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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. jerry

    I'm not afraid to close my eyes and die. Not afraid to bit this world goodbye.

    October 28, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  2. Dave-0

    Maybe Joe Biden shouldn't have shouted "and Al Qaeda is on the run" quite so loudly at the Democrat convention..

    October 28, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • Demetri

      Do you know how many offshoots Al Qaeda has, or how fast they spring up? No? Shhhh. It's not the US's job to police the world, you partisan hack.

      October 28, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  3. ahh_biz

    The "War on Terror" is a Bogus construct of the Rich and Powerful that control America's government. I am Especially
    talking about our large Oil companies. They (the collective GOP, big business, religious right alliance) have misled you
    with the idea of "Islamic Radicals" being behind this war; the religious right are quick to seize on the opportunity to make
    this a "Christian against Muslim conflict" but get past the emotional triggers these people are using to manipulate your
    emotions and take a deep look here:
    Did you ever notice that "International Terrorists" all seem to come from third world countries that have OIL or some other
    natural resource the United States and it's allies have an interest in?
    Did you study American history in grade school? Do you remember how King George called the American colonists
    "Terrorists", especially after the Boston Tea Party?
    In 1776 the British Empire had the most powerful military in the world, and a rag tag band of "Colonials" brought them to
    their knees fighting what we now call "Asymmetric Warfare". We were once a British Colony with natural resources
    being exploited by the British Crown, they labeled the colonists "Terrorists". Today we call them the fathers our country;
    Jefferson, Washington, Franklin et al. would have hung for high treason in London without a little luck, and the long
    distance between North America and Britain.
    Do you see any similarities between the 18th century British Empire and the modern day United States exploiting
    small third world OIL RICH countries that we are effectively colonizing for their OIL?

    October 28, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • Bob

      What's bogus is dim rote asinine chants of "duh oil companies duh rich and famous duh big oil duh duh poor deserve it all for free duh have no choice than to kill duh oil companies duh duh"

      October 28, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
    • kerfluffle

      I think that, collectively, if not individually, Ag and Pharma conspire to poison our own.

      October 28, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • ahhbiz

      Domestic spying, of American citizens who have not committed crimes; that is another matter. The fact that our government needs to engage in this type of spying; which we previously decried as “Totalitarian”; when it was performed by the likes of the USSR and East Germany, now becomes “necessary” when America does it.

      "But we have to defend ourselves against the evil terrorists!!!"

      Sure we do; because in order to justify to the American people why we need to go to the “evil terrorists’” countries for the true purpose of making it safe for American Corporations to plunder their OIL; we first have to establish in the minds of the American people that these middle eastern people are our enemies. (see Major General Smedley Butler – War is a Racket)

      The coincidental benefit of always fighting a “War against Terror”, is that now you have justification to spy on American citizens and monitor the political dissidence that would threaten the Plutocracy that really own this country and it’s government.

      Here is one change we could make in our country that can stop or greatly reduce this Plutocratic induced war on terror: Switch to renewable alternative energy sources that can displace fossil fuels. More research needs to be done regarding Hydrogen / Electric hybrid systems of energy storage, which could be the answer.

      October 28, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  4. Muddy Road

    This is the second propaganda article today, the other was the NSA fluff piece. Do they pay you well to print this tripe?

    Anyway, how many attacks were stopped by NSA mass surveillance? Not many apparently.

    None?

    October 28, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • common tater

      By definition, terrorism cannot be a tactic of war. Terrorism is an attack against non-combatants. Use of bombs, suicide bombers, etc, doesn't, beards, Eastern religions, etc, does not make it terrorism.

      October 28, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
      •  Dippy's assistant

        Maybe you should clean that up some so that it makes sense.

        October 28, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  5. Denier

    More American die from the 2nd Amendment then from terrorism. Lets stop hiding the REAL problem.

    October 28, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
  6. wowwhatamess

    so hows that war on terror going NSA and the good ol usa pol's? Seems you are just stirring the pot and making things worse with your last 12 years of violent policy.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  7. caribbeanconch

    Wow That ( T ) word sure gets used alot. More americans are killed by Americans and American is responsible for more deaths around the world since the word terrorist was ever used.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      WE ARE AT WAR WITH TERROR

      WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN AT WAR WITH TERROR

      IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

      October 28, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
      • Doris

        True not(GOPer). Some people reading this may at this very moment have some beard-cutting Amish people sneaking through their back yards.

        October 28, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  8. Tired

    The Democratic Partisans once deceitfully blamed all the problems on GW Bush. Barack Obama personally engaged in ugly vilification and slander in a similar pattern for his own petty gain. A number of Democrats actually suggested terrorism would go away after Obama was named President. And Obama mindlessly suggested Afghanistan was the only source of this dangerous problem. It was all a vivid lie.

    Now? Everything is a 100 times worse, everything. Americans are losing their jobs, losing their health care plans, losing their doctors, etc. We have the highest poverty rate in US History, the lowest job participation in 35 years, etc. It is a fiasco.

    And Barack Obama has predictably given rise to terrorism once again, just like the negligent Clinton failure before enabling the worst with weak appeasement schemes and pure denial. The 9-11 Commission actually rebuked this folly, remarking on the failure of treating terrorism as a mere law enforcement matter. But the Democratic Party foolishly has returned to the vivid folly, and predictably the so-called "man made disaster" is suddenly growing like wild fire again, just as it grew being enabled during the Clinton malfeasance in the 90's. What a mess.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Sources? Most of that just sounds like unfounded TP rants.

      October 28, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
      • Gregg

        It's common knowledge for anyone paying attention Einstein.

        October 28, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
        • tallulah13

          Yes. It's common knowledge that Tea Party pundits and pols will happily lie for their own gain. The sad part is that some people are so ignorant they allow the Tea Party pundits and pols to do their thinking for them.

          October 28, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
        • TAK

          Ironic you should bring up Einstein, since you TP'ers don't believe in science.

          October 28, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  9. siggis94

    Why is this in the belief blog?? This should be in the World section of the website.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
    • Bob

      Your cussing on the other hand is noble onesty

      October 28, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  10. DickPerry

    "To be counted as an act of terror, an incident has to be an intentional act or threat by a "non-state actor""
    Which of course is ridicules since we all know that there are states like USA who use terrorism as a tactic. It should all be counted and appropriate legal measures should be taken against any actor that resort to terrorism of any kind. No organization or country is above the law. Its time to enforce the international law all the time and not just whenever it feels good to do it.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
  11. John

    Still a very anemic response by moderate Muslims to this violence. While political motivations certainly exist, the article misses the point that even without political excuses, the racism and bigotry in many Muslim societies would probably still serve as fuel for violence. Ample survey data supports this.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Yep. Moderates are complicit in dangerous fundamentalism if they do not loudly and clearly denounce it with attending exegesis of scripture. We should hold "to the fire" the feet of those moderates who do not denounce such horrible acts. (Of course, I'm not being literal; I leave the actual torture by fire to azzhole gods who can't keep their stories straight or peaceful.

      October 28, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
  12. jimd

    That's Islam for you.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  13. Chuck

    It will take a World Wide War to stop this Islamic insanity

    October 28, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Let's hope not.

      October 28, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
  14. kevin

    who cares, the middle east is 99% terrists, they've been killing each other since they were born, nothing has changed in 5k+ years, and it never will

    October 28, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
  15. children of Israel

    The world of the religious are calling themselves a god? *Deuteronomy 32:39 See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand. (John 8:24)

    October 28, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
  16. Lamb of Dog

    7 Billion people died last year.
    That's 1 in every 460000 deaths caused by terrorist.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      There's only 7 billion people alive. We didn't all die last year!

      October 28, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
    • JMan

      7 billion people died. Really now

      So, apparently the Earth has been wiped to extinction and we're all just ghosts that are able to type on our keyboards

      October 28, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • Secretwhistler

      What an idiot. I guess I'm dead and didn't know it.

      October 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
    • Arch

      And... and... hey, dog is God spelled backwards! Wow, you ARE clever!

      October 28, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
    • joakim

      about 76-80 billion people have ever lived so thats alot to die in one year lol

      October 28, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
    •  

      This was most likely a name-stealing "Christian" that posted as Lamb of Dog. This person regularly steals names on the BB.

      October 28, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
  17. Justin

    This article is racist, lol. How dare they pick on Islam. May the fleas of a thousand camels infest their underwear. IRS audit probably coming, too.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
  18. strangways

    sure glad our bringing "Democracy" to the middle east has worked out. Watch as Assad falls and we get another power vacuum, filled by al Quaeda. that part of the world NEEDS strongmen.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
  19. Lamb of Dog

    587 people were killed by police in the US last year. If you add the rest of the world I bet its more than 15,500.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • Secretwhistler

      Thats not very many compared to the 7 billion you said died last year. Cops need to do better!

      October 28, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  20. Alek Fractoid

    With Bush, there was a fear of retaliation. Not so much with this clown. Funny site – obamacaregov dot us.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:43 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.