After the “Caliphate” The Metrics of Daesh and the Ongoing Challenge of Extremism

Part Two: The Changing Threat

The Burke Chair at CSIS is issuing the second report in a three-part survey of metrics that address the fighting in Iraq and Syria, and the ongoing challenge of extremism. This series is titled After the “Caliphate”: The Metrics of Daesh and the Ongoing Challenge of Extremism.

  • Part One - Daesh, Syria and Iraq contained some 60 different metrics covering the trends in war on Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the outcome of the fighting, and the remaining threats to stability in Syria and Iraq. Part One was issued on April 20, 2019 is available on the CSIS web site at .
  • Part Two - The Changing Threat – is now being circulated. It surveys the broader trends in Islam, and in Islamic extremism. It then focuses on these trends in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and the scale of the continuing threat they pose to the stability of the MENA region. Part Two is now available on the CSIS web site at
  • Part Three - Key Factors that Seem Likely to Lead to Continuing Violent Extremism, and Conflicts in the MENA Region – will be issued on May 6, 2019. It surveys metrics that portray the broader causes of instability and possible future conflict in the region.

Part Two: A Survey of the Changing Threat

Part Two draws upon work by the PEW Trust, and polls on Muslims and citizens in a range of largely Islamic states to show both the growing strategic importance of Islam and that the vast majority of Muslims oppose violent extremism and share the same goals and values as other cultures and regions.

It then focuses on the small minority that does actively support extremism and terrorism, and on global and regional estimates of the patterns in terrorism and extremism. It shows how the levels of violence in heavily Islam and MENA countries compare to those in other parts of the world.

Human Costs are in the Millions and Rising

The costs to the Islamic world have already been immense. As Part One has shown, the death toll in Syria alone has been a civil war where a mixture of Islamic extremist violence and state repression has probably cost well have over 500,000 lives – the vast majority of which have been Muslims killing Muslims, and Sunnis killing fellow Sunnis.

The number of civilians dead in Iraq and other states where violent extremists have been active are harder to estimate, but almost certainly exceed 100,000, and may well exceed 200,000. Tragic as terrorist attacks on other religions – like the attacks on Christian in Sri Lanka – violent extremists that claim to be "Islamic" have done immense damage to Islam and fellow Muslims.

Deaths are only part of the cost. Studies by the World Bank and IMF indicate that extremist violence –ranging from terrorist activities to civil war, may cost Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen the equivalent of a decade of economic development at a time when all have to deal with massive population growth and youth employment problems.

The UNHCR has noted that the fighting in Syria has displaced 6.6 million people and driven 5.6 million out of the country, while 13.1 million people are in need. In Iraq, a nation of some 36 million, the UNHCR estimates that some 11 million people have had to live in conflict areas, and 6.7 million need humanitarian assistance.

The levels of violence do vary in other countries. In Libya, the impact on the civilian population was more limited, but the UNHCR still estimated in early 2019, that 813,000 people needed humanitarian assistance, and 673,000 were of concern. Still important in a country with only 6.4 million people, but smaller by comparison.

Yemen, however, is a different case. It has a population of some 29.6 million. The UNHCR estimate of the impact of the Yemeni civil war in January 2019 – a war driven by a mixture of factional, sectarian, and extremist violence – was 24.1 million people in need, 14.4 million in need of protection and assistance, 3.3 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and 1 million returnees. Some 81 per cent of the IDPs had been displaced for more than one year

A "Clash Within a Civilization: "Muslim Extremists Seeking Power and Killing Fellow Muslims

The metrics in Part Two show that the MENA region has endured levels of violence that go far beyond Daesh's effort to establish what it called a "caliphate." They make it clear that violent groups and individuals that claim to be Islamic have been a key source of its conflicts, and are the main source of extremist and terrorist activity in the world today.

At the same time, the maps in Part Two show that this violence is part of a global pattern dominated by Muslims killing fellow Muslims in struggles for power in largely Muslim states. Such extremists may claim to be attacking non-Muslims, non-Believers, apostates, and heretics for religious reasons, but the metrics make it clear that virtually all such groups actually focus their efforts on seizing power within the largely Muslim countries where they operate.

The maps and metrics show that the primary casualties in a number of the countries shown in Part Two have been Sunni Muslims who have been attacked by violent extremists that claim to be Sunnis as well. In short, Daesh has been part of pattern of violence whose primary impact has been to sustain a "clash within a civilization," rather than threaten other faiths and outside states.

Underlying Causes that Will Shape at Least the Next Generation

These metrics, along with the metrics and analyses in Part One and Part Three, – show this "clash" is likely to endure for at least the coming decade. Extremists have already done critical damage to economic and social development, and to governance and the rule of law. They also so far lack any credible ideological goals that could lead them to deal effectively with economic development if they succeeded in controlling a state.

At the same time, the metrics that will be include in Part Three make it clear that the broader causes of instability in the MENA region – like those in other largely Islamic regions and states – are so broad and so deep that extremism, terrorism, and civil conflict are likely to be endemic well beyond the coming decade. Even if one ignores religion, extremism will be driven by failures in politics, governance, economics, and adapting to population dynamics that make "failed states" as much of threat to their own survival – and their people's welfare – as the extremist threat they fight.

Finally, the Metrics in Part Two warn that focusing on today's main non-state actors may ignore a large majority of the terrorist acts taking place in the world, largely Islamic states, and the region. Some data warn that focusing on organized extremist and terrorism groups like Daesh and Al Qaida ignores large areas of extremist violence.

The Strengths and Limits of Terrorism Metrics

The introduction to Part One made it clear that metrics can only provide useful insights into such an effort. They can only provide limited insights into the key trends into issues as complex as the probable aftermath of the breakup of the Daesh “caliphate” or pseudo-state, and the level of stability in the MENA region in the coming years. Metrics must be combined with explanatory narratives for their full meaning to be clear, and the sources and uncertainties in each metric need to be examined in detail the moment that analysis goes beyond using them as broad indicators and treats them as if they had any clear degree of precision.

The terrorism metrics that are shown in Part Two have been chosen because they still seem to be accurate enough to reflect broad trends, but this is more of a judgment call than the result of evidence that the data bases and methodologies in each metric have anything approaching a statistically valid level of precision. The user should also be aware of several key limits to the data used in any analysis of terrorism and extremism:

  • Experts do not agree on the definition of "terrorism" or "extremism," and such designations are highly political and often biased.
  • The Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. government once attempted to provide a national database on terrorism but abandoned the effort for what it claims were "resource limitation" but seem to have been political controversy. The START database on global terrorism used in this report was developed operated by the University of Maryland under contract to the State Department, accepted, and used by the U.S. State Department in its annual country reports on terrorism, but it is not official or based on U.S. intelligence sources. It is a media-driven data base.
  • The START web site ( now states that, "For more than a decade, START has compiled and published the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) for use by scholars, analysts, journalists, security professionals, and policy makers. It has been our privilege to work closely with these user communities to continually improve the data and inform stakeholders...Since 2012, the majority of the costs of collecting the GTD have been funded by the U.S. State Department, for the past year almost exclusively. Our contract with the State Department ended in May 2018 and, although we received only positive feedback from the Bureau of Counterterrorism and our 2018 data collection was well underway, we recently learned that we were not awarded a follow-on contract for base data collection...At the moment, the loss of the State Department funding means two things: First, we do not currently have funding to complete collection of 2018 data, nor are we able to publish data beyond 2017."
  • There is no open source official estimate of the patterns in global terrorism, and it is unclear that the U.S. has any such database at a classified level. Background discussion with U.S. and other experts in various countries indicate that there is no consensus between allied governments or between major international groups over such data. There also is no clear pattern of support for the databases developed by given think tanks, contractors, or commercial vendors, and such data bases often sharply disagree.
  • Major problems occur in official U.S. and virtually all other estimates of terrorism activity and lethality because of the difficulty in distinguishing between terrorism, insurgency, and civil war. The rise of the intensity in the fighting in countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and many other cases in Africa and South Asia makes this a critical issue, and it has led to key anomalies like data for 2016 onwards that show a decline in global terrorism at times when fighting with extremists has produce major new peaks in total casualties.
  • Open source databases generally claim to be based on media reports, and governmental reports when available. Several key Asian and Central Asian states – such as China, Pakistan, and Myanmar – do not provide credible reporting and severely limit the ability of their media to report. A careful examination of several open source databases will show the given countries are entirely omitted.
  • Databases sometimes hint at the links between religion and sect, and the number of attacks and casualties. They do not attempt, however, to make quantitative estimates of the perpetrator or target by faith or sect. As a result, the extent to which Muslim extremists have focused on targeting fellow Muslims is unclear – leading some to claim that Christian and Jews are their primary target.
  • No current database on terrorism attempts to include state terrorism. Some human rights reporting – and the U.S. State Department annual human rights report – provide erratic and unverified coverage of broad patterns of abuse, but no reliable data. It is clear from a wide range of casualty estimates and media coverage, however, that the Assad regime in Syria has the source of massive number of deliberate civilian killings and injured, and that the government of Myanmar has it similar history in dealing with its Muslims.
  • Similarly, reporting on state efforts to counter terrorism and extremism reports in detail on many aspects of counterterrorism, but does not address the degree to which given governments, and internal security systems, repress and/or provoke terrorism and popular resistance.

Accordingly, the trends and data presented in each section of this report must be kept in careful perspective. There has been a vast new effort to fight terrorism since 9/11, but it has not been matched by developing and sustaining the totals necessary to analyze and assess it. The question of how to use the data is critical to any analysis. In the case of terrorism and extremism, the question as to whether the data are accurate enough to be usable is always at least as important.

The Contents of the Report
That said, there are many areas where there are data seem reliable enough to present a range of important indicators. The Table of Contents includes such metric in the following areas:

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.


Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy