Tracking the Trends and Numbers: Islam, Terrorism, Stability, and Conflict in the Middle East

Far too much of the current U.S. debate over immigration and terrorism is focused on fear, rather than on an effort to understand the forces driving unrest and extremism in Islam and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, or on the data available on the trends involved. The Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared a detailed overview of these trends and the data available in graphic and map form in a report entitled Tracking the Trends and Numbers: Islam, Terrorism, Stability, and Conflict in the Middle East. This analysis is available oat the CSIS web site at

The trends involved are complex, and there are many uncertainties and gaps in the numbers. Any survey also necessarily understates the very sharp differences between countries, and a focus on the MENA region necessarily ignores the trends and forces shaping instability and extremism in other parts of the Islamic world like Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and East Asian states like Indonesia and Malaysia.

At the same time, enough data are available to make several key points:

1. The MENA region is a region of instability and unrest. (pp. 7-9)

  • The MENA region may be a key source of violence and terrorism, but this is only one of many threats in the region, almost all of the violence is contained within the region and consists of Muslims killing Muslims, and the threat of terrorism and extremism is far broader than either ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, or al Qaeda and any of its affiliates.
  • U.S. strategic partnerships with the governments of MENA states are critical in fighting violence and extremism and deterring threats like Iran. 12 of 17 countries have some form of strategic partnership with U.S.: Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. Only Iran and Syria are “hostile.”
  • The threats to stability in the region go far beyond Islamist extremism and affect every nation in the region:

o Morocco and Algeria: Spanish Sahara and Polisario

o Algeria: Islamist unrest and terrorism, human trafficking

o Libya: Civil war and ISIS

o Tunisia: Uncertain stability, some ISIS attacks

o Egypt: Repression, border problems, Islamists, Sinai war Israel vs. Palestinians in Gaza, West Bank, Sinai issues, Hezbollah

o Israel: Gaza, Hezbollah/Lebanon, Syria. Palestinian Authority, Iran, Sinai, US MOU.

o Lebanon: Confessional struggles, Hezbollah vs. Army, border clashes

o Syria: ISIS, Arab civil war, Kurds, Turkey, Iran, U.S., Russia

o Iraq: ISIS, Arab civil war, Kurds, Turkey, Iran, U.S.

o Jordan: Internal tension, refugees, Israel-Palestinian, Syria, Iraq

o Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE: Iran, ISIS/AQAP, Iraq, Syria, Shi’ite vs. Sunni, internal divisions, 40-60% cut in petroleum revenues

o Iran: Arab threat, Baluchi and Arab internal, vs., expanded regional influence, missile, asymmetric sea-air missile, nuclear, Gulf-Gulf of Oman-Indian Ocean

o Yemen: Civil war, Houthi, Saleh, Saudi and UAE, Iran, AQAP, ISIS

o Turkey: Erdogan, Russia, NATO/US/EU, ISIS/Extremism, MENA stability, Kurds, Iran, Afghanistan/Central Asia

2. Islam is a driving force in the MENA region and a rapidly growing force in the world, but polls show that the vast majority of Muslims do not support extremism and violence. (pp. 10-18)

  • Islam is a driving force in the MENA region and in the world, and one that cannot be isolated, ignored, or treated in ways that create anger and hostility among MENA and the world's Muslims. The number of Muslims in the world already number 1.6 billion and the Pew Trust projects that they will rise by 1.73 billion between 2010 and 2050 -- a gain of 73% in total numbers and 6.5% of the world's population.
  • The number of Muslims in the Middle East will grow from 341 million to 589 million during this period, but the Pew Trust also projects that Muslims will increase their percentage of the total population by 5.2% in Asia, 5.6% in Sub Saharan Africa, and 4.3% in Europe. These projections do not take full account of the new waves in refugees and illegal immigrants.
  • Polls show that most Moslems strongly support the role of religion in civil life and Sharia. They also show, however, that they do not support Islamic extremism and Islamic extremist violence. These polling data do, however, have serious gaps and uncertainties.
  • The sectarian divisions within Islam is another major source of tension and violence. Sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi'ite is not related to extremism, but affects the tension between Iran and much of the Arab world, and has a serious impact on the stability of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

3. A focus on Islam ignores a key issue: the extent to which failed secularism affects the MENA region. (pp. 19-27)

  • Many of the states in the MENA region have ethnic, tribal, and regional tensions and differences that can be as serious as sectarian divisions and lead to violence that has nothing to do with Islam per se. In practical terms, the level of tension between Kurd, Arab, Iran, and Turkey is now as critical as sectarian differences.
  • Poor to failed governance at every level is a critical source of internal unrest in many MENA states, and the worst governance correlates closely with the worst instability and violence.
  • The same is true of corruption, which polls show is a critical factor triggering mass upheavals and alienation from the regime. Transparency International ranks the most corrupt country in the world as being the 176th. Syria is ranked 173rd, Yemen as 170th, 170th, Libya is 170, Iraq as 176th, Lebanon as 136th, Iran as 131st, Egypt as 108th, Morocco as 90th, and Turkey & Kuwait tie at 79th.
  • Radical differences exist in per capita income, and in development -- matched by equally critical differences in income distribution between rural and urban areas, sects and ethnic groups, and rich and poor. Like other civil problems, poverty and low per capita income correlate closely with the instability and violence.
  • The population has already grown some 5-6 times through the region between 1950 and 2010, and will probably grow some 70% more by 2015. This has put a major strain ion arable, land and water in a largely desert region, led to hyperurbanization and major slums, strained educational and infrastructure resources, shattered traditional social safety nets in some countries, and led to population movements that have further strained sectarian, ethnic, and tribal tensions.
  • The region has an extremely young population or "youth bulge" that often has very high levels of direct or disguised unemployment. Some estimates put youth unemployment in Tunisia at 40%.
  • Investment in education and health has not met the challenge of population growth in many MENA countries.

4. Iran is only one major source of military threats and confrontation in the MENA region, but Iran’s potential nuclear, missile, and irregular warfare threats, Iran’s naval-missile-air threat to maritime traffic in the Gulf, and Iran’s support of violence and unrest in neighboring threats is a warning that no strategy focused on Islamic extremism can deal with the major security and stability threats to the MENA region . (pp. 28-34)

5. Islamic extremism is all too real a threat, but it is only one source of terrorism. Moreover, the current emphasis on ISIL/ISIS/Daesh is grossly out of proportion to its present and problems future impact. (pp. 37-49)

  • The core Islamic extremist threats extend far beyond the MENA region, ISIL, and Al Qaida.
  • The Trump choice of seven countries does not begin to reflect the full ranges of threats, and --aside from Iran -- involves countries where the U.S. has governments or non-state actors as strategic partners.
  • There are many conflicting data bases on terrorism --all with major limits -- and the U.S. has abandoned the effort to issue unclassified official estimates--forcing outside efforts to focus on uncertain media reporting and methods.
  • The START database is the one used in the U.S. State Department's annual country reports on terrorism, and does provide some good broad indicators of trends for the MENA region, but now only covers terrorism through 2015.
  • It does show, however, how recent the peak in ISIL/ISIL/Daesh activity has been, and ISIS's reversal in 2016 may well indicate that it may have peaked in 2015-2016, and that other Islamist extremist movements will dominate threat in future years.
  • A series of charts tracing the global, Islamic, and MENA wide patterns in terrorism from 2005-2015 show that terrorism in largely Islamic regions accounted for some 83% of terrorism during this period.
  • They also show a major shift in the global patterns of assassinations to Islamic areas.
  • Only 36% of the terrorist incidents worldwide occurred in the MENA region, but its share increased sharply between 2011ands 2015 -- along with that of South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa.
  • But, both ISIS and Al Qaida still accounted for only 4,704 Incidents, or 5.9% of the world total, and 16% of the MENA total.
  • ISIS alone only accounted for 2,867 incidents -- 3.6% of the world total and 9.8% of the MENA total. Even if one looks only at the peak period for ISIS attacks, it accounted for only about 1,200 attacks per year vs. 15,000-18,000 worldwide in 2014 and 2015.

6. There is no real "clash between civilizations." The data show that there is clearly a "clash within a civilization,” and that civilization is the Islamic world. The threat within the United States has been minor since 9/11 and has been very limited in Europe. Almost all of the violence caused by Islamic extremism has been directed at fellow Muslims, and much of it has been concentrated in MENA states. (pp 50-63)

  • The patterns of violence in the MENA region are not dominated by terrorism, but rather by insurgencies, civil wars, and ethnic, sectarian, and tribal conflicts. No reliable data exist to estimate the casualties and costs, but they are at least three orders of magnitude larger than the casualties and costs in Europe and four orders larger than the casualties in the U.S. since 9/11.
  • An estimate by the Washington Post for January 1, 2015 – July 16, 2016 shows 608 attacks in the U.S. and European combined vs. 28,031 in the rest of the world.
  • The START data base does not attribute any direct ISIL or Al Qaida attacks or casualties in the U.S. between 2005 and 2015.
  • ISIL has been far more threatening in Europe in 2016, but this is not shown in the START database. The START database counts a total of 4,835 incidents in Europe between 2005 and 2015. The data base only begins to shows Al Qaida and ISIL incidents in 2014. It only lists 8 for ISIL during 2014-2015, with a total of 5 casualties.
  • It shows 2,861 for both ISIS and Al Qa'ida in the MENA in 2005-2105, rising sharply in 2012. the number of casualties--the vast majority Muslim -- is far higher.
  • Some evidence is surfacing of ISIL efforts to trigger attacks in the U.S. and Europe from the outside, but the number of cases so far is very limited.
  • If one looks at the patterns in U.S. deaths from terrorism during 1995-2014, According to the GTD, 80 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks from 2004 to 2013, including perpetrators and excluding deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, the majority of which are combat-related. Of those 80 Americans killed, 36 were killed in attacks that occurred in the United States.
  • More broadly, 3,066 Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks from 9/11/2001 through 12/31/2014, including perpetrators and excluding deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. 2,961 of these deaths occurred on American soil but 2,902 of these deaths occurred during the attacks on September 11, 2001.
  • A separate article in the Washington Post estimated in late January 2017 that about 400 individuals have been charged with or credibly involved in jihad-inspired activity in the U.S. since 9/11. Just under half (197) were U.S.-born citizens, according to research by the non-partisan think tank New America Foundation. Another 82 were naturalized citizens and 44 were permanent residents. Only 11 had non-immigrant visas, 8 were illegal immigrants, and 12 were refugees.
  • A START estimate through 2014 showed that there were a total of 1,421terrorist attacks. 88.2% were by native born Americans who were not first or second generation immigrants.
  • 206 of the 1,421 (14.5) had some Islamist character. 39.3% of the Islamist attacks were by non-immigrant native Americans, 9.7% were by second generation immigrants, and 51% by first generation immigrants. A maximum of 7.2% were other or unknown.
  • The number of proposed refugees in the U.S. is very limited, and should be minimal with existing vetting.

7. The battle against Islamic extremism, and for stability in the MENA region, must be fought primarily by the governments of Muslim states. The struggle will be won or lost by U.S. strategic partnerships with states like Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. It will not be won by trying to isolate the U.S. or Europe from Muslims, or by measures that alienate the Islamic world. (pp. 64-68)