November’s wave of deadly terror attacks — including major incidents in Beirut, Paris, Nigeria and Mali — represented a new stage in the evolution of the Islamic State terrorist group, which many experts previously insisted was mostly focused on establishing regional control in Iraq and Syria. The misapprehension highlighted the militant group’s complexity and raised new questions about the scope and ambitions of international terrorism. The recently-released 2015 Global Terrorism Index seeks to fill in some of those knowledge gaps.
The Index is the third installment in a series of annual reports produced by The Institute for Economics and Peace, an international think tank based in Australia.
The 111-page report used data from the University of Maryland-based Global Terrorism Database — one of the world’s most comprehensive sources of information about terrorism — to examine the evolution of global terror since 2000, with an emphasis on new data from 2014.
The result is an often-surprising picture of a global threat whose scale and reach are growing. Here are some of the highlights.
Last year was the deadliest of the 21st century
The report says that 32,658 people died in 2014 as the direct result of terrorism, an increase of 80 percent from 2013, when terrorists killed about 18,000 people.
The 2014 death toll represents a nine-fold increase over 2000, when roughly 3,300 died in terror attacks.
Since 2000, terrorism has claimed the lives of about 140,000 people — roughly as many as died in the U.S. nuclear-bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.
Most countries didn’t see a single death from terrorism
Of the 162 countries whose data was included in the report, 95 — nearly 60 percent — didn’t experience a single death in 2014 as the result of terror. That doesn’t mean that most countries were totally terrorism-free, though: A majority of countries did witness some sort of terror attack, though many failed to claim any victims.
Overall, terrorist attacks are heavily concentrated geographically — just five countries accounted for most terror-related deaths in 2014. Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria saw 78 percent of the deaths and 57 percent of all attacks.
Even among these grim outliers, Iraq stood out with nearly 10,000 fatalities, the highest ever recorded in a single country. In 2014, acts of terror in Iraq alone claimed three times as many lives as they did in the entire world in 2000.
Terrorism took its biggest economic toll ever in 2014
The report estimates that terrorism cost the global economy $52.9 billion, not including the $114 billion that countries’ national security agencies spent on counter-terrorism.
The economic impact of terrorism is notoriously hard to calculate; it’s difficult even to gauge direct costs like loss of life and property damage, let alone indirect effects like reduced productivity or weak consumer sentiment. As a result, the report warns that the figure of $52.9 billion is subject to debate. What’s clear is that 2014 saw a major uptick in costs associated with terrorism.
While the economic harm that terrorism caused last year is considerable, it still pales in comparison to the estimated cost of violent crime and homicide, which topped $1 trillion.
The West is remarkably insulated from terrorism, but “lone wolf” attacks are on the rise
Just 2.6 percent of deaths in 21st-century terror attacks took place in Western countries, which include the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe nations. Excluding those who died on 9/11, that figure is just 0.5 percent.
Large-scale attacks coordinated by international terrorist groups (such as 9/11 attacks and the recent deadly assault on Paris) garner a disproportionate amount of media attention. But so-called lone wolves — individuals or small groups working without the aid of a larger organization — are responsible for 70 percent of terrorism deaths in the West, and that number is rising. The Boston Marathon bombings are an example of a lone wolf attack, as were the 2011 Norway attacks that killed 77 people.
The Norway attacks also highlight the little-known fact that political extremism, not Islamic fundamentalism, drives most lone wolf attacks in the West. The Norway attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, cited right-wing, ultranationalist political views as the reason he carried out that attack. Breivik is not alone: between 2008 and 2014, politically-motivated attackers were responsible for 67 percent of deaths by lone wolf terrorism. Islamic fundamentalists accounted for roughly 20 percent.