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What 2012 Terrorism Statistics Reveal

In 2012, there were 6,771 terrorist attacks worldwide, according to the annual report from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), which compiles the report for the U.S. Department of State. But while those attacks occurred in 85 different countries in 2012, more than half occurred in just three countries—Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And those countries accounted for 62 percent of the 11,000 fatalities and 65 percent of the 21,600 injuries reported. Also notable in 2012 was a marked increase in Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, including through surrogates like Hezbollah.

Interestingly, about half of all terrorist attacks resulted in no deaths or injuries. Fewer than 3 percent of all attacks resulted in more than 10 deaths; most of these occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Syria. The country where attacks were on average the most lethal was Syria, with the second being Nigeria. In contrast, India, which ranked fourth in the number of incidents, rated very low in lethality among countries with a high number of incidents.

In terms of who or what group executed attacks, more than 160 organizations were named, but an attacker was suspected or known in only 38 percent of attacks. The Taliban in Afghanistan was responsible for the highest number of attacks and the most deaths, followed by Boko Haram (BH) in Nigeria, and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The report notes that while the Corsican National Liberation Front was the tenth most active, its attacks caused no deaths, because the group targets vacant properties.

The most commonly used tactics, as in years past, involved explosives—that applied to 62 percent of the incidents in 2012, while 25 percent involved armed assaults. About 5 percent were suicides, which were nearly five times as lethal as nonsuicide attacks. Only 5 percent were attempted assassinations, and only about 64 percent of those were successful.

Roughly half of all attacks targeted private property or private citizens, with 27 percent of those types of attacks occurring in Iraq. Police and other government facilities were the second and third most common targets, followed by business assets, military assets or personnel, and educational personnel and property. Transportation and utilities ranked ninth and tenth, respectively, with 221 attacks against the latter. Airports and airlines were listed separately and were targeted in 20 attacks.

Diplomatic assets were targeted 95 times (only 1.4 percent of the total). That included the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya and attacks on embassies, consulates, and diplomatic personnel from many other countries, including Canada, Egypt, Great Britain, Israel, Japan, and Turkey. About one-third of the diplomatic attacks were directed at United Nations personnel and facilities.

Counterterrorism. The report also looks at how the United States has spearheaded and funded counterterrorism efforts through various regional bodies such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. These efforts are designed to help willing governments build counterterrorism capacity and limit terrorist funding by cracking down on money laundering. For example, the United States provided Cameroon with training to help it improve airport security, border control, cybersecurity, and fraudulent document detection. Another example is aid to Kenya from the State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program to help the government develop better investigative capacity and incident response capabilities as well as better border controls. Hong Kong is said to have an “effective security and law enforcement partnership with the United States.” By contrast, China’s cooperation “remained marginal,” according to the report.

International efforts to fight terrorism can result in strange bedfellows. For example, while Ethiopia is lauded for helping fight the terrorist group al Shabaab in Somalia, its prosecution of “terrorists” is said to include journalists and persons who oppose the regime politically.

And some countries can be allies in one aspect of counterterrorism but not another. For example, Uganda has been a strong force for stability, leading the coalition of regional forces against terrorists in Somalia; at the same time, it has not criminalized money laundering, and its law enforcement in that area does not meet international standards, says the report.

The report also points out that some countries are giving law enforcement stronger tools and more leeway to investigate and arrest suspected terrorists. For example, Norway is looking at criminalizing terrorist training and possession of materials that might be used by terrorists, as well as increasing police authority to carry out surveillance. But doing so is controversial in most countries, as made evident by the uproar surrounding the surveillance of electronic communications by the National Security Agency in the United States.

Assessing the threat. While al Qaeda has been weakened, the report notes that events in the Middle East and North Africa are presenting terrorists with new opportunities. In Syria, for example, AQI is using the pseudonym of al-Nusrah Front and hopes to establish a long-term presence there. AQI says that it is fighting to establish an Islamic caliphate not just in Syria but in the entire area.

In West Africa, BH, a group with some ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), seems to be gaining global funding and training resources, which has led to an increase in the number and sophistication of attacks the group conducts. In Mali, a coup left AQIM and other terrorist groups in control of the northern half of the country. Undergoverned areas in Niger also provided safe havens for AQIM and other groups.

In the context of a broad look at terrorism and the nature of the risk to the United States going forward, what do these numbers tell us? How worried should the United States be? It helps to look at the long game, and not just at 2012 and early 2013 (the Boston Marathon bombing). In terms specifically of attacks on U.S. soil, says noted terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, from 9-11 to the end of 2012, 204 persons have been arrested for some involvement with jihadist terrorism in the United States—either providing material support or plotting to carry out attacks. While that is a disturbing number, Jenkins notes that it is infinitesimal as a percentage of the U.S. Muslim population, proving that despite “constant exhortations to young men” via the Internet, “al Qaeda’s ideology is not gaining any traction in communities here.”

Moreover, Jenkins notes, a closer look at actual and would-be terrorists within the United States, including the Boston bombers, reveals that they are not part of an ongoing and organized underground, as was the case with groups like the Weathermen in the 1960s. These terrorists may have been inspired by jihadi Web sites, but their real motivation appears to be mostly personal grievance, and they are one-offs, as opposed to truly being part of a sustained campaign.

Jenkins acknowledges, however, that the government can’t afford to ignore the potential of another 9-11, London, Madrid, or Mumbai. The likelihood of a U.S. version of the latter was a topic of a recent U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security subcommittee hearing. The hearing examined the likelihood that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which orchestrated the Mumbai attacks, would strike on U.S. soil, perhaps through a surrogate group or group of homegrown Pakistani-Americans.

Those testifying before the subcommittee said LeT, which now goes by the name Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), isn’t likely to strike directly on U.S. soil because the Pakistani government’s intelligence service, generally considered a sponsor or protector of the group, doesn’t sanction that. But Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who chaired the hearing, noted that LeT had a hand in plots in Denmark, Australia, France, Canada, and New Zealand, and it is believed to have cells in the United States.

LeT is also known for the training camps it operates, and at least a dozen terrorist groups draw from its “training and enlistment machine,” said RAND’s Jonah Blank, who testified at the hearing. Those trainees make LeT a violence factory.

But again, the good news is that such recruits haven’t evidenced a high level of competence outside of the local region. “A recent study of Islamist terrorists in the United Kingdom and Spain found that they lacked tradecraft and that the training they received did not translate well to the target countries,” said Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, speaking at the hearing. This means that, once they left the camps and returned home, they weren’t able to hone their skills.

That’s no reason for complacency, cautioned Blank, who noted that an attack could be executed that would be like Mumbai in impact but not in its specifics. It might be “Boston Squared,” and such an attack would not require much in the way of sophisticated planning or funding.

Fair also cautioned against a myopic view of the ideologies that could generate homegrown terrorists, noting that they can be on the left or right, including white supremacists.

It is the nature of terrorism that the probability of an attack is low. But as Jenkins notes, in terms of threat analysis, given the size of the potential consequences, governments are driven by terrorists’ fantasies and their own worst fears. And that is what creates the pressure on civil rights. Finding the right balance remains, he notes, the biggest challenge for democracies today.