said we are safer today then when he got elected.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Susan StoHelit

      We are.

      Notice where the terrorism is happening? In the middle east and asia. Notice how in America and Europe it's down. And also notice that the report says 'classic' al Queda is on the ropes – it's spin offs, attacking muslim majority countries, for being the wrong variety of muslim.

      October 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
      • danita

        guess you missed out on places like Detroit, and South Chicago.

        October 28, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
        • Susan StoHelit

          Reread the definition of terrorism. Crime is not terrorism.

          October 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
        • daniel

          For the record crime is not a terrorism. Only being a white christian conservative.... Have fun untangling that logic.

          October 28, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
        • PJM

          How about the Boston marathon...is that considered terrorism or a crime?

          October 29, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
      • NoBS

        While defending the un-defensible actions of this administration, you for got to include work place violence like Ft. Bliss terrorist.
        You can play the Obama numbers game, but a lie is still a lie.

        October 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
        • Yankee Mike Bravo

          I think you meant to refer to Fort Hood, not to Fort Bliss. And, because the attack at Fort Hood was an attack on soldiers, this attack, by definition, was not a terrorist attack.

          October 28, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  6. Jim

    But, but, but....I thought we won the War on Terror and Al Qaeda was on the ropes? That's what our Dear Leader said last year when he was running for Dictat....um, I mean POTUS.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Obama Sucks It

      WE WERE winning until that pencil-necked cheesed|ck and his co-president Valerie "the rat" Jarrett took over. Now its just "workplace violence."


      October 28, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
  7. TPA

    How much is the "terror" actually created by the terrorists versus how much is created by the media being a fear monger? The media seems to be worse at scaring the public anymore.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV




      October 28, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  8. Ben

    So much for the war on terror. What now?

    October 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Dingle Berries

      War on Abuse of Police Power...that's next since it claims more lives each year.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
  9. hitman

    Wait, I thought that Obama told us that he had them on the run!! Hmmm!

    October 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Susan StoHelit

      He does. As they said – we've been successful against the original Al Queda. And notice how the increases are not in America nor Europe? Terrorism in the West is down.

      October 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Rs1201

      Obama kept repeating that bin laden is dead and the war on terror has been won....we should tell this to the terrorists...it just might be news to them!

      October 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
      • Yankee Mike Bravo

        Jeez...Obama NEVER said the war on terror was done. That was dopey Bush and his huge "Mission Accomplished" sign.

        October 28, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  10. Mike

    Nonsense. Religion is not healthy for the world.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  11. Colin

    I'd like to see a pie chart by religion. 95% Muslim 5% "all others".

    October 28, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG


      October 28, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • Mary

      Pie is so good.

      October 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  12. MrRightOn

    Do they even report the genocide of 90,000+ whites who have been slaughtered in S.Africa since 2009? So continues the spread of muslims in every corner of every nation who sit patiently for their calling to jihad. As America sits on facebook pacified by candy-crush-saga and building your little farmvilles, the world changes around you, un-noticed.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  13. Mkell

    So what a wonderful time to stop NAS from spying!

    October 28, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • smeagol

      Yeah, gotta watch out for the National Academy of Sciences. As for the NSA, have no worries on that account – nothing is going to change.

      October 28, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  14. Mike

    Yaa, yaa, yaa, you're more likely to be gunned down at work by a disgruntled ex-employee than you are to be a victim of a terrorist attack.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  15. Dyslexic doG

    "For 27 years I prayed every day of my life for God to heal my son's mental illness," Pastor Rick Warren said.

    Need any more proof that prayer doesn't work?

    October 28, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  16. Dyslexic doG

    ah yes. Islam, the religion of peace.

    what a crock!

    October 28, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  17. jerry2286

    Lies, Lies, and more Lies. Terrorism has been defeated. The Dear Leader already apologized.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • david

      I thought your dear leader already said, "Mission Accomplished!"

      October 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
      • a response

        Mission Accomplished signaled the end of the beginning, according to DoD Secretary Rumsfeld, at a press conference at the time.

        October 28, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  18. Shalom

    All God wants of man is a peaceful heart.
    –Meister Eckhart

    October 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • Rupert

      Translate that in Arabic so that people may understand.

      October 28, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
      • The High Lama


        October 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
        • bonjour


          October 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
        • Avete


          October 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
        • γεια σας


          October 28, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  19. sly

    Whoa, wait a minute. Us TeaBillies have proven that there is no more terrorism.

    This is all another lie by President Obama. All of those facts are made up. There never was any terrorism! Even 9/11 didn't happen.

    Those darned librul's jus' keep lyin'.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  20. Bob

    No, that cannot possibly be true. Obama said we have them on the run.

    October 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      Obama said we have decimated Al Qaeda's leadership, which is absolutely true. He never said ANYTHING like "Mission Accomplished".

      October 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
      • NotALiberalSheep

        Keep apologizing...Iran will have a nuclear weapon in one month. North Korea has already gone nuclear. Our relationship with our allies is at an all-time low. And then there's Benghazi...The Amateur has lowered the US' standing in the world immensely. But keep apologizing for him...

        October 28, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
        • Yankee Mike Bravo

          You might want to fact check before you post. Everything you said is incorrect.

          October 28, 2013 at 6:20 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.