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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 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. llatpoh

    This article is silent on the MOST VIOLENT IDEOLOGY ON THE PLANET which is the driving force behind all of this violence and mayhem. Perhaps THAT would be worth mentioning...

    October 29, 2013 at 6:59 am |
    • Jay ND

      You wouldn't mean Muslums would you? How crazy would that be if the media reported exactly who and what is causing the increase in terrorism. The truth is so bad for liberals they just do not report it!

      October 29, 2013 at 7:30 am |
    • H. Ey

      Hey, Dan worked really hard on this article. He even checked it before publishing. Sort of.
      Actually, this reminds me of those writing assignments in school where you just start flinging re-stated or summarized paragraphs down until you get the required length. The noted lack of any mention of Islam is a telling one.
      This is meant to be used to justify reducing drone attacks. The fact that it drives them nuts is a sign of success.
      They have huge gaps in leadership and the ones that are left are frantic that they will be next.
      We are making a good impact.

      October 29, 2013 at 7:31 am |
      • H. Ey

        *making good impacts.

        October 29, 2013 at 7:34 am |
  2. MeMadMax

    Author of the article beautifully avoids pointing the finger of what is responsible for all of this:
    The Sunni Muslim sect is the perpetrator of almost all of the terrorism in the world.
    The sunni's have lost their god damned minds...

    October 29, 2013 at 6:56 am |
  3. sarahbradlee

    Islam is not healthy for children and other living things.

    The data is interesting. How many acts of terror are in the collection which would consist of a group identifying as Christian attacking a group identified as Muslim?

    I am truly curious...of these thousands what exact number are a christian terror group committing the act of terror?

    It is deliberately misleading to call terrorism a religious problem...as if Buddhist, Jews, Christians, are all out there running amok. The problem is one religion which includes terror as an act of faith.

    More honesty would help the world to protect the innocent...and certainly many Muslims are innocent victims of their own faith.

    October 29, 2013 at 6:52 am |
    • truthprevails1

      So the Crusades; The Salem Witch Trials; The Inquisition are all Atheists pretending to be christian??? What special brand of crack are you smoking?

      October 29, 2013 at 7:15 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Well since atheists have no God inspired book of decrees on who you need to hate it's an unsubstantiated claim to say that atheism is the cause of even one death. Oh there are atheists who have killed but not due to their lack of belief in any particular deity.

      October 29, 2013 at 7:18 am |
  4. Arnold

    Muslim terrorists!

    October 29, 2013 at 6:43 am |
  5. JT

    The reason for the spike in terrorism has nothing to do with data collection, and everything to do with an incompetent WEAK President that has no foreign policy other than to placate and therefore ligitimize and embolden terrorists.

    October 29, 2013 at 5:11 am |
    • Dude

      The number of attacks in North and South America has gone way down. The greatest increase has been in Asia.

      Better: USA.
      Worse: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Whatchacallistan etc.

      Having fewer terrorist attacks in the USA is a trend I would like to see continue. If anyone is tolerating terrorism and getting hit by it, it's Pakistan.

      October 29, 2013 at 5:55 am |
      • Feldwebel Wolfenstool

        Not "terrorism".... try "iSlamicyst Tough-Love".

        October 29, 2013 at 7:45 am |
    • H. Ey

      You cannot compromise with crazy people who want nothing more than to kill you. There is no halfway point at all.

      October 29, 2013 at 7:43 am |
  6. Fish

    What is with CNN and the different formats for every damn page?? It detracts from the message!!!

    October 29, 2013 at 4:57 am |
  7. Reality

    Why doesn't article also talk about the oppression, refugees and murder by dictators ? They are also at highest level right now.

    October 29, 2013 at 4:48 am |
  8. rusty

    Every time new revelations come out about NSA spying, establishment news/media scrambles to put out articles that highlight the dangers of terrorism. It's quite obvious this article is an underhanded attempt to justify NSA spying.

    October 29, 2013 at 4:19 am |
    • bilbfit

      Obviously written by Obingo with the NSA looking over his shoulder.

      October 29, 2013 at 4:36 am |
    • InAfghanistan

      That is an ignorant and inflated statement. What expertise do you have to make such accusations?

      October 29, 2013 at 5:16 am |
    • saggyroy

      Double plus good eh?

      October 29, 2013 at 5:53 am |
  9. HotAirAce

    Believers killing believers – one way to improve the gene pool.

    October 29, 2013 at 3:41 am |
    • saggyroy

      The other is not to let priests marry.

      October 29, 2013 at 5:47 am |
  10. Avinash

    Monotheism... i tell you...

    October 29, 2013 at 2:51 am |
  11. paul mason

    With Obama being anti-Israel, anti-England, anti-Sunni -- of course the Shiites and Al Quaida will run rampant.

    October 29, 2013 at 2:29 am |
  12. Quotem

    "The penalty for apostasy is death. We would do well to linger over this fact for a moment, because it is the black pearl of intolerance that no liberal exegesis will ever fully digest." – Sam Harris

    October 29, 2013 at 2:04 am |
  13. Quotem

    "Every person I met believes if there is any disagreement between the Koran and science, then the Koran wins. It's just utterly deplorable. These are now British children who are having their minds stuffed with alien rubbish. Occasionally, my colleagues lecturing in universities lament having undergraduate students walk out of their classes when they talk about evolution. This is almost entirely Muslims." – Richard Dawkins

    October 29, 2013 at 1:55 am |
    • andrew

      Evoluton is a theory. So as soon as it is "preached" as fact students should walk out! Open your eyes & see the beauty of a sunset, the colour & viariety seen in flora & fauna, the order in the universe, the intricacy of the human brain c/w hardwiring of a sense of fairness & empathy, the conscience & the love we are capable of demonstrating for others! Evolution... all by blind chance... NOW THAT IS RUBBISH !

      October 29, 2013 at 4:45 am |
      • Feldwebel Wolfenstool

        A theory that is backed up by observations from numerous pathways of Science. All you have is a one flaky book full of fairy tales. And you can't see that your head and mind are in a birdcage?

        October 29, 2013 at 7:51 am |
      • HotAirAce

        Ignoring the proper definition of (scientific) theory, the existence of any god is a theory, and there is far more evidence for evolution (lots) than there is for any god (none).

        October 29, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  14. Rom

    arne't the americans and their allies fighting them?. Can anybody give logical explanation to it? Maybe, had a fight against terrorism been values-driven rather than "self-interest"-driven, it would have been successful.

    October 29, 2013 at 1:53 am |
  15. Quotem

    "A very important factor which is making it almost impossible for Hindu-Muslim unity to become an accomplished fact is that the Muslim can not confine their patriotism to any one country. I had frankly asked the Muslims whether in the event of any Mohammedan power invading India, would they [Muslims] stand side by side with their Hindu neighbors to defend their common land or join the invaders. I was not satisfied with the reply I have obtained from them… Even such a man as Mr. Mohammed Ali has declared that under no circumstances is it permissible for any Mohammedan, whatever be his country, to stand against any Mohammedan." – Rabindranath Tagore

    October 29, 2013 at 1:52 am |
    • Irfan

      There are always pessimistic and optimistic views over Islam but my religion teaches peace and humanity and jihad is to resist against wrong no matter if some one have same faith, it can be through writing also and please if u haven't read my religion, (which I can see) then please DON'T comment.
      Do yourselves a favor and educate yourself about Islam and the Muslims. Trust me, the hate will go (like most upper cast Hindus have for the rest humans including their own low cast) if you allow it to.

      October 29, 2013 at 2:31 am |
      • Avinash

        If jihad is to resist wrong no matter what faith, why then I wonder is it that we don't see much of active resistance from moderate muslims to terrorism? I'll tell you why... because even moderate muslims participate in passive jihad. Just like what you are doing here.
        The thing about upper caste hindus hating their lower caste compatriots has diminished with time... its a thing of past already. Ofcourse every religion has had a nasty past. What matters is how willing are you to leave it behind and change for better. That's called evolution. And we know which religion is not ready to evolve with time.

        October 29, 2013 at 3:05 am |
        • Rom

          Ignorance is one's worst enemey! It's funny why you judge Muslims through terrorists while you know that the government, majority citizens in "ISLAMIC" countries are also Muslims and they are the real victims of these terrorist acts. The existence of these terrorrists in oil-rich middle east countries are the very thing needed by Western superpowers to justify their military existence in those areas and to make the world believe that they are "helping" these governments/countries. Imagine, a united Muslim countries, do you think there will still be place of americans and their allies in Muslims countries and do think they can still exploit the oil resources for their own?

          October 29, 2013 at 3:45 am |
  16. Quotem

    "That is a simple rule, and easy to remember. When I, a thoughtful and unblessed Presbyterian, examine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters." – Mark Twain

    October 29, 2013 at 1:45 am |
  17. Brian Smith

    Obviously, the "War on Terror" is working. We need to spend twenty times more money on this.

    October 29, 2013 at 1:38 am |
    • Susan

      Yep. Gee, all that blanket electronic surveillance, and all the scanning and groping at the airport – it's obviously not to "keep us safe" as the propaganda line goes.

      October 29, 2013 at 1:48 am |
  18. mandarax

    The pre-Islamic Middle East was one of seats of scientific and mathematical innovation until fundamentalism sent it into a modern "dark ages" spiral. That is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned. Fundamentalism of all stripes is crippling to civilization and learning.

    October 29, 2013 at 1:28 am |
  19. Quotem

    "We're constantly told all cultures are equal, and every belief system is as good as the next. And generally that America was to be known for its flaws rather than its virtues.
    When you think about what Americans accomplished, building these amazing cities, and all the good its done in the world, it's kind of disheartening to hear so much hatred of America, not just from abroad, but internally... For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we're up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent.

    These people saw people's heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I'm speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I'm living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built." – Frank Miller

    October 29, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • Observer

      These religious fanatics are carrying out many of the same commands originated by God according to the Bible.

      October 29, 2013 at 1:19 am |
    • Nodack

      I think one mans terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

      Your fight is thousands of years old. Their culture and religion is different than ours. You see them attacking us they see us attacking them. Their response is to attack more. our response is to attack more. The fight cannot be won until we all merge or we all kill each other off. The war on terror is the same as the war on drugs. You can throw as much money at it as you want. You can kill hundreds of thousands of people and it only makes more of them want to kill us in return.

      October 29, 2013 at 1:21 am |
      • Mirosal

        Crine fighters fight crime ... fire fighters fight fires .. so just WHAT, exactly, do freedom fighters fight?

        October 29, 2013 at 2:33 am |
        • J. Zuz

          They ask if I want to donate to breast cancer at the grocery store. I tell them NO.

          October 29, 2013 at 4:48 am |
    • Feldwebel Wolfenstool

      Some of my best friends are and have been, Minnesotans.

      October 29, 2013 at 7:57 am |
  20. what now

    blow up the whole middle east and the world will be a safer and happier place. crude words-but you know what i mean.

    October 29, 2013 at 1:04 am |
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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.