Terrorism’s global decline, explained in charts

October 22, 2012

One issue likely to come up during tonight's presidential foreign policy debate is the U.S. effort to curb international terrorism. While President Obama will probably focus on his administration's success in killing Osama bin Laden and Mitt Romney on its failure to prevent the September attack in Benghazi, Libya, it's worth looking at the data. Here are some numbers from the National Counterterrorism Center, which released its most recent report in June. 

First, here's the data on the number of terrorist attacks from 2007 through 2011:

You can see that the overall number of attacks has declined substantially since 2007, from 14,415 then to 10,283 in 2011, a drop of more than 4,000. That decline comes mostly from Iraq, where attacks decreased by just under 4,000 over that period, and largely during George W. Bush's presidency, with global incidents dropping by about 2,800 in just his final year. The number decreased by about 2,400 over Obama's first three years in office.

The number of attacks has increased substantially, however, in Afghanistan. It almost doubled from 2007 to 2009 and rose again in 2010 during the Obama administration's "surge." It dropped the next year but remains more than twice as high as it was in Bush's final year. The number of attacks in Pakistan also doubled from 2007 to 2009 but has since declined a bit.

Here's the data for deaths from terrorist attacks:

 

The numbers have dropped dramatically. Since 2007, the number of global deaths from terrorism has dropped by 45%, almost cutting the terrorist death toll in half over five years. The biggest success story on this front is Iraq, where the number of annual terrorism deaths has dropped to less than a quarter of what it once was. The Bush administration gets some credit here: 69% of the reduction in global terrorism deaths and 82% of the reduction in Iraq terrorism deaths occurred during his final year in office.  

Although the number of terrorism deaths both worldwide and in Iraq have continued declining under Obama, the number of deaths in Afghanistan has risen steadily. The number of deaths in Pakistan began increasing under Bush, peaked in 2009 and has since slowly declined.

The data are a reminder of just how ghastly the Iraq war got and of the dramatic decrease in violence there during Bush's last years and Obama's first. It is also a reminder that the violence in Afghanistan has not gone away -- a problem that both Obama and Romney may endeavor to address at tonight's debate.

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Max Fisher | October 22, 2012