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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. Steve Meadows

    Is this what W promised when the US invaded Iraq 10 years ago? Peace, democracy, and a stable Middle East????

    October 28, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
  2. Tom

    Does is spontaneous uprising fueled by the youtube count in the total?

    October 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  3. sly

    What one man calls a terrorist, the other calls a Freedom Fighter.

    America was founded by Freedom Fighters.
    Arab Freedom Fighters are fighting for their freedom from the foreign imperialists, like US.

    Goes around, comes around. Just like 9/11 – retaliation for the murder of 350 vacationing Iranian civilians.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • niknak

      I would argue that America was founded by well educated rich land/slave owning white dudes who wanted more of the cut of the pie, than they were "freedom fighters."

      October 28, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
  4. Lamb of Dog

    I wonder if they count the terrorist in this number. Because then its a 1:1 ratio almost.
    Do they count it if the terrorist blows himself or his buddies up by mistake?

    October 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  5. Etienne

    Curbing the NSA's reach, and grounding the drones is looking like a harder sell by the day

    October 28, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  6. children of Israel

    Free will allows people to choose their own gods, that is the American way to love the things of the world. (1st John 2:15) *1st Peter 4:7*

    October 28, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • niknak

      Or to choose none at all......NikNak 1:1

      October 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  7. Lamb of Dog

    This number is very close to the amount of murders in the US last year.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • niknak

      I thought of that too when I saw this article.
      So bad and scary when the deaths are from "terrorism," but no one bats an eye when it is from your ordinary drive by/domestic dispute.

      Was thinking of Stalin's quote about death.
      "One man dying is a tragedy, one million dying is a statistic."

      Translation for this,
      4 people getting blown up by religious whackos, terrorism. 400 shot dead over a long weekend in the US, business as usual.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  8. mindstorms1

    It's interesting to note that we have more gun related deaths and injuries in this country than all those terrorist attacks put together. It is estimated that by 2015 the number of gun related deaths will exceed the number of traffic fatalities. That would be about 32,000 deaths by gun violence. We have a real terrorist problem in this country and it isn't Muslim terrorists but our fellow citizens.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      Just so long as Jethro gets to keep all his guns where his 3 yr old can shoot someone, 'MURICA IS FREE

      October 28, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
    • niknak

      Whom I fear far more than any middle eastern type.
      The ones I fear the most are the fundie xtian gun loving types.
      They are like Pit Bulls, one never knows when they will snap and start to kill.
      But worse than a Pit as the Pit is not loaded up with an assault rifle and a bible.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
    • Amichai

      Yeah, yeah....then you take all the lawful shootings by police, shootings in self defense & deaths by suicide and your numbers go out the window. Typical gun-control freak hysteria.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
      • niknak

        Kinda spring loaded to support the NRA line aren't you?
        Where in my post did I mention anything about restricting guns?

        I was making a not so veiled putdown of the average xtian believer who wears his WWJD lapel pin while cleaning his stash of high powered guns hoping to one day use them to kill other human beings.

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

          NikNak – I wasn't responding to you. I was responding to mindstorms1 and his "statistics". As for your comment, there is nothing exclusionary between religion & defending yourself. For the Jews, Christians and Muslims, defending yourself is a commandment.

          October 28, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
        • niknak

          OK, then let me ask you,

          If Jesus came back today, would he own a gun?

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

          And Mindstorm's stat is correct.
          At it's current pace, gun related deaths will overtake car deaths in the near future.

          I say it can't happen soon enough either, as the vast majority of the people that are offing themselves would be the ones that need to leave the gene pool anyway.

          October 28, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
        • Amichai

          Niknak, I have no idea what Jesus would do and I do not care. I'm a Jew, and no one will ever be able to make a victim of me or my kind again while I'm armed. Simple as that.

          October 28, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
        • Alpa Chino

          niknak if you had agreed with her she would not have to cry at you about how she wasn't talking TO YOU

          October 28, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
      • Alpa Chino

        Maybe you can put down your chickfilA long enough to give us a bible quote to prove your stance

        October 28, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Doris

      Yep.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
      • Doris

        Yep to mindstorms that is.

        October 28, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  9. Former Obama Supporter

    Hey, weren't we told that Al Queda was "decimated" and "on the run"? Looks like another failure that the guy I voted for (ashamed to admit it) is going to be tagged with by the history books.

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

      We are not the world's policeman. We do not control other countries. We do not police religion. Expecting Obama to do that is just abjectly stupid, and beyond the scope of what any citizen should expect of their President. Grow up.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
      • Amichai

        "We do not police religion" – not for absence of trying. The left would love nothing more than to outlaw all religious activity. They deem it as "stupid, backward and moronic". Those religious cretins just haven't "evolved" yet according to them.

        October 28, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
        • Alpa Chino

          Aw, someone's got a sad little persecution axe to grind today. Are you mad a judge struck down the unconstituational abortion law in TX??

          Constituation is ok by you fundies only so long as it matches up with your bible

          October 28, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
        • niknak

          No, we view the believer himself as backwards and stupid.

          October 28, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Obama supporter

      Yes – they are decimated, and on the run! But, only idiots like you interpreted that to mean that 100% of all terrorism has been stopped. The rest of us understood what Obama meant.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
      • Ryan

        I guess you missed the point. All the work we've been doing against Al Qaeda has just created more groups and more terrorism. Every time we send a drone in and kill anyone but the intended target, we just created more terrorists. How would you feel if your neighbor was a terrorist and you didn't know and your child just burned alive from a drone attack? Damn right I'd be signing up to attack.

        All our fight against Al Qaeda and foreign organizations is doing is creating more terrorist and more death, the ultimate pot of gold for all these defense contractors and their buddies on capitol hill.

        October 28, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  10. Chris

    So... if you're someone fighting to get a foreign invader out of your country but are not affiliated with a 'state', you're a terrorist, but the foreign invader killing you is legitimate?

    Terrorists have tanks and F-35s and killer drones now.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
  11. Randal

    15,500 total worldwide, including middle east countries. About 5 deaths in U.S. Many more people die here annually in car crashes. And yet we are supposed to be fine with mass privacy violations by the government. We are being sold a lie. Like lambs to the slaughter. Shame on the NSA

    October 28, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
  12. OCCUPY WALLSTREET FOR CONGRESS

    Terrorism?

    You mean freedom fighters.

    Those people up top will be looked at as heroes fighting against the global tyranny of transnational corporate aggression!!!

    October 28, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  13. Robert Brown

    Genesis 16:

    11 And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction.

    12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • Lamb of Dog

      Thanks for that?

      October 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
      • Robert Brown

        Muslims descendants of Ishmael.

        October 28, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
        • Intisarul Islam

          Ishmael probably never even existed. Just like Isaac, Abraham, etc.

          October 28, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
    • DaveinFlorida

      I've got big balls
      I've got big balls
      They're such big balls
      And they're dirty big balls
      And he's got big balls
      And she's got big balls
      (But we've got the biggest balls of them all)

      -Bon Scott-

      October 28, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  14. FollowTheMoneyDotCom

    No, no, no CNN in 2009 after you helped "The One" get elected you breathlessly reported that the WAR ON TERROR was a FABRICATION of those evil Republicans, and that it was OFFICIALLY called an "Overseas Contingency Operation"

    Those were your words, CNN, not mine.

    October 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • Maddy

      If you don't think that Bush's trampling all over the ME didn't have anything to do with the unrest there, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Refusing to see the evil that has been wreaked by that administration overseas is just being willfully blind. Stop being a partisan apologist. Mission WASN'T accomplished.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  15. TropiChris

    Al Qaida has a new PR slogan: YES WE CAN!

    October 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  16. OCCUPY WALLSTREET FOR CONGRESS

    Economic terrorism by the 1% is increasing at an alarming rate as the wealth gap widens.

    The number one pic up top should be the American dollar.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  17. TheMing

    Just let them get on with it.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  18. RT Colorado

    KLARGAR...The United States has been dealing with Muslim terrorists long before President Reagan took office. The Americans were fighting Muslims as far back as 1787. As a matter of fact John Adams warned his fellow citizens about "Mahomets". In a letter to John Jay, Adams wrote "We ought not fight them unless we are prepared to fight them forever" (1782). It took another fifty years after that letter was written to finally get the Barbary pirates under control. Muslims will not restrain themselves until they are restrained by force. We either pay tribute, convert or fight.

    October 28, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • Intisarul Islam

      That is dumb. There was one short Barbary war, and then we did not have to deal with "Islamic" terrorism until we got involved in the Middle East. By the way, the definition of terrorism they gave was HORRIBLE. It should just be whoever kills civilians for a political/religious cause – in that case, the US would also be among the biggest terrorist groups in the world. It's funny how they defined terrorism to ignore their own war crimes.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
      • kebcarerra

        I don't remember Americans killing civilians , lining them up and killing them execution style . Yes a few bad apples did do that but some were brought to justice if their is such a thing . Yeah the drone strikes weren't always clean , and yeah we killed some aljazeer reporters and their children but the cameras looked like weapons. I guess we did torture a few after we broke their nose and then water boarded them, but they weren't just the enemy they were terrorists and they hate us for our freedom .

        October 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  19. asdfghjkl;

    ...and a little over 12,000 murders in the usa in 2011. Looks like the Terrorists are winning!

    October 28, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
  20. glk20c

    Terror on the rise, yet Obama and co. want you disarmed.

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

      No one comin for your guns, Jethro, settle down

      October 28, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • NooYawkah

      Hey come on now let's NOT....jump to conclusions based on one pretty damning article...*burp*...

      October 28, 2013 at 6:00 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.