Here’s one small reason for gratitude during the Thanksgiving season: Deaths caused by terrorist attacks around the world have fallen by more than half in just the last five years, declining again in 2019, according to an annual analysis released Wednesday by a prominent Australian think tank.
Overall for 2019, the survey recorded 13,826 terror-related deaths, down 15% from the year before and down 59% from 2014, the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) reported in its latest Global Terrorism Index.
The estimated global economic damage caused by terror attacks also has declined significantly in the past five years. Terror-related economic costs were estimated at $26.4 billion last year, down 25% from 2018 and 77% from their high point in 2014.
“The past five years saw the end of the surge in terrorism across the globe, with deaths from terrorism declining every year since 2014,” the IEP reported in its latest Global Terrorism Index.
Keys to the decline include the steady withering of the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq and what the institute calls “increased counter-terrorism coordination at both the state and international level” around the world.
All told, some 63 countries recorded at least one death from a terrorist attack, and 17 countries reported 100 or more.
However, the report noted, “only Afghanistan and Nigeria recorded over 1,000 deaths and both countries had significant reductions in the number of people killed in 2019. By contrast, in 2015 there were six countries that recorded over a thousand deaths from terrorism.”
The latest numbers gibe with a shift in U.S. military strategy, which for more than a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks was heavily focused on the global war on terrorism. But a new strategy doctrine pushed through by the Pentagon in 2018 reorients security policy to meet the challenge of traditional “great-power” nation-state rivals such as China and Russia.
It’s not all good news, though.
Terrorism “remains a significant and serious threat in many countries,” the Australian researchers said, pointing to ongoing challenges in Afghanistan, where it said the Taliban “remained the world’s deadliest terrorist group in 2019” and both Islamic State and al Qaeda have secured significant footholds.
And while Islamic State activity has decreased in the Middle East and North Africa, the terror group’s affiliates remain active around the globe and its “center of gravity” has shifted to the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, where 7 of the 10 countries experiencing the largest increases in terrorism deaths are located.
While Afghanistan and Nigeria experienced the largest drops in terror-related fatalities in 2019, the African nation of Burkina Faso saw the most significant rise, from 86 in 2018 to 593, as the country was battling with three different terror groups.
Sri Lanka saw the second largest increase in 2019, almost entirely tied to an Islamist plot to bomb Christian churches during Easter celebrations — the deadliest single terror attack of the year. South Asia overall once again recorded the highest number of terror-related fatalities in 2019 of any of the regions studied in the survey.
Threat from the right
For the U.S. and its Western allies, the terror index found that the biggest emerging threat is coming from far-right groups. “Far-right attacks have increased by 250% since 2014” in North America, Western Europe and Oceania — the South Pacific region that includes Australia. Such attacks are “higher now than at any time in the last 50 years,” according to IEP analysts.
There was just one terrorist attack recorded in the West in 2010; last year the number had jumped to 49. “As we enter a new decade we are seeing new threats of terrorism emerge. The rise of the far-right in the West and the deteriorations in the Sahel are prime examples,” IEP Executive Chairman Steve Killelea said in a statement.
“Additionally, as seen in the recent attacks in France and Austria, many smaller groups sympathetic to [Islamic State] philosophies are still active,” he said. “To break these influences three major initiatives are needed — break their media coverage and online social networks; disrupt their funding; and lessen the number of sympathizers.”
The Global Terrorism Index relies on a range of data, including the number of attacks reported, fatalities, injuries and property damage caused by terrorism. It specifically uses data compiled within the Global Terrorism Database at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a Department of Homeland Security research effort led by the University of Maryland.
This year’s index, which examined data compiled up to the start of 2020, found the global economic impact of terrorism was roughly $16.4 billion during 2019 — a decrease of some 25% from the previous year.
Despite that positive news, the Global Terrorism Index’s assertions about the Taliban underscore continuing challenges to what has been a mounting push by the Trump administration during recent months to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.
While the index said the Taliban was the world’s most lethal terrorist group in 2019, it noted terrorist deaths attributed to the group actually declined by 18% throughout the year. However, over the decade leading up to the start of 2019, incidents of terrorism steadily expanded in Afghanistan, with deaths increasing by 439% from 2009 to 2019, the index said.
The Pentagon, however, is forging ahead with President Trump’s plan to dramatically cut the remaining U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, brushing aside objections from lawmakers at home and top officials abroad while signaling the U.S. accepts that after nearly two decades of war it cannot fully eradicate Islamist terror groups from the region.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller confirmed last week that the Pentagon will reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by Jan. 15 — five days before presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden is expected to take the oath of office.
The announcement was met by mixed reactions among both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, where Mr. Trump’s campaign against U.S. involvement in “endless wars” has had a varied impact on attitudes toward America’s military role in the world.
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article.