Terrorism’s toll is bigger than what you see on cable TV

August 11 at 3:00 PM
Iraqi counter-terrorism forces advance their positions in Fallujah, Iraq, in June. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

President Obama has suggested that the threat of Islamist terrorism is overblown, lecturing the country to “maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order.” He suggested that we have an inordinate fear of terrorism because of media hype. (“Well, I think what’s fair is that post-Paris you had a saturation of news about the horrible attack there. And ISIL [the Islamic State] combines viciousness with very savvy media operations. And as a consequence, if you’ve been watching television for the last month, all you have been seeing, all you have been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you.”)

Beyond the president, many in the media and political chattering class bristle at calling it a “war,” let alone a “war against Islamist terrorism.”

Actually, a new study suggests that people do not appreciate just how serious and deadly is the war we are fighting. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) is out with a new report. Its conclusion is bracing:

Between 2002 and 2015, more than 4,900 terrorist attacks were carried out by groups or organizations affiliated with the organization now known as the Islamic State. These attacks caused more than 33,000 deaths and 41,000 injuries (including perpetrator casualties), and involved more than 11,000 individuals held hostage or kidnapped. Excluding incidents where the perpetrator group was not identified, these attacks represented 13 percent of all terrorist attacks worldwide, 26 percent of all deaths, 28 percent of all injuries, and 24 percent of all kidnap victims or hostages due to terrorism during the same time period.

That does not really encompass the full picture. I asked the study’s directors whether this included the Syrian war, which by some counts has now killed more than 400,000 and spawned millions of refugees. The study “does not include violence by state actors. Therefore, attacks and deaths attributed to the Syrian regime are not included,” said Erin Miller, program manager for the Global Terrorism Database. “If source articles indicate which non-state organization carried out the attack, we will record its name in the data. (This certainly includes attacks/deaths by ISIL.)” Moreover, she stresses that the methodology for including deaths is very conservative “because we require at least one unbiased, valid source to corroborate the attacks included in the database, and many attacks reported in Syria do not meet this threshold.”

In other words, 33,000 people murdered by the Islamic State almost certainly understates the extent of the threat. In addition to casualties — 85,000 dead, wounded or captured — there is the physical destruction, public health crises and refugee onslaught. This sure sounds like a war. And given the unpredictable nature of attacks, the toll it takes on the psyche and budgets of Western countries is immense.

And that is just the Islamic State and related groups. Defense One gives a quick summary of various terrorist groups:

Taliban: 25,000
IS-Khorasan: 1,000 to 3,000
Lashkar-e-Taiba/Haqqani: nearly 5,000
AQAP: 1,000 to 3,000
IS-Yemen: nearly 200
ISIS: 19,000 to 25,000
Shebab: 7,000 to 9,000
Nusra: 10,000
Ansar al-Sharia: 5,000
AQIM: 1,000
IS-Libya: 1,000 to 7,000
Total: 75,200 to 91,200

Where is AQ today? Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Burma, Djibouti, Ethiopia, France, India, Kashmir, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, United States, Yemen

Where is ISIS today? Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the North Caucasus. Beyond this, the terror group has waged attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Belgium, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Tunisia, and Kuwait.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton has sounded a whole lot more serious about the jihadist threat (which she now correctly identifies). The next president needs to level with the public about the breadth of the problem and then ask Congress for the resources commensurate with the threat.