The GTD defines a terrorist event as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation.” Violence defined this way has made Iraq the deadliest country. Every year, except 2012, the conflict-stricken nation has seen more death than any other in the world. The highest single-year fatality count came in 2014 when attacks killed 13,076. On average 4,658 people died every year in Iraq within the past decade. The global average for that same period is 125.
Experts agree that the length of conflict plaguing the country is why casualties have been so high. The Iraq War began in 2003 with a US-led invasion and formally ended in 2011, but internecine conflict has stubbornly persisted as various groups fight to fill the seat of power left by Saddam Hussein.
“Notably, since 2014, Daesh (ISIS) has made significant military gains in Iraq by capturing several cities including Tikrit, Hawija, and Ramadi (which was only recently liberated),” said Jocelyn Belanger, terrorism expert and assistant professor at the Université du Québec.
The prolonged instability also allows the various groups behind the bloodshed to emulate one another according to Will Plowright, Liu scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. “The use of suicide vests and IEDs was really pioneered in Iraq, making it in some ways the source of these tactics,” he said.
Though conflict more generally across the globe has been declining, the increase in casualties because of terrorism in certain areas suggests a weakening of democracy in those countries as “terrorist organizations thrive in politically unstable environments,” according to Belanger.
“For instance, groups such as al-Shabaab and Boko-Haram have benefited from weak governments and porous borders across Africa,” he said.
Last year terrorist attacks killed 43,513 people. (Global Terrorism Database)
Last January Boko Haram militants killed around 150 people, based on a conservative estimate, during their violent and bloody raid on the Nigerian towns of Baga and Doron Baga.
“Essentially these two villages have been wiped off the map.” (Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada)
In Iraq, the number of fatalities jumped from 1,865 to 13,076 between 2011 and 2014; in Afghanistan, from 1,521 to 5,411; Nigeria, 447 to 7,774; and in Syria, 163 to 3,301. The US and Canada had only 18 and 4 fatalities respectively in 2014.
In the US, two more people died every year relative to the previous one. In Canada, the rate is even lower: 0.44 on average.
Given the statistics, fear of terrorist attacks in North America is “almost certainly” exaggerated relative to the actual risk according to Amaranth Amarasingam, researcher with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS).
He adds that puncturing our sense of safety and instilling this anxiety is purposeful and deliberate. “This is why we are having the discussions we are having about limiting refugee arrivals, blocking Muslim immigration, and so on,” he said.
“When people feel uncertain, they become protectionist – even if they know they are being fundamentally irrational in their fears.” (Amaranth Amarasingam, TSAS)
The fear is working. A recent Gallup poll reveals that Americans believe terrorism to be the most pressing issue facing their nation, more important than even gun control and the economy – this, despite the fact that fatalities in the US continue to be among the lowest in the world.
“Terrorism is sensational,” said Plowright, “which is why people pay so much attention to it. It strikes fear into people’s hearts, even though the chances of it happening in a western country are incredibly small.”
“Fatalities due to terrorism in the West are statistically insignificant in comparison to more rampant problems such as cardiovascular diseases or car accidents.” (Jocelyn Belanger, Université du Québec)
The disparity in the number of wounded and dead between the various regions of the world is accompanied by a similarly disproportional response from the media. Coverage of western or European attacks steals our attention for days whereas attacks in the Middle East or Africa receive comparatively scant coverage.
“That is the thing I think we’re all uncomfortable about, when we say news is bigger news when it clearly touches and affects our viewership,” said Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson’s school of journalism. But Shapiro adds that it’s logistically harder to cover conflict in the most dangerous regions of the world. Even if the will is there, distance and danger limit the resources that can be dedicated to gathering footage and interviews.
Experts and scholars agree that the public’s response to terrorism should be a measured one informed by facts rather than hyperbolic headlines which stir up a bloated sense of panic. “The best response to terrorism on the part of the general public is to let the police and intelligence services do their job,” said Plowright. “Remain calm and avoid making sensational comments about foreign groups or advocating for use of the military.”
Knee-jerk racism and Islamophobia have marred small communities and big cities alike in the wake of high profile terror attacks like the one in Paris. “In the case of Islamophobia, it is sadly in the interest of terrorist groups to accentuate this form of social stigmatization,” said Belanger, who believes such intolerance may actually fuel Daesh by winning converts to their cause. The solution instead, he says, is to stay united.