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Illustration by Mike Austin

Perception Versus Reality

​Terrorism rates dropped in 2015 for the first time in five years, but fears of violent extremism have continued to grow, new reports show. Approximately 82 percent of people polled around the world see the threat of violent extremism increasing in their country, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And while deaths caused by terrorism fell 10 percent overall from 2014, countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—including Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, and Turkey—saw a 650 percent increase in terrorism-related deaths, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index.

This redistribution of terrorist activity, along with less-organized but equally lethal homegrown extremist-style attacks, has kept fears of terrorist attacks high around the world, experts say. According to data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), the concerns of U.S. citizens when it comes to terrorism have not declined much since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Security Management spoke to Gary LaFree, director of START, to gain insight on these reports. 

“We tracked a decline in worldwide attacks between 2014 and 2015, with fatalities and ISIS attacks reducing,” says LaFree. “You want to say that’s good news, but at the same time, we found there was a terrorist attack somewhere in the world every single day of 2015. You can interpret these statistics in a lot of different ways. It’s pretty easy to get the sense that we’re awash in terrorism, even though it’s still a relatively rare event [in the United States].” 

LaFree tells Security Management that there are many different ways to interpret terrorism trends and the public’s resilience to attacks. On the one hand, he says, one of the goals of terrorism is to frighten and divide citizens, and, as his data shows, the public still thinks about terrorism almost as much as it did in the months after 9/11. However, LaFree says that citizens are more willing to report suspicious activity and be more engaged with the government overall due to their fears.

“What the data shows is a fairly high level of concern, still, now that we’re more than 15 years from 9/11,” LaFree says. “That has not dissipated. People really are still concerned about terrorist attacks.”

In 2012, START conducted a survey of more than 1,500 Americans on what LaFree calls “a barometer of how the public was feeling about terrorism.” START found that 15 percent of respondents thought about terrorism at least once a week—significantly higher than those who thought about hospitalization or violent crime victimization—and as part of the survey methodology, the organization planned to conduct three more waves of surveys to track changes in attitude.

But following the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings, where two homemade bombs killed three people and injured several hundred others, START realized it had a baseline of behavior before the attack and could leverage that in its ongoing research. “Events in Boston provided us with an unexpected opportunity to examine how public attitudes toward terrorism and counterterrorism policies in the United States changed before and after an actual terrorist attack,” noted one of the resulting reports, U.S. Attitudes toward Terrorism and Counterterrorism before and after the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. 

Surprisingly, the surveys found that many of the attitudes sampled in 2012—such as the frequency at which people thought about terrorist attacks or the likelihood of an attack in respondents’ own communities—did not change after the bombings. Significant changes included a higher percentage of people who believed a terrorist attack could happen on U.S. soil; a decrease in those who thought the government could effectively prevent terrorism; and a willingness to call the police in situations relating to terrorism.

LaFree says that START continued the surveys to understand how an attack on American soil might affect citizens’ attitudes towards terrorism, including the lasting desire to cooperate with the government when it comes to terrorist threats. 

“What happens with the public is they get more concerned about terrorism when there’s a high-profile event, and they also report greater willingness to cooperate with federal officials to prevent further attacks,” LaFree explains. “That however dissipates over time—the longer you get away from a big attack, the less likely they are to see that, so the original change that’s produced disappears. What’s interesting is that their knowledge of the system doesn’t change over time—they continue looking for information to inform themselves, and that part they keep long after the attack.”

Despite the sustained public mindfulness of terrorism since 2001, LaFree says that he is heartened by the public’s ability to work with officials while knowing where to draw the line.

“After Boston, respondents were more likely to say they would cooperate with police and government officials, but they didn’t give carte blanche either,” LaFree explains. “A lot of people said they would report people that look suspicious with regard to bombmaking, but only a tiny minority said they would report someone who had terrorist literature in their possession. We drilled down on those questions, and they said, ‘well this is America, we have freedom to read what we want to read, and it’s not against the law.’ Even their responses in the aggregate were pretty reasonable.”

While terrorism deaths declined in 2015 for the first time since 2010, it was still the second-deadliest year since 2000, with terrorism claiming the lives of 29,376 people. However, 72 percent of the deaths occurred in five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. But the leap in high-profile terrorism-related deaths in OECD countries, including attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France, a museum in Tunisia, a bombing in Baghdad during Ramadan, and the coordinated attacks on soft targets in Paris, combined with the increased prevalence of social media makes it hard to keep today’s terrorism in perspective. 

“Public opinion in the United States can now be affected by events that happen halfway around the world,” LaFree notes. “The interconnectedness of the United States has really changed, and that probably contributes to the public’s perception of this drumbeat of terrorism.”

In reality, terrorism-related deaths in the United States are historically low, compared to the 1970s, according to the START global terrorism database. The U.S. rates of terrorism are inversely related to world rates, which have continued to go up since 9/11. 

While LaFree says he doesn’t think the public is being overly concerned, there is a more existential aspect to the sustained level of fear. 

“Your chances of dying from lots of other things are much greater than terrorism, and that’s where we started this conversation,” LaFree states. “What we’re arguing is we need to stay vigilant and do a good job of protecting ourselves from the most serious threats, but we also need to realize that thus far in the history of terrorism, we haven’t faced existential threats of the nature we faced during the Cold War and nuclear annihilation,” according to LaFree. “It’s not a very flashy message if you think about it, but it’s as truthful as I think we can be.”   ​ ​​