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Exaggerating the Global Terrorism Threat: 2005-2008

February 20, 2010

The “Invade a Hospital” poster numbers, it turns out, are not wholly inaccurate (as I asserted in a previous post). In an email to Andrew Sullivan, Jake Lewis, the poster’s creator, responds to my critique, explaining that the 774 figure “defines terrorism as an international act and comes from Patterns of Global Terrorism,” a report issued by the state department annually from 1985-2004. In 2005, that number was expanded by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to include domestic terrorism — a fact of which Lewis was apparently unaware at the time he created the poster.

Lewis’ numbers are therefore not bogus, so much as obsolete.

But I really have no interest in further critiquing of Lewis’ work, which I otherwise admire. What interests me is the shift in metrics itself, and its affect on perceptions of global terrorism. In the Annex of Statistical Information of the 2008 NCTC report, Gary LaFree at the University of Maryland (where global terrorism is also tracked) explains NCTC’s rationale for broadening the definition of terrorism:

In the last two decades there have been more than a dozen attempts to build open source event data bases on terrorism. A major drawback of these data collections is that they have traditionally excluded domestic terrorist attacks—even though analysts have long suspected that domestic attacks greatly outnumber international ones. Both the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS), collected by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, have tackled this problem.

In short, the new method of tracking terrorism is more comprehensive.

But is it more reliable? On the one hand, at the time NCTC began tracking domestic incidents, conventional wisdom in the intelligence community held that the threat of global terrorism was growing. Such thinking was supported by the 2006 NCTC report’s finding that the number of fatalities from global terrorism had increased by 41 percent from 2005, along with similar data from the University of Maryland START, and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terror (MIPT).

It appears, however, that the conventional wisdom was wrong — or at least misleading. As a Brief published in 2007 by the Human Security Report Project explains, revising the definition of terrorism to include the “intentional killing of civilians in civil wars” has the effect of “greatly inflating the global terrorism toll” (p. 9). (See chapter 1, available as a PDF here)

Most of the apparent increase in global terrorism from 2005 to 2006, it turns out, was due to counting deaths from terrorism in Iraq’s civil war. The Brief states that the NCTC’s estimate for such deaths accounted for “nearly 80 percent of the total Iraqi civilian fatality toll of 16,657” in 2006 (p. 10). In other words, NCTC attributed the overwhelming majority of deaths in Iraq that year to terrorism. Conversely, the Brief tells us that MIPT and START coded “extraordinarily few of the thousands of violent civilian deaths in Africa’s many civil wars” as terrorism related — a sign of the intelligence community’s fixation on the US (p. 10). Taking Iraq out of the picture, there is, in short, “no evidence of any substantial increase in the fatality toll since data on both domestic and international terrorism began to be collected in 1998” (p. 20).

I am not generally prone to conspiracy theories. It is not at all clear to me that LaFree’s explanation of NCTC’s rationale was disingenuous — that the shift in metrics was somehow part of a larger attempt by the Bush administration to hype the threat of global terrorism.

But it certainly does make one wonder.

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