The New State Department Report on Terrorism: Rethinking the Numbers and Coverage

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The U.S. State Department issued its latest annual report on terrorism on August 19, 2018. The report updates its past estimates to cover 2017 and provides a separate Annex of Statistical Information that summarizes the global trends in terrorism. The report concludes that,

The total number of terrorist attacks worldwide in 2017 decreased by 23 percent and total deaths due to terrorist attacks decreased by 27 percent, compared to 2016. While numerous countries saw a decline in terrorist violence between 2016 and 2017, this overall trend was largely due to dramatically fewer attacks and deaths in Iraq. Twenty-four percent of all deaths in terrorist attacks in 2017 were perpetrator deaths, down from 26 percent in 2016. This statistic was historically much lower but began to increase in the 2000s, largely due to shifting tactics in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq in the 2010s.

The Annex of Statistical Information also provides a summary graph of the trend in total incidents and deaths by month from 2012-2017 – a period that covers the failed U.S. attempts to disengage its combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the period of worst fighting against ISIS. This graph is shown in Figure One, and the State Department statistical annex concludes that,

...the global trends in terrorist attacks observed in 2017 are the continuation of an overall pattern of decline that began in 2014 following a rapid increase in terrorist violence. This rapid increase was largely the result of violence carried out by ISIS and allied groups including Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Likewise, the subsequent decline was primarily the product of decreasing levels of violence by these same groups. Despite these patterns, these groups remained several of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world in 2017.

There are good reasons to question both these conclusions and the way in which both the State Department main report and Annex of Statistical Information are structured. Reasons that raise serious questions about the way the U.S. is approaching the very nature of terrorism and its wars against extremism.

Describing Less than Half the Problem: Ignoring State Terrorism

The first and most serious reason to question the Annex and its data comes from the way in which terrorism is defined. It only includes "violent acts carried out by non-state actors." The main report does include "State Sponsors of Terrorism," but only includes nations that sponsor non-state actors. Neither the main report or the Annex of Statistical Information address the fact that states commit direct acts of terrorism, or the extent to which non-state actors are reacting to such terrorism.

This leads to a critical lack of coverage in a wide number of cases. Examples include:

  • The Syrian civil war has almost certainly produced over 500,000 dead and a larger number of wounded. The UN estimates that roughly half the population has been made into refugees and independently displaced persons, and the CIA World Factbook estimates that, "Syria's economy has deeply deteriorated amid the ongoing conflict that began in 2011, declining by more than 70% from 2010 to 2017." ISIS has played a remarkably destructive role in Eastern Syria, but it is the Assad regime – supported by Iran, the Hezbollah, and Russia – that has been responsible for the vast majority of the killing, injuries, and damage done in Syria's far more populated West. There are no reliable estimates. However, if one examines the number of deaths shown worldwide for non-state actors in Figure One, looks at the various civilian casualty estimates for Syria, and looks at media reporting on the locations of such attacks, the Assad regime's state terrorism may well have killed more civilians since 2012 than all of the world's non-state actors combined.
  • The main report section of the State Department report that covers state sponsors of terrorism does list Iran's range of actions in supporting extremist movements and non-state military actors like the Hezbollah. It makes no effort, however, to quantify the scale of Iran's acts or the direct role played by the IRGC, MOIS, Al Quds force and Iranian volunteers.
  • State terrorism and the military in Myanmar has killed, injured, and displaced a vast number of the country's Muslims or Rohingya.
  • China is reported to have displaced or suppressed the freedom of millions of Uighurs in Western China.
  • The Turkish regime deliberately provoked Turkish Kurds into renewing a civil war in Turkey to help Erdogan win a new mandate for power. There are very real terrorist elements among the Turkish Kurds, but Turkish state terrorism has become a growing issue and one that affects mass arrests and firings of ethnic Turks – not just Kurds.
  • Nations like Algeria, Egypt, and Russia face very real terrorist threats, but their counterterrorism activities sometimes cross the line into repression and state terrorism. The cases where state terrorism (and counterterrorism) help breed terrorism need to be clearly identified – not just the actions of non-state actors.
  • Civil wars like the war in Yemen have certainly been driven by non-state state actors like the Houthi. At the same time, the failures of the Saleh and Hadi regimes and the levels of violence on the other side that reflect a form of state terrorism also need to be flagged and analyzed.
  • State terrorism often has a very different character from non-state terrorism. It can involve arrests, detentions, and convictions/imprisonments rather than the kind of incident counted for non-state actors. It can also involve large-scale forced movement and economic and severe human rights penalties for large elements of the population. Once again, only focusing on non-state actors – and direct violence in the form of immediate killing and injuries – grossly understate the real scale of terrorism and the extent to which state terrorism breeds non-state terrorism. In fact, looking at the recent UN reporting on refugees and IDPs, and the states involved, it seems likely that state-driven terrorism and repression impacts far more civilians than the actions of non-state actors.

The U.S. does separately examine a number of these issues in broad terms in the annual State DepartmentCountry Reports on Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom, but the present reporting on terrorism seems to cover fewer than half the problems, provides no basis for understanding the extent to which non-state action is provoked or sustained by state terrorism, and presents the threat almost solely in terms of non-state actors rather than addressing key causes of the terrorist and the threat it poses.

The Counterinsurgency Disconnect: Understating the Role of Non-State Actors

There is a second major problem in the 2017 report. The main report and statistical annex only count acts of terrorism that meet two of three criteria for the main report, or all three criteria for the Annex of Statistical Information:

  • The violent act was aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious, or social goal;
  • The violent act included evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate, or convey some other message to a larger audience (or audiences) other than the immediate victims; and
  • The violent act was outside the precepts of International Humanitarian Law insofar as it targeted non-combatants.

There is no "good" definition of terrorism in the sense that it can meet the different expectations, values, and goals of those who seek to define it. In broad terms, the criteria used by the State Department and START form as good a definition as any for terrorism committed by non-state actors that do not hold or control significant amounts of territory. They do not, however, apply to non-state actors that become strong enough to pose a serious insurgent threat, and/or control or influence a large amount of territory or the population .

This is critical gap at a time when many terrorist movements have come to pose a serious threat in terms of occupying or controlling territory (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria), can threaten the existence of governments (Sub-Saharan Africa), or create or exploit a situation where there is no effective national government. (Libya, Yemen).

The U.S. is now fighting movements like ISIS, Al Qaida, and the Taliban with mixed success, as well as supporting a long list of countries in fights with their affiliates or other movements. In many cases, the threat has escalated from isolated or sporadic acts of terrorism to active insurgency or ongoing patterns of attacks that use both terrorism and other forms of violence to systematically undermine a given government.

The most serious case in point is ISIS, though the Taliban is a close second. Both have posed major ongoing threats in 2017. In the case of ISIS, it faced major defeats in serious fighting where it systematically used violence and intimidation to create human shields, sought to control the population, and systematically displaced or killed civilian opposition. Its seems likely, for example, that ISIS violence directly affected more civilians in the battle of Mosul alone in 2017 than were directly pressured or subjected to ISIS violence in any given previous year. Similarly, the Taliban posed its largest threat to civilians in 2017, and civilian casualties peaked in Yemen.

However, the State Department report and the Annex of Statistical Information do not take the broader fighting and levels of non-state actor violence into account, and conclude that a major cut took place in terrorism between 2016 and 2017:

  • The total number of terrorist attacks worldwide in 2017 decreased by 23 percent and total deaths due to terrorist attacks decreased by 27 percent, compared to 2016. While numerous countries saw a decline in terrorist violence between 2016 and 2017, this overall trend was largely due to dramatically fewer attacks and deaths in Iraq. Twenty-four percent of all deaths in terrorist attacks in 2017 were perpetrator deaths, down from 26 percent in 2016. This statistic was historically much lower but began to increase in the 2000s, largely due to shifting tactics in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq in the 2010s.
  • Although terrorist attacks took place in 100 countries in 2017, they were concentrated geographically. Fifty-nine percent of all attacks took place in five countries (Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Philippines), and 70 percent of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria).
  • The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was responsible for more attacks and deaths than any other perpetrator group in 2017. However, ISIS carried out 23 percent fewer terrorist attacks and caused 53 percent fewer total deaths, compared to 2016. ISIS and groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS carried out attacks in more than 20 countries in 2017. The most active ISIS affiliates were in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Egypt, and West Africa.
  • The number of kidnapping victims and hostages declined 43 percent between 2016 and 2017, a notable shift from previous years which saw sharp increases in the number of kidnapping victims and hostages, primarily due to attacks involving exceptionally large numbers of victims.
  • In several of the locations that experienced the most terrorism in 2017, a decrease in terrorist attacks coincided with a decrease in the total number of people killed in terrorist attacks. These countries include Iraq (-56%), Syria (-48%), Nigeria, (-16%), and Pakistan (-11%).

A Nightmare of Conflicting Data

The patterns in the estimates provided by the Annex of Statistical Information emerge clearly in two Figures. Figure Two shows the estimated decline in deaths, injured, and kidnapped/hostages in the ten most violent countries. Figure Three shows the five perpetrator groups with the most attacks worldwide in 2017.

Both Figures show a sharp decline in the level of violence caused by ISIS in 2017, and the overall level of violence in Iraq. The pattern is less clear in Afghanistan, where the incident rate dropped, but there was a slight increase in deaths and drop in injuries. It seems likely that if these Figures included the overall level of violence, death, and injuries in Iraq and Syria, the drop would be substantially reversed or increased.

This, however, is only part of the problem in using such data. There are striking gaps and contradictions between the totals in Figure Two and Figure Three that are not explained in the Annex. If one compares the data in the two Figures, the totals for all main ISIS action worldwide accounted for only 44% of the attacks in Iraq alone, but it accounted for 102% of the killed, 80% of the injured, and 111% of the kidnappings and hostages.

The report highlights a number of trends for Iraq but does not attempt to explain them or even mention the massive increase in the fighting that took place between 2016 and 2017. It ranks Syria last in the top-ten score of violent countries and does not address the trends in that country.

It is also unclear that the report’s comments on national trends in Iraq draw on the same data based on ISIS as the top perpetrator data.

  • By a wide margin, more terrorist attacks took place in Iraq than in any other country in 2017. However, as terrorist violence decreased in Iraq in 2017 the number of people killed in terrorist attacks was less than one-half what it was in 2016 and the number of people injured was less than one-third what it was in 2016. As a result of these declines, Afghanistan surpassed Iraq as the country with the most casualties due to terrorist attacks in 2017.
  • Perpetrator deaths comprised 23 percent of all deaths due to terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2017, down from 25 percent as the number of perpetrators killed in terrorist attacks declined from more than 2,400 in 2016 to fewer than 1,000 in 2017.
  • ISIS remained the primary perpetrator of terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2017. For 60 percent of attacks in Iraq, source materials did not attribute responsibility to a particular perpetrator, group, or organization; however, ISIS was identified as the perpetrator in 97 percent of the remaining attacks for which a perpetrator organization was named. The number of attacks ISIS carried out in Iraq decreased from 946 in 2016 to 762 in 2017 (-24%).
  • The total number of people killed in terrorist attacks in Iraq decreased 56 percent in 2017, due in large part to a decrease in exceptionally lethal attacks. In 2016, more than 9,700 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Iraq, including more than 2,700 killed in 22 attacks that killed 50 people or more. Four of these attacks killed 250 people or more. In contrast, there were five terrorist attacks in 2017 that killed 50 people or more, none of which killed 250 people or more.

Somewhat similar problems emerge for Afghanistan. The total Taliban activity worldwide accounted for only 60% of the attacks in Afghanistan alone, but 93% of the killed, 65% of the injured, and 84% of the kidnappings and hostages. The report summarizes the trends in Table Two as follows, and again does not mention the heavy wartimes fighting in either year:

  • The total number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan decreased 13 percent between 2016 and 2017, while the total number of deaths increased two percent. At the same time, perpetrator deaths declined eight percent, though the percentage of total fatalities in Afghanistan that were perpetrator deaths remained especially high – 46 percent, compared to 24 percent worldwide.
  • Like Iraq, Pakistan, India, and Somalia, Afghanistan experienced a large decrease (-51%) in the number of people kidnapped or taken hostage in terrorist attacks in 2017.
  • Information about perpetrator groups was reported for more than two-thirds of all attacks in Afghanistan in 2017 (69%).
    • The majority of these attacks (86%) were attributed to the Taliban. Attacks carried out by the Taliban in 2017 killed more than 3,500 people (including nearly 2,000 perpetrators) and wounded more than 3,100 additional people. These patterns were remarkably stable between 2016 and 2017.
    • The number of terrorist attacks attributed to the Khorasan branch of ISIS in Afghanistan more than doubled, from 58 terrorist attacks resulting in more than 500 deaths in 2016, to 119 attacks resulting in more than 670 deaths in 2017.

Comparing Terrorism Casualties to Wartime Casualties

Any effort to go further and compare the Annex estimates to estimates of total wartime casualties reveals another set of problems.

Unfortunately, there are no official numbers that reflect the total patterns of violence in Iraq and Syria in 2016 and 2017. The UN stopped making estimates for Syria several years earlier. Iraq Body Count, however, provide respected NGO estimates for Iraq. Its totals for direct wartime casualties – which may exclude many terrorist casualties – are 17,578 for 2015, 16,393 for 2016, and a preliminary 13,387 for 2017. These totals are roughly twice the total deaths counted in the State Department Annex –which are 9,782 for 2016 and 4,269 in 2017. (

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) provides respected estimated for Syria. Its estimates for direct civilian casualties total 13,617 for 2016 and 10,517 for 2017 – which may be very conservative. These casualties compare with Annex estimates of 2,119 for 2016, and 1,096 for 2017 in the Annex data provide in Figure Two.

The situation is reversed in the case of Afghanistan. The UN provides widely accepted civilian casualty estimates for Afghanistan. These total 2,138 for the casualties caused by all threat elements in 2016, and 2,303 for 2017. The estimates seem very low for the scale of the ongoing fighting, and it is interesting that Table Two shows the Annex estimates 4578 for 2016 and 4,672 for 2017. it this case, the total casualties from war are only half the casualties for all non-combat terrorism.

Restructuring the Estimates of Terrorism

There are two obvious conclusions to draw from these figures. The first is the need to explicitly analyze the trends in state terrorism. The second is the need to tie the present method of defining and estimating terrorism to the fact that insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are having a massive impact on the role and levels of violence committed by non-state extremist groups. The present data on the most serious threat actors are too contradictory to be useful, and the problems would be even more severe if the estimates included a full breakout of the violence committed by non-state actors like Hezbollah or Iranian "volunteers."


Figure One: State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism. Annex of Statistical Information Summary of the Global Trends in Terrorism in 2012-2017

(Terrorist attacks and total deaths worldwide by month, 2012 - 2017)

Source: State Department annual Country Reports on Terrorism, 2017, Annex of Statistical Information,

Figure Two: Ten countries with the Most Terrorist Attacks, 2017

Source: State Department annual Country Reports on Terrorism, 2017, Annex of Statistical Information,


Figure Three: Five Perpetrator Groups with the Most Attacks Worldwide, 2017

Source: State Department annual Country Reports on Terrorism, 2017 , Annex of Statistical Information,


Figure Four: Decline in Total Terrorist Incidents versus Declines in Incidents from Primary Threats: 2011-2017

Total Incidents All Perpetrators (81,989)

Total Incidents (13,151) Involving Primary Threats: (Al-Qaida; Al-Qaida Kurdish Battalions (AQKB); Al-Qaida in Iraq; Al-Qaida in Lebanon; Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia; Al-Qaida in Yemen; Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); Islamic State of Iraq (ISI); Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); Taliban; Taliban (Pakistan))

Source: START data base, advanced search option,

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 U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.