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Hyping the number of deaths from terrorism

(Chris Usher/CBS News via AP)
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“We’ve got al-Qaeda spreading around the world in a way that is frightening. Think about it. Last year alone, some 15,000 terrorist-related deaths.”

— Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Nov. 3, 2013

Rogers, in making the case for robust intelligence gathering, cited a figure for terrorist deaths at the hands of al-Qaeda that seemed a bit high. (He also mentioned a historical analogy, but got the history wrong, according to our colleagues at PolitiFact.)

The Facts

At first, it sounded as though Rogers said that al-Qaeda was responsible for 15,000 deaths in 2012. That’s absurdly high, so we will give Rogers a break and assume he just meant that there were 15,000 terrorist-related deaths.

Kelsey Knight, a Rogers spokesman, said that his number was derived from the Global Terrorism Database, housed at the University of Maryland and managed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) . Though the database currently only includes data until 2011, a leaked 2012 report to CNN says it counted more than 8,500 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 15,500 people.

Case closed? Not so fast.

START also collects the terrorism data for the State Department, and its 2012 report says that terrorists killed about 11,000 people that year in nearly 6,800 attacks.

How can the same data collector come up with such different figures? That’s because the Global Terrorism Database counts attacks against soldiers (such as deaths during a Taliban offensive against U.S. troops) whereas the State Department defines terrorism as attacks against noncombatants.

START uses the broader criteria in order to remain consistent with a database originally collected by the Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services that was acquired by University of Maryland researchers. Funding from the Department of Homeland Security has helped extend the database.

But the State Department uses its definition — that terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” — because of a law passed by Congress.  The definition is enshrined in Title 22 of the U.S. Code.

As for al-Qaeda, the organization or its affiliates killed a little over 1,000 people in 2012, unless you also include the Taliban and its Pakistani offshoot. That would get the figure to about 3,500.

“The START numbers are a credible estimate and that they are doing it under a government contract, so it’s not a non-government estimate,” Knight said.

The Pinocchio Test

We understand politicians’ desire to use the most dramatic number possible when making a point, and certainly the Global Terrorism Database is a respected trove of information.

But a chairman of a congressional committee really should rely on the official government numbers released by the State Department, especially because those numbers are guided by a definition required by Congress. The difference in the numbers is too great to ignore.

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