19 Apr 2013
A harsh reminder that terrorism hasn't been defeated
Mass-casualty terrorism as we've seen in London, Mumbai and Norway is the hallmark of right-wing, left-wing and Islamist terrorists around the world.
Because of where the bombs were located in Boston, and the fact that they contained shrapnel, we know that the intention was to kill as many people as possible.
There hasn't yet been any claims of responsibility or clear ideological leads on who committed the Boston attack. Neither does there appear to have been specific intelligence regarding the bombings. Even if it had been forthcoming, it would have been impossible to have adopted airline-style security for the marathon.
It's not yet clear whether it was the direct work of a terrorist group, either of the far right or jihadists, through a local cell or an individual member. A terrorist group may have helped others carry out the deed. It may have been some independent-minded network or a sleeper cell. Equally, we could be dealing with a lone wolf, although now that the FBI has released the photos of two suspects, it shifts us away from that theory.
While this terror plot has caught the world's attention we should look at the bigger picture in terms of global terrorism. The best source is Global Terrorism Index 2012, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace. It's based on data from over 104,000 terrorist attacks, collected by the University of Maryland, from everywhere in the world that took place from 1970 until 2011.
The index scores 158 countries over the last 10 years by aggregating the total number of terrorist incidents, fatalities and injuries from terrorism and estimated property damage.
The global trend in the number of incidents has been on the rise over the past decade, but seems to be levelling out in recent years. Despite this, the number of incidents recorded has increased by over 460 per cent above the 2002 levels.
In terms of execution, the success rates of these attacks are high: in 2011, the success rate of attacks was 90 per cent. The vast majority of attacks rely on unsophisticated, readily accessible weapons like explosives and firearms.
Ten per cent of the world's countries account for 75 per cent of the world's terrorist attacks. In 2011, Iraq was the country most impacted from terrorism, followed by Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iraq accounts for about a third of all terrorist deaths over the past decade.
Poverty isn't necessarily a main cause of terrorism. Low-income countries are less affected by terrorism than lower middle-income countries.
Only 31 nations did not experience a terrorist incident between 2002 and 2011, indicating the impact of terror. In 2011, there were 4,564 terrorist incidents globally, resulting in 7,473 deaths and 13,961 injuries.
From 2002 to 2011, North America was the least likely region to suffer from a terrorist attack. North America has a fatality rate 19 times lower than Western Europe.
The US has had the largest improvement in GTI score from 2002-2011, dropping from 1st to 41st in the index, as the effects of 9/11 dissipated. The US ranks 14th in the world in terms of total attacks and 16th in terms of total fatalities. But 90 per cent of total US terrorism fatalities since 1970 are accounted for by the four coordinated attacks of 9/11.
Fortunately 9/11 has turned out to be a rare event. But the events in Boston again reminds us that terrorism will be a permanent national security challenge for the foreseeable future.
As Professor Gary LaFree from the University of Maryland has argued, terrorism has a 'bursty' quality:
When it is effective in a particular time and place, we get a lot of it rapidly. This last point suggests that it would be foolhardy to ignore the threats posed. And this is the challenge for contemporary societies raised by terrorism: there are dangers in over reacting but there are also dangers in not reacting.
Dr Anthony Bergin is deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.