In the era of misinformation, what do the numbers reveal about terrorism trends in Europe and beyond?
By Zsófia Nagy
Although jihadist terrorist incidents have graver consequences in terms of fatalities, most terrorist incidents in Europe – two out of three attacks – were carried out by separatist groups in 2017.Hungarian sociologist
Contrary to popular belief, anti-refugee sentiments do not arise automatically among the citizens of host societies in Europe. That is why it is important, while not very innovative, for right-wing populists to "lump” the category of the refugee together with otherwise scary trends, such as smuggling, crime or terrorism. The loudest proponent of this approach arguably is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who already following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 claimed: "We should not look at economic migration as if it had any use, because it only brings trouble and threats to European people (…). Therefore, immigration must be stopped. That’s the Hungarian stance (…). Hungary will not become a target destination for immigrants." Later he went as far as to claim that "all the terrorists are migrants." Such claims are echoed by right-wing populists around the continent, including Marine Le Pen – who has stated "behind mass immigration, there is terrorism" – and numerous others.
In the era of alternative facts and misinformation, is there a way to make sense of these claims and establish informed opinions about their truth-value? More than that: can we look behind the numbers and understand the trends underlying the statistics?
The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) compiles publicly available statistics on acts of terrorism globally since 1970. The number of deaths caused by terrorism is an indicator suitable for a detailed analysis of a potential terrorist threat. This number has dropped by 65 percent to a total of 83 deaths in Western Europe last year. While terror has no acceptable scale, this trend is clearly positive. Terror acts committed in the region account for only 3 percent of all such incidents globally. Although jihadist terrorist incidents have graver consequences in terms of fatalities, most terrorist incidents in Europe – two out of three attacks – were carried out by separatist groups in 2017.
Putting this into a historical context (Figure 1.) we find that the period between 1970 and 1990 was significantly more tragic in terms of the number of fatalities than the present era. The peaks mark the Madrid bombings in 2005, the Norway attacks in 2011, and the European terrorist campaign of ISIS in 2015-16.
Can we expect the jihadist campaign mostly responsible for the last years' terrorist wave in Western Europe to escalate in the future? Data point to the opposite direction (Figure 2.). The number of deaths have decreased by 41 percent in comparison to the peak of 2014. 2017 is the third year in a row when the number of terror-related deaths is declining. Of course, this is understandable: 2014 is the most successful year of ISIS, when the proclamation of the caliphate also took place. Developments since then, including their defeat in Mosul, have led to the weakening of the terrorist organisation. Globally, ISIS has killed 40 percent less victims in 2017 than in 2016. It would however be naive to expect that the defeat of ISIS will bring about the end of terrorism as terrorist motivations do not automatically disappear with such a victory.
The above figures do not mean that there is no link between migration and terrorism. However, where European right-wing populists are wrong is that the cause-effect relationship is the exact inverse of what they state: terrorism is not a consequence but a cause of the migration waves recently reaching Europe. Last year, more than half of all acts of terrorism concentrated on 4 countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan), while more than half of all victims of terrorist acts concentrated on 3 countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria). Refugees are not potential perpetrators but potential victims of terrorism. That is why they are fleeing. And in this respect the situation is tragic indeed. The regional distribution of deaths caused by terrorism shows (Figure 3.) that while Europe’s share is hardly visible (less than 1 percent of all fatalities took place in Eastern- and Western-Europe combined), the vulnerability of people in the Middle East and Northern Africa is not only high but – largely due to the presence of ISIS – is prominent in a decade-long perspective too.
While it is true that one root cause of migration is the threat of terror, nevertheless terror itself is not an inexplicable phenomenon or "final cause” but a consequence of numerous root causes itself. We lack the space here to enumerate the complex reasons behind the terror campaigns of the last years but there is a consensus among experts that the rise of ISIS for instance would not have been possible without the occupation of Iraq. Data available (Figure 4.) also point to the vulnerability of countries involved in the Arab Spring.
According to the Global Peace Index (GPI), which measures a number of violent conflicts beyond terrorism, Europe is the most peaceful region globally: 20 of the 30 most peaceful countries in the world are European. While as Europeans we may be pleased by such findings, they also point to rising global inequalities where peaceful countries are becoming safer-and-safer and the least peaceful countries are becoming more-and-more dangerous (Figure 5.). European governments may, and will try, to respond to such developments by the isolation and securitisaton of their fortress, but it would be naive to believe that the consequences of such a deepening divide will stay local.
Returning to the continent: are European right-wing populists right in their claims that refugees arriving to Europe may radicalise and join terrorist organisations in the future? According to research available the risks are not higher among refugees than among other disenfranchised groups for this. The 2016 report of the United Nations emphasises that there is no evidence for the assumption that refugees would pose a radicalisation risk for host societies. The yearly report of Europol similarly cites lack of evidence regarding claims that terrorists would systematically use refugee flows in order to get to Europe. This does not mean however that there are no terrorists among refugees but that their ratio is not higher among refugees than in other populations. At the „gates” of Europe, in Greece and Italy, investigations could not prove the existence of such infiltration tactics. Fransisco Martin-Rayo’s study on the subject points to three factors that may influence the risk of radicalisation of refugees: Islamic education, job opportunities, and freedom of movement, that is, encampment as opposed to open camp policies. If European right-wing populists are worried about the radicalisation of refugees, they should make loud and clear their opposition against the inhumane transit zones on the Hungarian-Serbian border operated by Viktor Orbán’s government. Such transit processing zones are not only cruel but potentially dangerous as well.
Postscript: A note on Western vs. Eastern Europe
For the sake of simplicity the article used the category of „Western Europe” within the Global Terrorism Database when discussing terrorism in Europe, assuming that right-wing populists refer to these countries who actually receive large numbers of refugees as opposed to Hungary for instance. This may confuse and mislead the reader, as some EU-member countries are "Eastern European” in the database. The figure below compares the number of people killed by terrorism in the two regions (Figure 6). While I was right to claim that in a historical comparison Western European terror-threats are not exceptional, Eastern European data point to an opposite trend: unprecedented levels of terrorism when compared to previous decades. The high numbers between 1999 and 2005 are mainly caused by the Kosovo and Chechen conflicts, while the exceptional increase after 2013 is the result of separatist activities in the Donetsk and Luhansk region, as part of the Russian-Ukranian conflict. Here, however, the ties no longer lead to refugees fleeing wars and persecution but the ambitions of populist inspiration and model, Vladimir Plutin.
Zsófia Nagy is a sociologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.