Gary LaFree: Public Policy and (Myths About) Terrorism

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9/11. Photo: 9/11 Photos/flickr.

On 22 May 2013, the ISN hosted the latest in a series of roundtable discussions on international relations or security-centered events. After analyzing the present status of Political Islam in last month’s roundtable, the topic of discussion this time around was Public Policy (and Myths) about Terrorism, which featured the University of Maryland’s Dr. Gary LaFree.

In his preliminary remarks, Dr. LaFree first observed that counterterrorism policy agendas are too often set by a small number of high-profile yet ultimately atypical events. In other words, terrorist strikes such as 9/11 and the recent Boston Marathon bombing have had a disproportionate impact on the development of counterterrorism policy in the US and elsewhere. That such “black swan” events have influenced policy as they have then led Dr. LaFree to raise his second point. Actual terrorism is more akin to ordinary criminal activity than not. In fact, terrorist incidents tend to be highly concentrated in time and space. They are rarely isolated in nature and tend to occur in small, self-repeating clusters or “bursts”. They echo, in short, the “near-repeat” phenomena seen in criminal activity.

Dispelling Myths

After arguing against policies driven by “black swans” and reminding us that real terrorism is crime-like in its “burstiness”, LaFree then went on to dispel nine public policy myths about terrorism. He did so by relying on the hard data provided by the University of Maryland’s open source Global Terrorism Database. As explained by LaFree, the myths and actual realities of terrorism are as follows:

  • The number of terrorist attacks has been increasing worldwide. The reality: Before 1992 the number of attacks worldwide rose steadily but then dramatically declined between 1992 and 1998. The number then remained low before rising sharply again between 2004 and 2008.
  • Terrorist attacks occur in every corner of the world. The reality: Terrorist attacks are in fact highly concentrated geographically. About 5 percent of the world’s countries account for approximately 50 percent of attacks, with 10 percent of them account for over 75 percent of attacks.
  • The US is targeted more frequently than other countries. The reality: Having experienced 2,362 attacks since 1970, the US actually ranks 14th on this particular list. Iraq (7,807 attacks), Colombia (7,453 attacks) and India (6,905 attacks) hold the top three positions.
  • Most terrorist attacks are international or transnational in nature. The reality: Of the 52 foreign terrorist groups most recently identified by the US State Department as threats to the US homeland, 93 percent of their attacks were domestic in nature.
  • Terrorism is unrelated to traditional political grievances. The reality: Contrary to amorphous generalizations about terrorist motivations and psychology, the terrorist groups that perpetrate the most attacks are actually fighting about territory, or they have concrete, well-articulated political goals.
  • Most terrorist attacks are lethal. The reality: 56 percent of the terrorist attacks recorded in the GTD killed no-one, either because there was no lethal intent (i.e., the target was infrastructure rather than people), or just because they failed.
  •  Most terrorist attacks rely on sophisticated weaponry. The reality: 80 percent of terrorist attacks in the GTD used ‘normal’ explosives such as dynamite and grenades, or relied on simple firearms to wreak havoc.
  • Most terrorist organizations are long-lasting and difficult to eradicate. The reality: Even though 10 percent of the organizations in the database have existed for more than 10 years, which is worrisome, 70 percent of them disappeared in less than a year.
  • Terrorist groups are impervious to counterterrorism policies and rarely make mistakes. The reality: Terrorist attacks and groups generally fail due to basic strategic errors, either in their political calculations or in how they try to execute their attacks.

The picture of terrorism that emerges from the above examples is one in which events such as 9/11 or the London, Madrid and Boston Marathon bombings are indeed atypical and that the “Global War on Terrorism”, as initially pursued by the United States and its allies, was particularly ill-suited to deal with the phenomenon as it continues to exist today. Indeed, if terrorism is primarily non-lethal, domestic in nature, and generally perpetrated by transient groups motivated by traditional territorial or political grievances, then invading and occupying two countries, creating vast surveillance architectures, and curtailing individual rights in the interests of security may have been serious errors and overreactions on numerous governments’ parts.

But there are at least two ways to interpret the discrepancy between the GTD’s picture of terrorism and the reality of events such as 9/11 and the Boston marathon bombings. We could conclude, for example, that terrorism in general (and therefore 9/11-type events) does not warrant the aggressive response unleashed over the last decade. But we could also conclude that while terrorism in general may not justify that kind of response, 9/11-type events actually do – either because they represent a special variety of terrorist activity or a different phenomenon altogether.

GTD vs. the ‘Fourth Wave’

While the GTD data does seem compelling, it is also possible that terrorism is changing in qualitative ways that the GTD as a whole fails to capture. According to David Rapoport, for example, whose work was cited several times during the Q&A portion of the roundtable, the 9/11 attacks were part of a “fourth wave” of terrorism inspired by the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Rapoport argues that this fourth wave differs from other forms of terrorism in being explicitly anti-secular and anti-democratic in nature; Islamic and internationalist in outlook; and characterized by the generalizing of suicide bombing as a tactic. If terrorism is rational in its calculations, domestic in its focus, and primarily about territory, as the GTD indicates, then Rapoport’s “fourth wave” does not look much like terrorism, at least as the database describes it. In other words, 9/11-style events may not be ‘black swans’ at all. Instead, they may be part of a new pattern of terrorist activity that differs sharply from the past and which might then warrant aggressive, exceptional reactions.

In response to this challenge, LaFree admitted that terrorism today may indeed be distinct from terrorism in the past, although not in the sense Rapoport might have suggested. Taking a wide historical view, LaFree observed that the increasing population density of modern cities may be changing the scale of terrorist risk, and increasing incentives for more lethal attacks. Even if there had been aircraft available in 1850, he pointed out, it would have been difficult to kill a large number of people. In 1850, after all, the most densely populated area of the world – the Soho District of London – contained only about 400 people per acre, compared to the 50,000 people in each of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.

Interestingly, LaFree’s line of reasoning then triggered a rebuttal – the number of terrorist attacks and the deaths they cause may be increasing, but the risk of dying in an attack has actually been decreasing, primarily because population growth has far outpaced the increase in terrorism-related deaths. A further rebuttal here would be to point out that because of increasing population density, the number of fatalities that can be inflicted in a single attack has actually risen much faster (more than 125 fold since 1850) than the global population (which has increased 5 or 6 fold over that period), meaning that the incentives for lethal attacks would nevertheless be increasing. But such are the dark alleys that data-based arguments can lead us down, no?

Dr. LaFree concluded his remarks with a well-known quote from the American writer H.L. Mencken, who once claimed that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed … by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”. By concluding in this way, Dr. LaFree reinforced what the GTD data makes fairly clear – “terrorism” per se may very well be such an imaginary hobgoblin, designed to menace and alarm the public and thereby justify a government’s arbitrary expansion of executive power. What the data also makes clear, however, is that events such as 9/11 – whether as part of a distinct “fourth wave” of terrorism or for wider historical reasons – may not be quite the same thing as terrorism per se.

William Rooke is an editor at the ISN.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

Usama Bin Ladin’s “Father Sheikh”

Empowering the Pakistan Police

Navy Irregular Warfare and Counterterrorism Operations

Event: Public Policy and (Myths about) Terrorism

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.

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