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. children of Israel

    Why is America abolishing the good book the Holy Bible. The book of life is what heals us as a nation of people (Revelation 2:22)

    October 28, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • Reverent Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam

      Hah! We left no water of life there. You are impotent!

      October 28, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      You doofuses would have us all acting like the middle east if we let you

      October 28, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • One one

      That's what Muslims say.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  2. Buzz

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

    But, but, Odumbo told us the war on terrorism is over. Bin Laden is dead and Al Queda is on the run.

    NEVER expect a democrat to tell the truth.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      More sour grapes from the conservative nutjobs

      October 28, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • Bob Loblaw

      Don't you just love living in fear and blind acquiescence to MSM bs?

      You stand a greater chance of being struck by lightning.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  3. sly

    Arab Freedom Fighters fighting back againest American murder.

    I don't blame them one bit. Goes around comes around. If America wants to stop being attacked ... it's quite simple. Stopped killing women and children in foreign lands.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      Hush up fvcknugget

      October 28, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  4. TypicalAsians

    Typical Asians. Terrorism is in their genes.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  5. lou50

    say it ain't so! such a peaceful cult whose founder was a pedophile. Best everyone bring this up to Congress and suggest rounding them up and deport them as undesirables along with terminating immigration and visas.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • Bob Loblaw

      RIGHT ON!, Adolph.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
  6. Alpa Chino

    Why did they pick yellow to represent Asia on the pie charts??? DAS RACISSSS

    October 28, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  7. m1234

    But wait, this is the religion of peace
    Obviously the author is using facts that are racist.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  8. children of Israel

    There are seven continents do you know them. Remember when Africa was called the dark continent. Now it's named by directions north, south, east and west Africa (Deuteronomy 28:68)

    October 28, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Doris

      President Bush after 9/11: "Our God is the God who named the stars".
      How erroneous. Two-thirds of star names have Arabic names. They came from Islam's fertile period (AD 800-1100.) During that time Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world, open to people of all or no faiths. During that time were some of the greatest advances known to mankind: engineering, biology, medicine, mathematics, celestial navigation; this is the time and place that gave us numerals we use, terms like algebra and algorithm.

      Enter Imam Hamid al-Ghazali in the 12th century. The fundamentally religious period of Islam begins, and so begins the steady decline of free intellectual expression in that area of the world. Some would argue that it has since never recovered.

      As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains, throughout history most of the great minds give virtually no mention to any god for their discoveries and explanations. (Ptolemy, Isaac Newton, Laplace, Huygens, Galileo.) That is, until they reach the problem they feel they cannot and will never fully tackle. Dr. Tyson demonstrates this with writings from the great minds in his talk "The Perimeter of Ignorance".

      Perhaps that is all God has ever been – a placeholder for discomfort or frustration over the unknown; an excuse of last resort when, for one reason or another, one gives up investigation. It is at that point of discomfort over the unknown when one should remember what humanity has already witnessed: that today's scientific explanations were often yesterday's gods.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
  9. Billy


    October 28, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  10. rosethornne

    "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."

    Wow. So Ted Crudz actually IS a terrorist by definition, it's not an exaggeration.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • m1234

      sad, pathetic post

      October 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • Scott

      Hahaha. Nice.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      I knew it

      October 28, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
  11. dave r

    Q:What do they all have in common?

    A: They're all Muslims

    October 28, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
  12. matt houston

    Is anyone really surprised?

    An unenlightened teaching begets death, destruction and suffering no matter where it is in this world.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      Just like the mighty christian, Hitler, wrote in Mein Kampf?

      October 28, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  13. Wag The Dog

    And the fear machine keeps rolling.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
  14. Bob

    Yeah, changing the definition of terrorist to include citizens has that effect.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:25 pm |

    How come there is no mug shot of George Bush or any transnational corporate wall street guys in there?

    Talk about a biased load of propaganda nonsense.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • m1234

      You mean Obama, right?
      The warmonger in chief right now
      Nice try, but it's been almost five years now, time for drones to suck it up and admit Obama owns this presidency

      October 28, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
      • Alpa Chino


        October 28, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  16. dencal26

    Obama drone attacks are creating more terrorists

    October 28, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • Infidel

      Nonsense! MUSLIMS have been attacking the United States, enslaving ourt citizens and holding them for ransom since the days of Addams and Jefferson!

      Those were days when we trired to PAY OFF and appease these muslim animals!

      You cannot pay off MUSLIMS to stop killing for their allah. Shoot...we tried that back over 200 years ago when nearly 25% of our federal budget was used to PAY OFF MUSLIMS who were pirating our ships along the North Africa coast...finally President Jefferson had enough and dispatched our newly formed Marines to deal with this cancer!..."to the shores of Tripoli" (today, part of the US Marine Hymn)

      November 3, 2013 at 1:23 am |
  17. Dizzyd

    So the thousands killed in the Iraq War – under Bush 2 for WMD's that weren't even there, AWA the attack on the WTC- pale in comparison to the 4 in Benghazi under Obama? Pls – explain that.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • MIsty1CA

      I thought that O said that Al Queda was on the run? Oh yeah, he also told us that o one would lose their helath care. Guess he "mispoke" on both those issues. Both issues are detrimental to Americans. But what does he care? He doesn't as long as he has his and can go on vacation and golf at his leisure. We are just peasants to hiim. But I am no peasant . I do not work for the gov't. He works for me.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
      • Alpa Chino

        He takin less than 1/2 vacation than Bush did

        Go eat more sour grapes

        October 28, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • MIsty1CA

      Youa re also forgetting that the number of troops that have died in Afghanistan is higher in the 5 years O has been office than the 8 years BUsh was in office. That is a FACT. Eat it.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
      • Alpa Chino

        Oh that's totally Obama's fault too. Everything is. Misty you soooo wise

        October 28, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  18. Ron Jeremy

    Can't we all just get a schlong?

    October 28, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  19. Marko Leverhust

    Yes Obama terror is on the rise. that is a fact

    October 28, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • Susan StoHelit

      And it's also a fact that we did just plain crush Al Queda's structure. Offshoots that do their own attacks aren't generally able to attack the west (America and Europe), and thus the stats that show how the terrorist attacks are on the rise, not in the west, but in the middle east and asia.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
      • oracle

        Al Qaida offshoots "aren't able to attack the West"?

        Are you serious? Tell that to the Boston Marathon bombers. Tell that the 4 dead Americans killed in Benghazi. Tell that the Westerners killed in the Mall Attack in Kenya. Tell that the Gas Plant Attack in Tunisia.

        It's amazing you liberals survive long enough to breed.

        October 28, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
        • Lolz

          Those are in asia/africa, not the USA. they cant attack the west. the only time someone suceeded was 2 college age muslims because the USA ignored info from russia and the fbi and decided not to investigate them even though they were known to be terrorists. the only reaosn they released this report is because the entire world hates the nsa and obama so now theyre trying to pretend theres a reason for the NSA to be here

          October 28, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
        • KLARGAR

          Yeah tell that to the 300 dead marines who were killed in Beirut when your imbecile Reagan was in power ,that was the beginning of Islamic Jihad. Reagan the coward ran away and left their blood in the sand and then invited the nascent Taliban into the white house proclaiming they were like our founding fathers and then armed them. That was after the traitorous bum sold millions of dollars of arms including jet fighters to the Iranians so they could use them against the US and our allies. Oracle your head is filled with typical republican feces.

          October 28, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
        • Alpa Chino

          Aw, now, oracle. That's a pretty big bug you got up your chimney. Or are you always this much of a bitch?

          October 28, 2013 at 5:38 pm |

      And micro encephalic imbeciles like you are also on the rise, your mom should have gotten a D&C before you were born.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  20. Islam4fools

    Sad that liberals and conservatives are fighting and blaming each other here while the radical followers of 60 year old prophet Mohammed who violated a 6 year old child named Aisha are killing the innocents.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
    • If I had a hammer... I'd whack you in the morning

      you people are either on drugs ...or need to be.

      October 28, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • onebucplace

      No no no, he married her at 6 but didn't violate her until she was 9.

      October 29, 2013 at 1:04 am |
      • Infidel

        Aisha was SIX years old when the self proclaimed terrorist pedophile prophet mohammad "married" her...and he waited till she was NINE years when he r@ped this poor little girl.

        November 3, 2013 at 1:25 am |
        • Intisarul Islam

          That claim is totally off.

          According to the same sources that claim she was 9, Aisha was said to have participated in the Battle of Badr in 624, at the age of 15, making her 14 at the age of her marriage at 623 – NOT 6 or 9. Also, Aisha accepted Islam 12 years BEFORE her marriage to Muhammad, making her AT LEAST in her mid teens at the time of her marriage. Furthermore, sources claim that Aisha's sister, who was 10 years older than her, was born in 595, making Aisha's birth at 605, making her 18 at the time of consummation. Finally, 10 out of the 11 of Muhammad's wives were either close to his age, or older than him; if he really were a pedophile, this would NOT be the case – you would expect more child brides, which DID NOT happen, making the claim that Aisha was 9 stick out like a sore thumb.

          November 3, 2013 at 5:18 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.