ddsFor statisticians and those interested in developing quantitative to understanding the dynamics of international terrorism a number of traps lie in wait. FIRE security expert Dr Dave Sloggett explains.

Despite years of debate and analysis the term terrorism remains one that is hard to define. The adage ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ still applies. What actually constitutes an act of terrorism remains a subject of some intense academic debate. For anyone trying to study and understand patterns of terrorism this is important. If you cannot define terrorism how can you measure any progress that has been made in defeating it? For political leaders this is also crucial.

The publication at the beginning of December 2012 of the Global Terrorism Index by the Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP), a think tank based in the United States, highlights the issues that arise. Their claim of 4,564 terrorist incidents in 2011 seems at odds with other reputable sources of analysis. The death toll they attribute to the attacks also is at variance with other figures put into the public domain. It has led to mainstream media reporting that is misleading. One claim is that the number of fatalities arising from terrorism has fallen by 25% over the last four years. This is simply untrue.

The point of the Global Terrorism Index is to develop a consolidated view of the current ranking of countries around the world from a risk viewpoint and to highlight any trends over the last ten years. Consistently over the last four years four countries have taken the top places in the risk table. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have been consistently the country’s most ‘impacted’ by terrorism. The key word here is impacted.

Behind those countries a number of others, such as Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia have seen trends over the past decade where they have moved from being low down the list (i.e. relatively safe) to being in the top ten in the league table. Given the rate of reporting of events in those countries of activities carried out by Al Qaeda’s affiliates this is hardly surprising.

If the reporting had extended to 2012 it is highly likely that Syria would be featuring at a high point on the table. Interestingly in 2005 in the aftermath of the London bombings the United Kingdom reached its highest point on the list at 15th. Since then it has stayed around 27th and 28th.

Whilst the tables themselves produce what can be described as an intuitive set of results it is important to try and understand the factors that go into building the index. The methodology developed by IEP is based upon a weighted approach. Four factors are combined. The number of incidents, the death toll and injuries caused in the attack and an assessment of the property damage involved are all combined in a weighted assessment. This is quite a limited measure.

The name of the index also does not help. Calling the measure a Global Terrorism Index is misleading. That would imply that one of the factors built into the assessment was an indication of the latent capability in a country where a reservoir of potentially radicalised people exists that is being disrupted. Patently this is not the case. The index suggests that America is now one of the least likely locations for a terrorist attack and yet since 2001 fifty three attempted acts of terrorism have been prevented by law enforcement officials up until the end of 2011.

The IEP index simply records what has happened after the event. It takes no account of the effectiveness of the law enforcement authority’s activities to disrupt and prevent acts of terrorism. For the index to live up to its title some additional factoring in of the latent potential for attacks needs to be considered. If that is not easy then perhaps the IEP should consider renaming the index.

Data published in wider open sources suggests that acts of violence, the majority of which can be associated with the definition of terrorism provided by the Secretary General of the United Nations in 2004, are on the increase. Tactics vary considerably across countries and sometimes acts are incorrectly labelled as terrorism. This can be a root cause of some statistics being incorrect. A recent machete attack in Nigeria that saw ten people die is a possible case in point. Initially labelled as an act of terrorism further analysis highlights an alternative motive linked to a tribal dispute. Being certain of the motive behind the attacks is crucial if terrorism is to be defined accurately and real trends are calculated.

That way political leaders, some of whom might be tempted to think that terrorism has had its day, can be shown the reality of what is occurring on the ground. Since the Olympic Games in London if anything the international situation has deteriorated.

Across North Africa, the Sahel, the Sinai and Syria new groups allied to Al Qaeda are making their presence felt. The number of places where Al Qaeda franchises now operates has grown in the course of 2012. This trend alone is worrying. On the basis of the evidence that appears in open source reporting international terrorism is not on the decrease. Neither is it levelling off.

Whilst defining the precise figures will remain difficult the trends are not good. In Iraq a resurgent Al Qaeda franchise continues its sectarian war. In the Yemen and Somalia groups that have been on the back foot have started to re-group. In Mali, the Sinai and Syria new franchises are being formed. There is no doubt progress has been made over the last ten years. Numerous plots have been disrupted across the United States and Western Europe. Developing a detailed and accurate quantification of progress however remains difficult.

Care needs to be taken in interpreting any results that claim to measure the progress, or otherwise, in the Global War on Terror. Media outlets tempted to draw quick conclusions from incomplete datasets need to be wary. Headline figures can mislead political and public opinion. At a time when the terrorist’s greatest asset is complacency headlines that may lower public expectations on the true nature of the threat from international terrorism is not helpful.