The Samovar

Rational responses to terrorism
April 30, 2007, 7:05 pm
Filed under: Politics, Terrorism

When I say that we are over-reacting to the threat of terrorism, I am occasionally challenged to explain what an appropriate reaction would be, how we can quantify it, etc. Documents such as Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (via Lenin’s Tomb) are a good start. (See also this article for a view of the situation in the US.)

The tables below list all the terrorist incidents in 2006 (the first one), and the number of arrests made (the second one). Sorry I’ve included them as images because WordPress seems to have difficulty with copying and pasting tables in and I didn’t want to write them out by hand.

The first thing to notice is that of 498 terrorist attacks, only one was identified as ‘Islamist’. On the other hand, close to half of the arrests made were of people suspected of ‘Islamist’ terrorism. On the other hand, ‘Separatist’ terrorism (such as ETA in Spain) accounted for 424 of the 498 attacks, but accounts for less arrests in total than of ‘Islamist’ terrorism.

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that our anti-terrorism resources are not being used efficiently.

UPDATE (2nd May 2007): Actually this conclusion is not such a reasonable one to make because the statistics below don’t tell you about the number of casualties per incident. See the comments for more details.

The tables and the rest of the report make interesting material to study. Most of the 2006 incidents were due to Basque separatists in Spain and Corsican separatists in France. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t give figures for the number of casualties, wounded, and the amount of property damage caused by these incidents, but it does repeatedly refer to the fact that casualties were usually low. Given this, it becomes appropriate to consider terrorism as an economic cost, and therefore the resources given to combat it should be proportional to the damage caused. Similarly, restrictions on civil liberties, legislative changes, etc. cannot be justified based on the costs of terrorism compared to other forms of damage to society (cars, pollution, etc.).



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Thanks for posting. Terrorism has always been with us and always will be with us, it is but one of an almost infinite variety of threats facing the citizens of all nations. And for the most part in most nations, it is a minor threat indeed. The scare mongering that has been perpetrated by the Bush and Blair governments is beyond all reason.

Comment by unitedcats

Hi unitedcats. I was wondering – on your blog entry you said that the report above said that there were precisely two casualties. I haven’t read all the way through it, I was wondering where that bit is?

Comment by thesamovar

Hmm, one was in section 7.3 Can’t find the other off hand, will look as my time permits.

Comment by unitedcats

Hey Dan,

Hope everything’g going well. What do you take the statistics you posted to show? I can’t see how one can use them to deduce anything about resource allocation. To do that, wouldn’t you know about the number of attempted terrorist attacks that were subverted?

I agree that the threat has been hyped up – vastly moreso in the US than in the UK. But someone who disagreed would find your graphs encouraging – they would say that the incidence of Islamic terrorism in the EU was so low \emph{because} of the large number of arrests.


Comment by Simon Judes

Agreed, it’s depressing. If there are terror attacks, why it just proves the “GWOT” is justified. If terror attacks are down, why, it means the “GWOT” is working! I’m beginning to think the GWOT is the best scam to come down the pike since the one where you get people to work for you while they’re alive, and then pay them after they die! AKA: organized religion. I wish I could hire people on that basis. :(

Comment by unitedcats

Hey Simon,

Yes you’re correct. I was going to address that point when I wrote this entry but I was in a bit of a hurry and forgot to.

First thing – most (or at least many) of the ‘Islamist’ suspected terrorists they arrested were, IIRC from that report, eventually released because they weren’t involved in anything. This suggests that the authorities are not in fact doing an amazing job of preventing attacks.

Second thing – we’d have to believe that the authorities were MUCH BETTER at dealing with ‘Islamist’ than ‘Separatist’ terrorists (by many orders of magnitude I think) for these results to be consistent with an efficient allocation of resources. Implausible I’d say.

We’d also have to believe that although they were preventing hundreds of plots (literally), they weren’t telling us about it. Again, implausible.

If the stats had been less extreme than they (only 1 of 500 attacks being ‘Islamist’), I probably wouldn’t have posted them for the sort of reasons you suggest. I did say that these stats were just ‘a good start’.

So anyway, I take it from the \emph{} in your post that you’re writing up a paper or your thesis? How’s it going?

Comment by thesamovar

Hey Dan,

I’m getting more and more confused about these tables. They don’t even seem to have the same list of countries, and the UK figures are missing from the second one. It’s clear though that more effort is focussed on Islamic terrorism than on other types. But I’ve yet to be persuaded that the attention isn’t justified. In particular the statistic about number of deaths per attack seems important. It also seems strange to look only at 2006 given that Islamic terrorism in the EU seems to be large scale and infrequent (e.g. London and Madrid). I agree that it is strange when large numbers of people are arrested and then released. As you say, it does seem like a waste of effort.

I also think the threat is hyped, but my main worry is that fear of terrorist attacks is being used as a weapon against liberal political policies in general – conservative governments apparently are universally thought to deal better with `war’. Fox News for example still permanently displays the ‘Terror Alert Level’ on the bottom of the screen.

Your interpretation of the LaTeX was correct – I recently finished a couple of papers. One was maths actually – you can look on hep-th if you’re interested. But I think it’ll be another year before I finish the PhD. How are you enjoying neuroscience?


Comment by Simon Judes

Good point. So I looked up the figures for Western Europe in the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Database (about which I know little so I can’t vouch for its accuracy or bias). It gives the figure of 309 fatalities from terrorism since 2001. If we look instead at the last 10 years (also arbitrary but maybe more neutral) it’s 410. Unfortunately, that site doesn’t break down its stats into ‘Islamist’/’Separatist’ like the Europol study, so I can’t do a direct comparison. We know that at least that the Madrid 2004 bombings killed 190 and the London 7/7 ones killed 52, so assuming that the Madrid bombings were done by Islamic fundamentalists, then at least 242 are from Islamic terrorism. Looking at it then either from 2001 or 1997 tells the same story, more than half of the fatalities come from Islamic terrorism. In other words – I have to revise my opinion. This analysis (if its right) suggests that broadly speaking police efforts are proportionate with respect to different types of terrorist group at least in terms of casualties. I’ll add an amendment to my entry above.

Including Eastern Europe (1,952 deaths since 1997) makes the calculation more difficult because we’d have to look into all of these to work out how many were Islamic terrorism and how many not, and it’s not clear that conclusions drawn from that would necessarily apply to Western Europe. We could break all these figures down into individual countries but then we come up against the problem that the numbers involved are too small to draw any significant conclusions.

Having said that, as you say, the threat of terrorism is hyped. Compared to road deaths in Europe (approximately 500,000 since 1997 according to figures from here; not sure if the countries are the same but it’s unlikely to seriously affect the conclusion because the numbers are so high), the numbers due to terrorism are tiny.

Good work on writing those papers. I can’t yet tell you how I’m enjoying neuroscience because I’m (still) postdoc hunting.

Comment by thesamovar

I think the comparison to road deaths is really interesting. We seem to have particularly strong reactions to spectacular incidents where many people die; but much less of a reaction to the same number of people dying randomly in preventable ways. What do you think could be done about that?

Good luck with the postdoc search.

Comment by Simon Judes

I think the dynamic is complicated. A few days after the recent school shooting in the US, about 200 people were killed in one day in Iraq and of course it didn’t make it into most papers or TV reports because they were focusing on the school shooting. Two obvious explanations jump out – we’re a bit racist/nationalist so we don’t care so much about Iraqis as we do about ‘our own people’; and, we get desensitised to reports that are the same or roughly the same every day. Aid workers apparently call it ‘compassion fatigue’.

Partly it’s to do with what is reported and how it’s reported. Things don’t get reported as news unless they’re new, and people dying in Iraq happens every day so it ain’t news any more. I think we could begin to address this by having more contextualisation of news. This would have wider benefits too. But, that doesn’t address the compassion fatigue problem. The more we know about how much suffering there is, it seems the more we get desensitised to particular details. That’s understandable, but it seems to lead to us getting more desensitised overall. This needn’t happen, but it does seem to. Changing that might be more difficult.

Comment by thesamovar

[...] is something I have written about before, but never really set out my reasons in [...]

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