Global terrorism deaths on the increase

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Global deaths from terrorism have risen to their highest level since 2017, with 8 352 deaths recorded in 2023, a new report has found.

The latest Global Terrorism Index 2024 published by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) said that while the number of terror attacks globally declined 22% last year to 3 350, deaths skyrocketed by 22% to reach 8 352.

Although terrorism had been falling or remaining steady for several years prior to 2023 (with substantial falls from 2015 to 2019 followed by several years of minor fluctuations), “the last 12 months saw the largest percentage increase in terrorism since the inception of the GTI, even as total attacks fell considerably”.

“This dynamic reflects an intensification of terrorism, with fewer attacks committed by fewer groups while causing a larger number of fatalities.”

An example of this was the 7 October attack by Hamas-led militants in Israel, which killed 1 200 people, and was the largest single terrorist attack since 9/11, and one of the largest terrorist attacks in history. “The consequences of this attack have been immense and are still unfolding, with an estimated 25 000 Palestinians killed by Israel’s retaliatory military response as of February 2024,” the IEP reported.

The number of active terrorist groups has also fallen considerably over the past 15 years, with 66 groups recording at least one attack last year, compared to 141 active groups in 2009. However, the increase in the intensity of terrorism has driven a rise in the lethality rate of terrorist attacks to just under 2.5 fatalities per attack, compared to 1.6 in 2022, the highest level since 2015.

Improvements in Iraq and Afghanistan

The IEP found the most notable improvements in terrorism occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan last year. Iraq was ranked outside of the worst ten countries in the index for the first time, with less than a hundred deaths (69) from terrorism recorded in 2023. Total deaths have fallen 99% since their peak in 2007, with incidents falling 90%.

Afghanistan has also seen a significant improvement in the impact of terrorism, with deaths and incidents falling 84% and 75% respectively since 2007. The GTI does not include acts of state repression and violence by state actors and as such, acts committed by the Taliban are no longer included in the scope of its report since the group’s ascension to power.

Islamic State remains deadliest terror group

The deadliest terrorist groups in the world in 2023 were the Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates, followed by Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), Hamas, and al-Shabaab.

IS remained the deadliest terrorist group globally for the ninth consecutive year, recording both the highest number of attacks and deaths from terrorism. Although the group is still highly active, its impact has been falling for almost all of those nine years.

Deaths attributed to the group and its affiliates – Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISK), Islamic State – Sinai Province (ISS), Islamic State – Sahel and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) – fell by 17% over the last year to 1 636, the lowest number since 2014. The group carried out attacks in 20 countries in 2023, down from 30 countries in 2020.

Conflict continues to drive terrorism

The IEP found that violent conflict remains the primary driver of terrorism, with over 90% of attacks and 98% of terrorism deaths in 2023 taking place in countries in conflict. All ten countries most impacted by terrorism in 2022 were also involved in an armed conflict.

The intensity of terrorism in conflict is also much higher than in non-conflict countries, with an average of 2.7 fatalities per attack compared to 0.48 fatalities.

Decline in Western terrorism

Terrorism in the West has fallen to its lowest level in 15 years, the GTI found, with just 23 attacks recorded in the West in 2023, a 55% drop from the prior year, and considerably lower than the peak of 176 attacks that was recorded in 2017. Sixteen of those attacks occurred in the United States, with only five countries in the West recording any attacks at all, and only Belgium and the US recording any deaths.

Total deaths in the West fell by 22% to 21 fatalities in 2023. Both political and religiously motivated attacks fell in the West. Of the seven attacks recorded in the US in 2023, five were linked to individuals with far-right sympathies or connections.

“Although terrorism has fallen in the West, there are still concerns about a possible resurgence in 2024,” the IEP warned. “The 7 October attacks, and their aftermath, have greatly increased political tensions in Europe, with German police disrupting planned terrorist attacks on Jewish institutions. There are also concerns over an increase in politically related violence, with record numbers of countries set to go to the polls in 2024.”

Terrorism is not the deadliest form of violence

Although terrorism has rebounded, armed conflict results in nine times more fatalities than terrorism, homicide accounts for over 45 times more, and deaths from suicide are 72 times higher, IEP research found. “However, terrorism is unique as its unpredictability and high casualty rates lead to significant emotional and psychological impacts, which can in turn lead to significant social and geopolitical repercussions.”

Looking forward, the IEP found that prospects for 2024 are uncertain. The conflict in Gaza has heightened the possibility of terror attacks in the Middle East and North African region, and in states perceived as supportive of Israel or with large Jewish populations. Meanwhile, the ongoing deterioration of the security situation in the Sahel may result in further increases in conflict and terrorist activity, it warned.