The United States is not the biggest terrorist target on the planet, ranking 41st on a new index tracking global terrorism trends released Wednesday that ranks 158 nations according to the severity of terrorist activity within their borders, plus the death, destruction and economic damage that accompanies it.
The U.S. showed the most improvement in safety in the years since the 9/11 attacks, with the largest decline in ranking from 2002 to 2011, according to the Global Terrorism Index. In those years, there were 127 terrorist incidents on U.S. soil, with about half of the attacks carried out by environmental or animal-rights activists, or by unaffiliated individuals. Twenty-three people died in these attacks and 76 were injured.
"In global terms, this is a relatively low level of activity," the study says.
The index is based on a two-year analysis of statistics from the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. The data include detailed information — weapons, casualties, perpetrators — on attacks worldwide from 1970 through 2011. The index helps "demystify this destructive behavior," said Gary LaFree, director of the consortium. The study itself was published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a nonprofit research group based in Australia and New York City.
"North America is the least-likely region to be involved in a terrorist attack, though this is not the general impression among many of its residents. The fatality rate in the U.S. is 19 times lower than Western Europe," institute Chairman Steve Killelea said. "Still, the level of terrorism elsewhere is too high. We're hoping the index can prompt a practical debate about the future of terrorism and some appropriate policy responses."
The index predictably places Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan at the top of the global list of countries that have suffered the most attacks. In fourth place is India, followed by Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Thailand, Russia and the Philippines. Syria, now under close scrutiny as the site of potential biological warfare as a civil war rages, ranked 14th.
Among U.S. allies, Britain comes in 28th, Spain 45th, Italy 57th, Germany at 62nd and France 63rd. While the index points out that terrorism has reached a kind of "plateau" in the past four years, only 31 nations on the list had no terrorist incidents during the study time period, including both North and South Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, Liberia and Taiwan. China ranks 31st on the list.
"Hybrid regimes" are the most likely forms of government to give rise to terrorism, followed by "flawed democracies" and authoritarian regimes, according to the index analysts.
"The overall global trend does give some hope for optimism as the steep increase in terrorist activity experienced from 2003 to 2007 has halted," but "the deteriorating situation in Syria and other future possible conflicts in the Middle East could reverse the situation," the report says. "While the impact of terrorism has leveled out, a closer analysis shows a more nuanced view: The number of attempted attacks has actually increased, albeit very slightly over the last two years, while the number of fatalities has decreased significantly from a peak of approximately 10,000 in 2007 to 7,500 in 2011."
The researchers also revealed some telling patterns.
"In terms of targets of terrorist attacks, private citizens, government facilities, and police are the three most commonly targeted at 29 percent, 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively," the index states. "It is perhaps surprising that military personnel and installations only account for 4 percent of terrorists' targets, with transportation and businesses being targeted more frequently. Notably, religious figures and institutions and utilities only account for 3 percent and 2 percent of terrorist targets."
The 56-page report can be found at visionofhumanity.org.
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