Bottom line: while the odds are low and domestic casualties negligible in the US, global terrorism is dramatically on the rise and ISIL could be a game changer.

UPDATE: ISIS has announced they have trained fighters in 15 US states. Given that their first attack on American soil was an abject failure, we can’t help but wonder how seriously to take this announcement – but given the remarkable rise of the organization, and how well financed they are, we can expect more random acts of violence by teams of 1-3 in the near future.

Terrorism is defined as unlawful violence or systematic use of terror against civilians or politicians for ideological or political reasons, with the intention to create fear. Terrorism is practiced by nationalistic groups, religious groups, revolutionaries and ruling governments.

More than a third of Americans are “somewhat to very worried” about a terrorist attack harming them or their loved ones. And for good reason – the media coverage is sensational and all encompassing now due to the social channel echo chamber effect.

“Terrorism is basically a media phenomenon,” says Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University and author of The Mind of a Terrorist. “You can look at it as a species of psychological warfare waged through the media.” Which means that while we know terrorists influence the media, media coverage also influences terrorists.

“The larger terror organizations have, in effect, a VP for media relations,” says Post. “We have captured handbooks with instructions on how to gain maximum media attention.” He also says bombings in Northern Ireland tended to spike between 5 and 6 p.m. on Thursdays, because 6 was the deadline for Friday’s edition of the newspaper — an attack between 5 and 6 was least likely to be analyzed in context, and most likely to be simply reported with a sensational headline. (Buzzfeed)

If the amount of hive-mindshare represented by mainstream and social media coverage is to be believed, terrorism represents a grave threat – but what story do the numbers tell?  What are the global trends and their implications for future threat?


The term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—

  1. involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
  2.  appear to be intended—
    1. to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
    2.  to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
    3. to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
    4.  occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

Within the United States, the odds of dying from a terror attack are currently very low.  It is easy to note quite few things with better odds of killing you, such as:

You are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack

You are 12,571 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack

You are 11,000 times more likely to die in an airplane accident than from a terrorist plot involving an airplane

You are 1048 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack

You are 404 times more likely to die in a fall than from a terrorist attack

You are 87 times more likely to drown than die in a terrorist attack

You are 13 times more likely to die in a railway accident than from a terrorist attack

You are 12 times more likely to die from accidental suffocation in bed than from a terrorist attack

You are 9 times more likely to choke to death on your own vomit than die in a terrorist attack

You are 8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist

You are 8 times more likely to die from accidental electrocution than from a terrorist attack

You are 6 times more likely to die from hot weather than from a terrorist attack

Some of these sound sensational, but in reality are much less likely than advertised for any given individual. Someone who is young and fit, for example, could rule out death by heart disease. Few in that group would likely succumb to hot weather either.  But by the numbers the odds are still undeniably low – regardless of the national threat level flavor of the moment.

In terms of gross numbers, you can practically count the number of American deaths internationally caused by terrorist acts on your hands – that is if you exclude soldiers fighting the “Global War on Terror”. That number will only be going up now that Obama is preparing to re-re-invade Iraq, this time to combat ISIS. Which brings us to the threat of terrorism worldwide – for everyone not American.

International Terrorism

International terrorism is also up for debate, but a widely accepted set of criteria says:

• It is aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious or social goal.

• It is intended to coerce, intimidate or convey a message to a larger group.

• It violates international humanitarian law by targeting non-combatants.

For Americans abroad, the takeaway is the same as domestic terrorism – “the leading cause of deaths for Americans traveling abroad is not terrorism, or murder … or even crime of any type. It’s car crashes.”

For the non-US-citizen types, a very different picture emerges from the international data. Terrorism, though still insignificant compared to the more common ways that members of our species expire, is a much bigger threat – and growing fast.

17,958 people died in terrorist attacks worldwide in 2013, up over 60% from the year before. While that number is dramatic, it is important to note that it is concentrated in conflict zones – “Over 80% of the deaths from terrorist incidents in 2013 were recorded in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,Nigeria and Syria.” (PRNEWSWIRE)

Who were the main culprits?

ISIL, Boko Haram, al Qa‘ida and the Taliban, collectively responsible for 66% of all fatalities.” 

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 7.06.35 PM

Why is terrorism steadily on the rise? 

• Weak and unstable states and corrupt or ineffective governments.

• Poverty and high unemployment, particularly among young men.

• Access to more lethal weaponry and increasing use of tactics like suicide bombings capable of killing scores of bystanders.

• A spike in sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, where ancient grudges give rise to modern massacres.

• The increasing use of terrorism as a tactic in war.


“There’s just a lot of killing going on along sectarian and religious lines,” said Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009 to 2012. “And that’s a worrisome thing.”

Sectarian attacks – such as the pitched battles between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan – tend to be disproportionately deadly, said Martha Crenshaw, an expert at Stanford University and a START board member.

“Sadly, it seems to be increasingly acceptable in certain belief systems to kill as many members of the other religious community as possible,” she said. “Moral restraints seem to be eroding.”

Bombings and explosions were used in 58% of terrorist attacks in 2012, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, START’s data also show a dramatic global shift in terrorist tactics and hot spots.


 How do terrorists attack?

Like last year, the weapon of choice for terrorists around the world was explosives – used a majority of the time – followed by armed assaults and, to a much lesser extent, assassinations, according to the numbers compiled for the State Department by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. (ABC)

Snazzy interactive geo-chart of global terror fatalities from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism (START)

Snazzy interactive geo-chart of global terror fatalities from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism (START). Or if you are old school and want to search through the entire database and generate customizable charts, all the way down to the types of violence, targets and more, use this.

Trends / Projections

While terrorism is not yet a real threat in the United States, analysis of global trends suggest it will increase in coming years.

  • The growing number of incidents globally will increasingly cross borders
  • Groups will perform bigger acts in their reach for greater media attention
  • The United States will continue to be the highest value target
  • ISIS will continue to seed domestic terrorists
  • ISIS will seek their own 9/11 style attack – many reports claim they are actively planning it
  • The increasing militarism of the U.S. police force will see an equal reaction by fringe and militant groups within the country

Even if the threat grows substantially, which it possibly will, it will continue to be random in nature and hard to prepare for. Having a Go Bag at home & the office and an emergency plan at home will continue to be your best defense.

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