Islam and the Patterns in Terrorism and Violent Extremism

By Anthony Cordesman


It is far too easy to focus on individual acts of terrorism and extremism, and ignore the global patterns in such violence. The Burke Chair at CSIS has assembled a wide range of indicators that help quantify and explain these patterns, and that look beyond the crises of the moment to examine longer term trends. They include a range of tables, graphs, and maps that help put the global patterns of terrorism in perspective, and that show the relationships between extremist and terrorist movements, the reject of such movements by the vast majority of Muslims, and the critical role that Muslim states play as strategic partners in the fight against such movements.

This analysis is entitled Islam and the Patterns in Terrorism and Violent Extremism and is available on the CSIS web site at

Putting the Links Between Islam and Violent Extremism in Context

Any analysis of the patterns in terrorism faces major challenges simply because of the lack of reliable and comparable data, and the tendency to compartmentalize analysis to deal with given threats, nations, and regions. The problem becomes much greater when the analysis attempts to deal with issues as controversial as the links between Islam, extremism, and terrorism.

It is far too easy for analysts who are not Muslim to focus on the small part of the extremist threat that Muslim extremists pose to non-Muslims in the West and/or demonize one of the world's great religions, and to drift into some form of Islamophobia—blaming a faith for patterns of violence that are driven by a tiny fraction of the world's Muslims and by many other factors like population, failed governance, and weak economic development.

It is equally easy to avoid analyzing the links between extremist violence and Islam in order to be politically correct or to avoid provoking Muslims and the governments of largely Muslim states. The end result is to ignore the reality that most extremist and terrorist violence does occur in largely Muslim states, although it overwhelmingly consists of attacks by Muslim extremists on fellow Muslims, and not some clash between civilizations.

If one examines a wide range of sources, however, a number of key patterns emerge that make five things very clear:

  • First, the overwhelming majority of extremist and violent terrorist incidents do occur in largely Muslim states.
  • Second, most of these incidents are perpetrated by a small minority of Muslims seeking power primarily in their own areas of operation and whose primary victims are fellow Muslims.
  • Third, almost all of the governments of the countries involved are actively fighting extremism and terrorism, and most are allies of Western states that work closely with the security, military, and counterterrorism forces of non-Muslim states to fight extremism and terrorism.
  • Fourth, the vast majority of Muslims oppose violent extremism and terrorism, and,
  • Fifth, religion is only one of many factors that lead to instability and violence in largely Muslim states. It is a critical ideological force in shaping the current patterns of extremism, but it does not represent the core values of Islam and many other far more material factors help lead to the rise of extremism.

The analysis draws on a wide range of sources to illustrate these trends and how the global patterns in terrorism and violence interact with Islam. It cannot overcome the lack of consistent and reliable data in many key areas, or the fact that many key factors do not lend themselves to summary quantification and trend analysis. It is also impossible to go into depth in analyzing the individual the trends in Islam and extremism in a broad overview of global trends, or to highlight all of the limits in the quality and reliability of the data available.

The analysis does, however, make use of the same START database that the U.S. State Department uses in drafting its annual country reports on terrorism. While there is no agreement between open source databases in terms of numbers, there does seem to be broad agreement as to the direction and intensity of most trends. Uncertain as the numbers may be, the vectors in these numbers do seem to reflect many areas of consensus. (See Global Terrorism Database -,

It also draws on a wide range of other materials to reflect recent polling of Muslim opinion, data on the broader divisions that lead to violence and extremism in much of the Muslim world, and various official sources to show the trends in the current "wars" on terrorism, the degree to which partnerships between Muslim and non-Muslim states form the core of the effort to defeat extremism, and the extent to which the rise of extremism ensures that it may take several decades of active security partnerships to end the threat.

Global Patterns of Terrorism Are Dominated by Extremism in Largely Muslim States

The first section of the report makes it clear that the patterns of extremist violence are dominated by violence in largely Muslim states and by extremist movements that claim to represent Islamic values. It shows that the START database counts a total of 70,767 terrorist incidents between 2011 and the end of 2016. A total of 60,320 of these incidents—85% of the global total—occurred in largely Islamic states. A total of 51,321 of these incidents—73% of the global total—occurred in the Islamic states in the Middle East and North Africa or MENA region.

It is important to note, however, that only a relatively small portion of the incidents can be attributed to ISIS, even using the highest START estimate. More broadly, even if Afghanistan is added to the total for Iraq and Syria, the three major countries where the U.S. and other outside states partner with Muslim governments accounted for 26,113 incidents—or only 37% of the global total. Moreover, even if one counts all of the MENA region and South Asia, key organized extremist groups like Al Qaida, Al Nusra, ISIS, and the Taliban accounted for 12,159 incidents or 17% of the total. Defeating today's key perpetrators is critical, but it in no way will defeat the longer term threat.

BUT, there is No “Clash of Civilizations.” The Vast Majority of Muslims Consistently Reject Extremism and Terrorism

The second section of the report draws on a range of polls to put these statistics on incidents into perspective. There is no poll of opinion in every Muslim or Arab state, and many of the polls available—including the ones in this report—have serious flaws and limitations. Nevertheless, the polling data still seem good enough—and consistent enough—to show that the vast majority of Muslims do not support extremist violence, and that their primary concerns are jobs, the quality of governance, security, and the same practical values shared by non-Muslims.

Moreover, for all the talk of "foreign fighters," even the high estimates in the media represent a negligible portion of the total number of young men who might join in such movements. Arab youth do not support extremist violence. Moreover, the small portion that does in given countries in given polls is often reacting to a crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations or some other major incident, and that limited support tends to drop sharply when it no longer is driven by the heat of the moment.

The Battle of Perceptions, and Popular Motives in the MENA Region and Islamic World

The third section supplements the second by showing that only 17% of Muslims saw religion as the key factor in recruiting fighters for ISIS, and that interpretations of Islam ranked seventh in a poll examining Arab views of way to defeat extremism. At the same time, it warns that the rejection of extremism and terrorism does not there was popular support for many U.S. and other
western foreign policies. Moreover, 77% of Arabs polled still felt that the Arab peoples were a single nation, rather than focused on the actions of their government and their own nation situation.

Casualties in the U.S. and Europe Are All Too Real. But, it is Muslims that Are the Overwhelming Victims of Extremist Attacks

The fourth section of the report shows the trends in terms of death, injuries, and kidnappings/hostage taking. No one can condone or ignore the numbers killed in the U.S. and Europe, but they are relatively tiny in actuarial terms. For example, there were 658 deaths in Europe and all of the Americas between January 1, 2015 and July 16, 2016. There were 28,031—or 43 times more deaths—in other regions—most of them consisting of largely Islamic countries. Almost all of the human impact of extremist attacks is Muslims killing or injuring fellow Muslims.

Seven of the ten countries with the most terrorist attacks in 2016 had vast Muslim majorities, and the death and injuries in the other three involve large numbers of Muslim deaths. A total of 83% of the attacks and 90% of the deaths occurred in solidly Islamic countries. The vast majority of suicide and vehicle attacks came from "Islamist" extremist groups that killed Muslims in largely Muslim countries.

If one looks at the five worst perpetrator movements in the world in 2016, four are “Islamist" extremist. A total of 88% of 2,916 attacks and 99% of 14,017 deaths that resulted from the top five perpetrators were caused by Islamic extremist groups.

Restrictions on Religion Attempt to Limit Extremism in Much of the Islamic World

The fifth section makes it clear that most governments in largely Muslim states are actively moving to suppress religious extremism in their country. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism and Treasury Department lists of designated groups and individuals funding terrorism show both major progress in largely Muslim states in fighting extremism and limiting the funding and support of extremist groups and that much more needs to be done.

At the same time, work by the Pew Trust highlights the fact that many largely Muslim states have placed growing limits on extremist preaching and religious activity. This necessarily interferes with freedom of religion and speech, and given states often exert excessive limits and control, but vague charges that such governments are failing to act do not reflect the real-world actions of many—if not most—governments in largely Muslim states. (See International Religious Freedom Report - US Department of State,; and Country Reports on Terrorism - US Department of State,

Islamophobia is Dangerous and Ignores Muslim Patriotism and Support for Their Country in nations Outside the Muslim World

The sixth section provides a short case state in the dangers of Islamophobia. Polling data illustrate the degree to which American Muslims show consistent loyalty and support for the U.S. It also shows that the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the U.S. did not involve Muslims, and that those attacks that did involve "Islamist" motives were generally by American-born Muslims or full citizens and not by recent immigrants.

The data also show that American Muslims have seen some slight rises in the violent impact of Islamophobia. The risks of becoming a U.S. victim of Islamist violence have been tiny relative to other causes of death and violent death since 2011, but the size of anti-Muslim hate crimes has grown. Islamist violence still produces more deaths, but FBI reporting shows that anti-Muslim hate crimes produce higher levels of overall violence, rape, and serious injury.

Extremism Poses a Critical Threat to the Ability of Largely Islamic States to Meet the Needs of Their Rapidly Growing Populations

The data and trend charts in the seventh section provide a wide range of metrics showing the other pressures that divide largely Muslim states, and that can drive their populations towards extremism. Each can be a study in itself, but it is clear that many Muslims feel their governments are corrupt and that secular options fail to protect them and provide adequate future opportunities.

Population pressure and corruption are critical factors, as are ethnic and sectarian divisions and hyperurbanization. Youth lack jobs and opportunity in many states, and per capita incomes are sometimes critically low. (For detailed country-by-country comparisons, see Instability in the MENA Region, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Key Conflict states: A Comparative Score Card ,, or

Islamic States Are Key Strategic Partners in the Fight Against Extremism, and the Rising Global Impact of Islam Makes These Partnerships Steadily More Critical

The eighth section of the report highlights two key factors in dealing with the threat of "Islamist" extremism. First, almost all of the states with large Muslim majorities have governments that already cooperate with the U.S. in the struggle against extremism. These strategic partnerships are critical to containing the threat and limiting its impact outside the countries where it is now centered.

Second, the need for lasting strategic partnerships with Muslim states is reinforced by key demographic trends on a global basis. Work by the Pew Research Center estimates that the total number of Muslims will increase from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.76 billion in 2015—an increase of 73% or 1.16 billion people.

Dividing the world on a religious basis, or even seriously alienating a substantial portion of the world's Muslims could create all too real a clash between key elements of the global population and economy.

ISIS, Al Qaida and the Taliban Are Key Current Threats. But are Only One Small Part of a Far Broader Problem that Will Endure for Decades

The trend charts in this section reinforce the points made in the previous sections about the enduring threat that extremism and instability poses to the Islamic world and the state outside it.

When they are compared to the previous trend data on incidents and deaths, they show that Al Qaida, ISIS, the Taliban, and the other main targets of today's anti-terrorism and anti-extremist efforts are only a comparatively limited part of even current threats.

Even Total Victory in Syria and Iraq Could Only Have a Limited Impact:
Most IISS “Affiliates” Outside Iraq and Syria Are Not Closely Linked to the ISIS “Caliphates” and Will Survive ISIS Defeats in Iraq and Syria

It is also striking that ISIS's "affiliates" outside the current range of major military efforts—those only tenuously tied to ISIS central—have been responsible for more terrorist incidents than ISIS central has been in Syria and Iraq.

The Current Fighting in Syria and Iraq is Unlikely to Bring Any Lasting Security and Stability

The data in this section of this report documents major progress in fighting ISIS and a major joint military effort between a US led coalition and host country allies. It also, however, highlights the lack of any clear grand strategy to bring security and stability to Syria and Iraq. Defeating extremist organizations like Al Qaida, ISIS, and Al Nusra will be a critical step in limiting the threat, but even near total defeat of today's major perpetrators will leave major cadres and large numbers of fighters.

As yet, there are no indications that such defeats will be followed by recovery and reform efforts that will bring lasting security and stability to the divisions within Syria and Iraq shown in this section. Extremist groups will remain, governance and economic development will be weak and divided, ethnic and sectarian differences will be critical, and the outside role of powers like Iran, Russia, and Turkey will be deeply divisive.

Limited tactical victories are no substitute for a meaningful grand strategy that addresses the lasting outcome of such victories.

This is Even More True of the Fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The trend data in this section show that even tactical success is uncertain in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Again, there is no clear indication of the capability to build on the defeat of the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other extremist groups to bring lasting security and stability to either Afghanistan or Pakistan

Terrorism and Extremism in Yemen Have Become a Strategic “Black Hole”

The final section in the report provides a different kind of warning. It shows that the cost of failing to create effective strategic partnerships can be far greater and more destabilizing even if such partnerships only really address a limited part of a nation's tensions and divisions and focus almost exclusively on security.

Yemen is only one such case study. Libya, Somalia, the Sudans, and a number of Sub Saharan African countries already present similar challenges. The study referenced earlier in section seven, Instability in the MENA Region, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Key Conflict states: A Comparative Score Card ,, or—highlights the scale of these challenges and causes of current and future extremism.