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. 7

    Everyone is invited to visit –

    t h e t r e a s u r e o f z i o n . c o m

    October 28, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
  2. jeff

    More people died from the flu than terrorists attacks.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • Mike

      True but the flu is merely nature, and not malicious or intentional.

      October 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  3. terry

    Its true most of the terrorism exists in muslim countries, as alqaida,hammas, MB, etc. those groups gather the poor and uneducated youth and manipulate them and brain wash believing that their god wants that, and most of their leaders hide from authorities and save themselves from going to die. I think those terrorists feel less fortunate in many things than their targets, and they don't want to use their brains to work hard towards improving their lives, and themselves. In my opinion, they are lazy.....

    October 28, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
  4. EricStoner

    How can this be with bin Laden dead and Al Qaeda dismantled and on the run?

    October 28, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • jeff

      After the war in Iraq there was supposed to be stability according to Bush the Butcher. That's why Bush lied about intelligence reports, threaten Valerie Plame who intended to expose him, spent a trillion dollars and killed 4500 troops and wounded 400,000 more that will be draining the VA for the rest of their lives. We are now enjoying complete stability and democracy in the middle east....Mission Accomplished. Thanks Bush.

      October 28, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  5. CNN Brainwashing not good

    Bunch of BS...more Brainwashing from the mainstream media! Look up "The Inner Eugenics Combine" and you will see this is a funded attack by the same ones who want to reduce populations. CNN controlled by the same ones wanting you to believe this is terrorism GET EDUCATED USE YOUR OWN BRAIN PEOPLE DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH!

    October 28, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  6. children of Israel

    Ecclesiastes 3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Jeremiah 8:15)

    October 28, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  7. catahoula57

    I have to admit, when I read the first few lines of the post i was shocked. 15,500 people are dead because of terrorism –wow. Then, the logical side of me took over. You know, the one that asks "who, what, when, where, and why".

    15,500 divided by 8500 = 1.8 deaths per attack. Now, some of those 1.8 dead are terrorists. So taking a guess, that would bring the total down to about 1.5 deaths per attack. I can hardly compare that number to war where a single battle may result in hundreds of deaths.

    You guys in the pop media crack me up. Is there anything you won't say for ratings? No wonder so many people are turning to alternate sources for the news.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Yes, let's compare it with the ~16,000 homicides in the US every year, or the ~38,000 US suicides every year or the ~30,000 US deaths by firearms every year.

      October 28, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
  8. Rebecca

    If you don't believe in god, then why blame a non-existing god for the things that humans do?

    October 28, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • Rebecca

      Excellent question, Rebecca! Thanks for asking it!

      October 28, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • Alias

      Because the people who do the killing believe in it.

      October 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
      • Rebecca

        But you can't blame something that does not exist. That's silly.

        October 28, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
  9. Lazlo

    I guess a lot more Muslims saw that You Tube video and it made them very angry.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  10. children of Israel

    If America hates the God of Abraham the God of Isaac and God of Jacob? Why is the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill (Acts 17:30) *Matthew 22:32*

    October 28, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  11. twanjim

    This event is "totally unexpected" and Obama has said he read about this in the papers.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  12. ...

    who cares?

    October 28, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  13. Jaye

    Islamic apologists squirm to say over and over that this growing terrorism has nothing to do with religion. It's all politics, Ya, sure. That's why 6 of the 7 groups responsible for the insane killing are all Muslim. 9:5.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  14. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    The graph shows no trend other than an onset of the current rate of fatalities some time after 1980. The pie charts are interesting – terror moves around, probably both geographically and with regard to cause. I remember there's a scale of deadly conflict, logarithmic, such that a conflict with one victim ( a murder) gets order 0. A conflict that kills 10 people gets order 1, a million people 6, and so on. Over time, the rate of deaths by conflicts of different orders are about the same. From the graph I'd guess there are about 9000 deaths per year due to terrorism, or about 0.12 per 100000 people. Intentional homicides are about 7 or so per 100000. If terrorist attacks are order 1 or 2, they've some catching up to do.

    Actually, this is a rather heartless way of saying that Daniel at CNN, and others elsewhere to be sure, are trying to play your emotions. Terrorism around the world is obviously a problem, but there are a lot of people dying on the streets here every day. We have a lot of problems to solve.

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

      Can I vote you as president?

      October 28, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Nor does Daniel Burke quote *any* data in his "Belief Blog" piece that differentiates political from religiously inspired terrorism.

      Latin America was quoted as the focus of terrorism in the 1980s. Was that religious too?

      October 28, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • stenny

      Also I want to point out how sad it is that we live in a place with more homicides per person than terrorism worldwide. It's even more aggravating that we can post information, as you do here, and this information will barely be seen by 20-30 people and never make a difference. If the population only knew what was really happening around the world they'd care more. (I hope)

      October 28, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • catahoula57

      According to the Veterans Administration since 1999 an average of 20 Veterans per DAY have committed suicide. Only 21 states to contribute to the data gathering project.


      Dar more than terror kills, but not a word from our news media. Why is that?

      October 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
  15. David L. Hagen

    The step increase in "terrorism" appears to correlate with the order of magnitude increase in OPEC revenues due to the rise in oil prices associated with the 1973 and 1984 oil crises. By 2003, Saudi Arabia had provided $87 billion to Wahhabism for its theofacism. http://www.globalpolitician.com/print.asp?id=3661#_ftn15.

    October 28, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  16. Dingle Berries

    How much more likely is it that someone will die from abuse of police power than a terrorist attack?

    October 28, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  17. children of Israel

    From Afghanistan to Iraq to Pakistan these are places where the American armed forces have set up shop at. *Job 9:24

    October 28, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  18. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    "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"

    Dreadful. Let's break down those numbers.

    That's a casualty rate of 1.8 per terrorist attack. I guess terrorists are like imperial stormtroopers, they're not very good shots.

    There are 7 billion people in the world So about 1 in 450,000 people worldwide were killed by terrorism in 2013. In a population sample the same size as the US, that would be about 700 people.

    This is about one twenty third of the approximate US homicide rate: 16,000 in 314,000,000 or 1 in 19,600 Americans.

    and about one fifty third of the approximate US suicide rate: 38,000 in 314,000,000 or 1 in 8,500.

    Which is a bigger problem? Global terror, domestic suicide or domestic homicide?

    October 28, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      How about a new headline:


      October 28, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      or perhaps, if you want to be specific about guns


      2010 – US firearm related homicides: 11,078

      October 28, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
    • Akira

      Thank you for putting this in perspective. We face more threat daily than most people give credence to.

      October 28, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      my purpose was not to alarm, but normalize the data presented with something closer to home than global terrorism.

      October 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Justin

      So what you are saying is that it is more dangerous to live in Chicago than in Syria.

      October 28, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        Places like Cabrini Green (or whatever the contemporary equivalent is) might in fact be more dangerous than the government held Alawite coastal towns in Syria like Tartus.

        October 28, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
  19. dougjmiller

    Every day now there are Islamic terrorist attacks. Radical Islamic terrorists are waging wars of aggression in many places around the globe. Their goal is world domination and the elimination of every religion other than their perverted version of Islam. They will kill every man, woman and child they can get their blood-thirsty hands on. They will murder every Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Atheist and even moderate or different sect Moslem they can, in order to frighten the rest of the population into submission. The good people and the decent nations must work together to defeat radical Islam or civilization is in peril.

    October 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  20. children of Israel

    And these African Egyptians, Arab Ethiopians are all catching hell to themselves (Ezekiel 30:4) *Revelation 13:10*

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

      If your God is real then I must be dead.

      October 28, 2013 at 7:49 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.