The Critical Lack of Credibility in State Department Reporting on the Trends in Global Terrorism: 1982-2014

On June 19th, Tina S. Kaidanow, the Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, provided a special briefing on the U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2014. A transcript of that briefing quotes her as saying that

“…according to the statistical annex that was prepared by the University of Maryland, the number of terrorist attacks in 2014 increased 35 percent, and total fatalities increased 81 percent compared to 2013, largely due to activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

More than 60 percent of all attacks took place in five countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria. And 78 of all – sorry, 78 percent of all fatalities due to terrorist attacks also took place in five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.

The increase in total fatalities was in part a result of certain attacks that were exceptionally lethal. In 2014 there were 20 attacks that killed more than a hundred people, compared to only two such attacks in 2013.

While I cite these statistics, which are compiled by the University of Maryland and are not a U.S. product – U.S. Government product per se, I do want to stress again that in our view they don’t provide the full context. Aggregate totals or numbers of attacks are not really a particularly useful metric for measuring the aims of the extremist groups or of our progress in preventing or countering those activities. So to that end, I’d like to talk a little bit more about the content of the report itself and some of the trends that we noted in 2014.”

Unfortunately, the problems in the State Department’s data on terrorism data—which are the principal U.S. government unclassified source of such data—go far deeper than a lack of “full context,” or the politics of whether the United States is or is not winning the war on terrorism. They involve critical problems in the way the State Department has chosen to report on terrorism over the period from 1982 to the present, and in the credibility of the State Department report.

The U.S. government has provided three radically different estimates of the trends in global terrorism over the period since 1982. These have been presented each year in the Statistical Annexes to the State Department’s annual reports on terrorism.

A new report by the Burke Chair at CSIS examines these issues in detail. It is entitled The Critical Lack of Credibility in State Department Reporting on the Trends in Global Terrorism: 1982-2014.

This report shows that the data in these annexes are divided into three different sets of trend estimates that are not are not comparable in any way.

  • The initial set of data for 1982-2003 shows low to negligible levels of terrorist activity, with a maximum number of terrorist incidents of 665 in 1987, although the number killed did reach a peak of 6,695 in 1998 – the first year it was reported in the corrected figures is 2003.
  • The data for 2005-2011—suddenly lead to the point where the number of incidents rise to 11,153 in 2005 and peak at 14,338 in 2006, and never drop below 10,000 in any year. The number of killed leap to 14,618 in 2005, peak at 22,720 in 2007, and never drop below 12,000.
  • A new type of START estimate for 2012-2014 again creates a radically different pattern. The number of incidents suddenly drops to 6,771 in 2012, but leaps to 13,463 in 2014. The number killed is more consistent at 11,098 in 2012, but leaps to 18,066 in 2013 and 32,727 in 2014.

What is particularly critical in terms of U.S. government transparency and credibility is that the most recent figures for 2012-2014 show a radical increase in the rate of terrorism, the figures for 2005-2011 do not show any such increase, and are more than 40 times on average the totals used in an earlier methodology covering the period from 1982-2003.

The resulting lack of transparency and credibility is further complicated by the fact the START database used since 2012 does provide trend data by country in graphic form on charts that appear to going back go back to 1970 without any clear explanation. As the full report shows, the trends in the country graphs on past trends seem to directly contradict the previous two sets of State Department estimates for the period from 1982 to 2011. Unfortunately, the START database does not appear to provide a way of obtaining the precise global totals for these years.

Moreover, it is unclear in all three sets of estimates how it is possible for any such estimate to have distinguished between acts of terrorism and the violence coming out of counterinsurgencies and civil war. Further, no effort is made to estimate acts of state terrorism by the military forces, law enforcement, and internal security forces of the many states cited for such actions in the annual State Department human rights reports and many other sources.

This not only makes it impossible to have any clear metric for knowing the official U.S. estimate of trends in terrorism, and whether there is any form of “victory” in reducing the level of violence, it creates a massive credibility problem for the State Department and for U.S. efforts to communicate the threat and the effectiveness of its counter terrorism efforts.

There is a clear need to correct this situation, and provide the kind of data and explanation that restores the credibility of the U.S. government. It does seem all too likely that there was very real rise in the level of global terrorism from 2011 onwards, but at this point in time, there seems to be no way to either understand or trust the estimates being issued by the State Department.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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