What statistics tell us about terrorism and fear

Tracking terror

The driving motor fear

Photo by: nrkbeta/flickr

In December 2016 the day after a truck launched into a Christmas market in a terrorist attack in Berlin two German newspapers took very different approaches. The boulevard paper Bild was titled “ANGST!” (engl. “fear”) and the local paper Berliner Morgenpost was titled with the biblical expression “Fear not!”

The two newspapers side by side. Picture by Robin Schweiger

A timeline of terror

Over the last 20+ years, the world has experienced what seems to be a terrifying, exponential increase in the number of terrorist attacks. For 1995, the Global Terrorism Database lists 3,077 incidents – a figure that has since consistently increased, reaching an all-time high of 16,840 in the year of 2014.

Terror attacks worldwide between 1995-2014

Data by Global Terrorism Database/University of Maryland

During that time the total number of casualties from terror attacks also soared from 3,387 to 15,396. After 2001, the year when with 9⁄11 the most infamous terror attack took place, the number of incidents went down in the following years.

In 2004 the number of attacks started to climb again. After 2011 the graph starts a period of even steeper growth.

That year Osama bin Laden was killed and the Syrian Civil War began. And even though ISIS started as a splinter group of al Qaeda back in 1999 it was during the time of the Syrian Civil War when the group rose to power.

Hence the sharp increase from 5,009 attacks in 2011 to 8,498 attacks in 2012. In 2014 ISIS eventually captured large parts of Syria and Iraq – the high point of the group and also the high point of international terrorism.

Rising fear

With the number of attacks climbing, fear started to rise as well. In January 2015, 45 per cent of German citizens feared terror attacks in their country. That was shortly after the Paris attacks.

This number slowly climbed, attack after attack. A year and a half later, in August 2016 after more attacks in Nice, Paris, Brussels and Germany that number had almost doubled to 76 per cent of the people surveyed saying they feared attacks in their country.

Percentages of German citizens fearing an attack

Data by Statista

In December their fears became reality. The term “terror’ (from Latin “fright”, “fear”, “terror”) describes extreme fear and according to Daniel Antonius, the director of forensic psychiatry at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Buffalo, New York, this is what the terrorists aim to accomplish. In an interview with CNN he said: “Fear is the primary psychological weapon underlying acts of terrorism.”

How fear impacts brain and body

Fear is a chemical reaction, happening in the brain. Humans, like most animals, are hard-wired to respond to possible threats.

When we are frightened, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode – a crucial process that enables us to survive dangerous situations. Chemicals like adrenaline are released, causing our hearts to race, our muscles to tense and our breathing to quicken.

Humans don’t only react to immediate threats but also anticipate these threats – which causes the brain to go into fear mode. At least to an extent our heart rate goes up if we think about possible threats or dangerous scenarios like house fires or plane crashes.

Fear is an ancient instinct, that is still essential for humans today. It keeps us from getting ourselves into dangerous situations. But fear can also be a danger in itself. Constant fear has an enormous impact on mind and body. Raised stress levels, obstruct our ability to reason. We struggle to think rationally.

According to a study from 2014 constant fear can lead to permanent chemical changes in our brain that hinder the inflammatory system – and hence have an impact on our bodily functions. Constant fear also has profound mental ramifications and can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental disorders.

The statistics of fear and terror

“The odds of people dying in a terrorist attack obviously are still a lot lower than they are of dying in a car accident,” Obama said in an interview with comedian Jay Leno in 2013. And the data proves his point, as an estimated 1.3 million people die in road crashes worldwide every year compared to 28,328 people that were killed by terrorists in 2015.

That figure is down 7 per cent since 2014. The year before the number of deaths by terrorism shot up dramatically and almost doubled from 18,066 deaths in 2013 to 32,763 casualties in 2014.

Deaths due to terrorism worldwide 2006-2015

Data by Statista

According to a survey from November 2016 the people of Turkey (66%), Israel (51%), France (44%), India (43%) and Saudi Arabia (40%) fear terror attacks even more than Germans (34%). Only 24 per cent of Britons name terrorism their top concern.

Turkey has been hit by a series of deadly terror attacks in the course of 2016. And 2017 started with a nightclub attack at 1.15am local time.

At least 39 people died and around 70 people were injured after the attack in Istanbul. Still, on the global terrorism index for 2016 the country doesn’t reach the top 10.

Changing your behaviour out of fear of terror attacks in countries like Germany, Britain and the US seems irrational looking at the the statistics. Comparing the countries that worry the most about terrorism with the countries at the top of the terrorism index show no overlaps.

Instead the countries hit worst by attacks are Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. Countries were terror groups like ISIS and Boko Haram originated.

Turkey is considerably safer as number 14 on the list than Iraq on top of the list with terrorism indexes of 6,738 and 9,96 respectively. Germany, France and the United Kingdom all have indexes between 4 and 6 which is around average and therefore these countries don’t make the top ten.

Countries fearing terrorism the most

Data by Statista

Countries with the highest terrorism index

Data by Global Terrorism Index

Among the countries with the lowest impact of terrorism are the Netherlands with an index of 0,864, Switzerland with 0,288 and Portugal with 0,058. Countries such as Costa Rica, Vietnam and Singapore have an index of zero as there is no measurable impact of terrorism has on these countries.

But as countries like North Korea (index =0) provide their own numbers, these figures have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

A positive trend?

The Global Terrorism Index report finds that in 2015 the total number of attacks as well as the total number of fatalities has gone down by ten per cent. After a years of continues growth, this could be a new, positive trend in the fight against terror, the authors hope. According to the numbers, the change has mainly come about due to a decrease in activity of Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq following their respective military setbacks.

For the first time since 2010 deaths due to terrorism have fallen. However 2015 was still the second worst year for terrorism out of the last 16 years the report has recorded.

Almost nine times as many people died in 2015 compared to 2000. Deaths have significantly inclined especially in Iraq and Nigeria. In fact, the two countries account for the lower total number of fatalities as the number for the rest of the world has still gone up.

According to the numbers terrorism has overall gone up in the past years. But what scares people in the western world, is arguably that terrorism has changed its face in most Western countries.

From national to foreign extremism. National terrorism has become less common. The attacks orchestrated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in the United Kingdom, the ETA or Basque Homeland and Freedom in Spain and the RAF in Germany were attacks from pro-national groups.

These attacks were often targeted at politicians or chosen individuals in contrast to today when foreign extremists chose targets almost at random. This might explain why fear is on the rise.

Targets of terror attacks 2000-2015

Data by Global Terrorism Database/University of Maryland

While the numbers have climbed over time in all target groups, the data shows a significant spike in the number of private citizens that fall victim to terror attacks.

The threat is greater than before. However it is important to remember that, as Antonius pointed out, this is the aim of the terrorists.

Terrorists thrive on fear them

People in Berlin remember the attacks in Paris 2015

Photo by: onnola/flickr

“While caution is called for wherever large crowds are gathering, it is important for everyone to maintain a kind of confident calmness. Any other reaction would just play into the terrorists' hands,“ said Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Crisis Prevention (IFUS) in Essen, Germany in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

He stresses the point that it’s almost impossible to prevent attacks like the truck attack in Berlin. As Western societies don’t want Big Brother watching them, they have to endure certain setbacks to uphold their values.

As the likelihood of being victim of a terror attack, even if going to a public event is still comparatively low it does not make sense to prerestrict us in day-to-day life. Especially since terrorist need society to fear them.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, a group that is feared can recruit supporters more easily, as they draw certain people in and have the power to intimidate others.

Secondly, they reach their goal of suppressing our Western values and lifestyle if we stop doing certain things because we fear terror attacks. Media plays into the hands of the terrorists by publishing sensationalist articles.

The 2014 study shows that the probability of another attack in the same country within seven days stands at 77 per cent. The study comes to the conclusion, that media attention devoted to the initial attack can be indicative of future attacks.

The consequences

In the face of terror we have to choose between fight or flight. Our anxious minds have to make decisions.

Do we stay at home instead of going to concerts, public viewings and Christmas markets? Which newspaper do we pick at the newspaper stand, the one with the headline “Fear not!“ or do we choose the title “Angst!“?

Statistics might point us in the right direction, but everyone has to decide for themselves.

Published 28/12/2016 by Marie Segger