Leiden Safety and Security Blog

A world awash in terrorism?

A world awash in terrorism? Frontpage of the GTI 2017. Copyright IEP

The fifth edition of the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) was recently released. The report provides a summary of the key trends in the last 17 years thereby covering the beginning of 2000 to the end of 2016. The GTI is produced by the Institute for Governance and Peace (IEP) and is based on the data of the Global Terrorism Data (GTD). The IEP has codified over 170,000 terrorist incidents. While recent news suggests that the global homicide rate rises for the first time in more than a decade, the GTI report shows that there is a global decline in the number of deaths by terrorism.

2017 GTI Results

Both the level of conflict and the impact of terrorism has increased worldwide during the past decade. Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen have the highest number of conflict-related deaths and very high levels of terrorism. Although deaths resulting from terrorism declined in 2016, it was the third deadliest year for terrorism since 2000. Of the five countries most affected by terrorism, four of them saw a decline in the number of deaths from terrorism, while they still account for almost three quarters of all deaths from terrorism. However, acts of terrorism continue to spread to other countries as well. A newcomer in the top ten is Turkey, due to an increase of activity of ISIL and the Kurdistan Working Party (PKK). The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) also has rejoined the top ten.

The reason why some countries experienced a large decline in their terrorism-related deaths in 2016 is due to the success of major military operations targeting terrorist groups. It appears that terrorist attacks in conflict countries are less deadly than attacks in non-conflict countries. When the focus is brought to specific regions, sub-Saharan Africa has suffered the most and North America the least fatalities per attack.

Terrorism in OECD Countries

The OECD countries are 35 countries that are member of the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2016, this region experienced the highest number of deaths since 2001. From 1970 to 2016, four different terrorist groups were responsible for two-thirds of the total deaths: Al-Qaida, Irish separatist groups, the Spanish ETA, and ISIL and ISIL inspired attacks.

History shows that there are three ways in which terrorist groups come to an end: 1) Achieved goals/entered politics; 2) Internal splintering; 3) Defeated by military or police. Especially the increase of terrorist activities by Islamic extremists has caused more fatalities, due to the fact that repressive counterterrorism measures have the least success with religious terrorist organizations.

It seems that there is not a linear relationship between a countries’ experience with counterterrorism and the number of terrorist attack attempts. Countries that suffered terrorist attacks have a greater amount of experience to deal with plots and attacks, and it means that a counterterrorism infrastructure is in place. The efficiency of counterterrorism efforts depends on the level of devotion to resources. However, since recently terrorist attacks have become low cost and low tech requiring a minimal level of organization, this change in tactics has made it increasingly difficult to infiltrate and disrupt attacks. The reason for the increase of attacks by ISIL is due to their successful exploitation of social media and the internet. An important difference between indirect and direct ISIL attacks is that direct ISIL involvement are more likely to have high levels of fatalities and are more likely to be foiled. The high number of fatalities can be explained by the targets chosen by ISIL. Their attacks are known to be targeting civilians, with a high impact and low risk.


While the number of fatalities due to terrorism are in a decline, the fight against terrorism is not yet to its end. It is important to realise that the most terrorist activities occur in countries involved in armed conflict or with high levels of political unrest. Politicians should be aware that terrorists often exploit these conflicts for their own purposes. It could be more effective redirect the current focus on reducing the incidence of civil war, instead of focusing on combating terrorism internationally. For more information and further details, see the Global Terrorism Index 2017.

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