Questioning Data that Drives the Global War on Terrorism

There is no denying that terrorism is one of the most prominent, if not the most dire threat to the national security of the United States and its western allies. Over the past year, attacks in European locations such as Brussels, Istanbul, and Paris have catalyzed western nations to review not only their homeland security policies but also counterterrorism campaigns abroad. In keeping with this trend, the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently examined data pertaining to the “effectiveness of various counterrorism efforts” in a report titled Comparing Estimates of Key Trends in the Uncertain Metrics of Terrorism.

The report analyzes multiple sources and then evaluates how the data relates to broader U.S. counterterrorism campaigns. Some of these metrics include:

  • Types and results of terrorist attacks across different locations and time periods
  • Locations where the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups operate
  • Cost estimates of expenses pertaining to the global the war on terrorism
  • Flow of foreign fighters across borders with the intention of supporting terrorist organizations
  • U.S. terrorism arrest data
  • FBI hate crime arrest data in the U.S.

The essence of the report’s major findings is that there are serious shortcomings within the data to justify the current U.S. approach to counterterrorism. Some of these shortcomings include:

  • “The definition of “terrorism” used is often not stated, is politicized, and/or confuses terrorism” with insurgency, internal conflicts, and low intensity conflict.”
  • “There is no way to estimate the impact of terrorism in areas dominated or controlled by various groups, and once again, insurgent groups the U.S. sees as enemies are often labeled as “terrorists” regardless of the fact they are insurgents using forms of irregular warfare which are not “terrorism” per se and/or are reacting to abuses by the governments they are challenging.”
  • “Most data are nationwide, regional, or global. The impact of key regional, ethnic, sectarian, tribal, and other internal conflicts may or may not be reported as terrorism and are not addressed by source, cause, or reasons for choosing given targets.
  • “Comparative assessment of efforts to address the level of Islamic extremism in given countries and areas — and to address the efforts to counter such extremism on a religious, ideological, and political basis – also are limited snapshots of part of the problems and efforts involved. Many are special interest efforts supporting a given proposed approach or solution”
Despite the extensive analysis and numerous charts and graphs highlighted by the report, there is one looming caveat: all of the data examined was unclassified. For more resources on Jihadist/Islamist Terrorism and the Military’s Role in Homeland Security, visit the Homeland Security Digital Library (some resources may require HSDL login).


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