By Nelson Graves
Let’s take time out from digesting Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election to look at a critical issue that is helping to shape politics in that country and around the world: terrorism.
Terrorism sends shock waves around the globe, killing and maiming innocent people. It can trigger streams of refugees who desperately seek a new home and yet who are seen by many in potential recipient countries as threats to a traditional way of life.
Meanwhile, radical jihadism can lure impressionable outsiders into conflict zones like Syria, then in some cases re-export extremists who kill “apostates,” exacerbating a sense of vulnerability in Europe and the United States that is fueling populist and nationalist movements. Some home-grown terrorists are radicalized via the Internet.
In a globalized world, then, terrorism has knock-on effects that ripple throughout economies, politics and psyches.
A recent report on terrorist trends around the world offers good news and bad news to those who worry about its corrosive effects on international relations and domestic politics in Europe and the United States.
The fluid nature of modern terrorism
The good news: Deaths from terrorism decreased by 10 percent in 2015 from the year before to 29,376, according to the report by the Institute for Economics and Peace. It was the first decrease in the number of deaths recorded since 2010.
The bad news: 23 countries recorded their highest number of deaths from terrorism in 2015, six more than the previous high of 17 countries in 2014.
And while there were fewer deaths in Iraq and Nigeria, deaths from terrorism dramatically increased in developed countries in 2015, rising six-fold when compared to 2014.
Of 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 21 suffered at least one terrorist attack, with the majority of deaths occurring in Turkey and France.
“While on the one hand the top-line statistics highlight an improvement in the levels of global terrorism, the continued intensification of terrorism in some countries is a cause for serious concern, and highlights the fluid nature of modern terrorist activity,” the 108-page report says.
The report is based on the Global Terrorism Database (GTI), considered to be the most comprehensive data set on terrorist activity globally. The index weighs four factors in establishing a country’s score: the number of incidents, fatalities and injuries, and total property damage.
(There is no single accepted definition of terrorism. As editors at Reuters used to say: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” For its index, DTI defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation.”)
Five countries accounted for nearly three quarters of all deaths.
While 76 countries improved their GTI scores compared to 53 countries that worsened, the overall global score deteriorated by six percent in 2015 as many moderately affected countries experienced record levels of terrorism.
That was true in Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and Turkey, all of which recorded the most deaths from terrorism in a single year since 2000.
Little wonder, then, that far-right movements advocating tighter border restrictions are gaining strength in all of those countries.
Still, a mere five countries accounted for nearly three quarters of all deaths from terrorism in 2015: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria.
The overall drop in deaths last year was due primarily to a 32 percent fall in fatalities in Iraq and Nigeria, mainly because of decreased activity of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Islamic State (ISIL) in Iraq following military setbacks.
The down side, of course, is that Boko Haram has expanded its terrorist activities in the neighboring countries of Cameroon and Niger, while ISIL has reallocated declining resources to conventional combat in Syria. ISIL has also called for attacks on soft targets in developed countries such as France.
These shifts underscore the complexity and fluidity of terrorism in a globalized world.
The costs of terrorism are distributed unevenly.
Turning to the economic impact of terrorism, the report calculates the global costs in 2015 at $90 billion, down 15 percent from its 2014 level.
But the costs in 2015 were still at their second highest since 2000. “[T]he economic and opportunity costs arising from terrorism have increased approximately eleven-fold during the last 15 years,” it said.
And the costs are distributed unevenly. The 10 countries suffering the biggest economic impacts of terrorism are all conflict-ridden states in the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Iraq is the country most affected by the economic impact of terrorism, amounting to 17 percent of its national output.
Finally, the report puts its finger on a chilling silver lining: The economic impact of terrorism is relatively small compared to other forms of violence.
Terrorism last year accounted for about one percent of the cost of violence at the global level — which it pegged at $13.6 trillion, or 13 per cent of global economic output.