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New Report Highlights the Challenges of Tracking Terrorism Events: GTD Indicates Global Terrorism Fatalities Up, Not Down


New Report Highlights the Challenges of Tracking Terrorism Events: GTD Indicates Global Terrorism Fatalities Up, Not Down

May 30, 2008

Gary LaFree, director of the world's largest and most comprehensive open-source terror database, disagrees with a new report challenging the "expert consensus"that international terrorism fatalities are rising. In large part, the disagreement stems from whether to count some specific Iraqi civilian deaths as incidents of terror.

"It's a gray area, but we're very rigorous in the way we approach this, and the result is academically sound, though a no-win politically," says LaFree, who directs the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), part of the federally funded National Consortium on the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) based at Maryland. "We've been very conservative in our methods and the result is what I consider a balanced look at the problem," LaFree adds. "To me, the trends are clear ? fatalities are up, terror attacks are flat."

GTD's methods for determining whether an event should be classified as a terrorist event are provided below. The new international report, Human Security Brief 2007, concludes that the GTD and the two other main unclassified U.S. databases over-report international terrorism.

The main discrepancy, according to the Human Security Brief, lies in "counting civilian deaths in the civil war in Iraq as terrorism." It adds that the intentional killing of civilians in wartime is not normally described as terrorism, but as a war crime or crime against humanity.

Removing these Iraq numbers from the analysis, "reveals a sharp net decline in the incidence of terrorist violence around the world," the Human Security Brief 2007 concludes, "Fatalities from terrorism have declined by some 40 percent."

"There's often more than one way to interpret numbers," LaFree says in response. "But I think our reading is more reflective of the overall picture of international security. I stand by our numbers and our methods."

(For more on this, see a recent interview with LaFree by the Canadian Broadcast Company.)

In addition to the Global Terrorism Database, START also supports the work of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) referenced in the Human Security Brief: As noted in that report, as part of their work with START, CIDCM researchers have found that while the number of politically active ethnopolitical organizations in the Middle East has dramatically increased during the past three decades, the percentage of these organizations using violence?including terrorism?has actually decreased over time. These findings are presented by START researchers Jonathan Wilkenfeld, Victor Asal, and Carter Johnson in a START Research Brief tracking the behavior of such organizations since 1980.

GLOBAL TERRORISM DATABASE. The GTD lists more than 80,000 incidents over three decades. It measures more than a hundred social, economic and security variables for each incident, including a wealth of contextual and impact data. Currently, the data is fully entered from 1970 through 2004. A beta version has updates through June of 2005, and LaFree expects to have completed updates through 2008 by early next year. The database, available online, has facilitated academic research on terrorism.

For example, LaFree and colleagues analyzed the effectiveness of get-tough police responses to violence in Northern Ireland in the past. (See Efficacy of Counterterrorism Approaches: Examining Northern Ireland.) Funding for START and GTD comes from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate. START's partner at the University of Maryland, the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, also maintains four databases used to measure levels of international violence, "Peace and Conflict." Since 2000, CIDCM has tracked the record drop in post-World War II violence and new post-9/11 challenges.

SPECIFIC RESPONSES TO HUMAN SECURITY BRIEF 2007: ? Distinguishing terrorist violence from other violence in Iraq since 2003 is challenging. However, we have been striving to apply the same criteria for including cases from Iraq as from other parts of the world.

Here are those criteria: To be included in the GTD, all attacks must meet three criteria: (1) the incident must be intentional ? the result of a conscious calculation on the part of a perpetrator; (2) the incident must entail some level of violence (includes property violence) or the threat of violence; and (3) there must be sub national perpetrators (the GTD is limited to acts of non-state terrorism).

In addition to the three criteria above, all attacks in the GTD are evaluated on three additional criteria: (1) the act must be aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious, or social goal; (2) there must be evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate, or convey some other message to a larger audience (or audiences) than the immediate victims; and (3) the action must contravene the precepts of international humanitarian law (particularly the admonition against deliberately targeting civilians or non-combatants).

We include in the data base all cases where at least two of these three criteria are present. However, analysts may eliminate cases where all three criteria are not met. ? Until 2002, Iraq accounted for less than 1% of all attacks in the GTD. However, in 2003, Iraq accounted for 7% of attacks and in 2004 Iraq accounted for nearly 30% of attacks. ? One of the most difficult problems in accurately counting terrorist attacks in Iraq is what to do with attacks against military targets.

Although many experts would exclude attacks against the military as non terrorist, some experts would consider attacks on military targets outside of regular warfare (such as the USS Cole) or attacks that include off-duty soldiers (such as the Bali attacks) as terrorism. Attacks on the military in Iraq are evaluated by our analysts on a case-by-case basis according to the criteria noted above. Of the 87 Iraqi attacks in the GTD in 2003, 22% involved military targets and of the 327 Iraqi incidents in the GTD in 2004, 11% involved military targets. The GTD criteria allow users to exclude these attacks from their analysis should they so wish.

MEDIA CONTACT: Neil Tickner Senior Media Relations Associate University of Maryland 301-405-4622 301-257-0073 (cell) ntickner@umd.edu