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Terrorists Had a Banner Year in 2014, Killing More Than 30,000

The increase in terrorism's violence comes amid the Islamic State's spread in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram violence in Nigeria.

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The war on terror is going worse than ever. That’s the dispiriting takeaway from the State Department’s annual report on terrorism, which said that last year saw increases both in the number of terrorist attacks worldwide and the casualties inflicted. The total number of dead? An eye-popping 32,727.

Beyond the numbers, the report highlighted an important shift: Al Qaeda is being rapidly overtaken by the rising might and power of the Islamic State. “The prominence of the threat once posed by core al Qaeda diminished in 2014,” the report found. “[Al Qaeda] leadership also appeared to lose momentum as the self-styled leader of a global movement in the face of [the Is]’s rapid expansion and proclamation of a caliphate.”

That conclusion highlights one of the biggest strategic and political questions facing President Barack Obama’s administration. The White House has spent years trumpeting its successes against al Qaeda, most notably the killing of Osama bin Laden. But the report shows that terrorist tactics continue to proliferate and that al Qaeda’s affiliates have become among the world’s foremost purveyors of terrorist violence.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Tina Kaidanow, the ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, batted down suggestions that the report points toward a setback in the U.S. war on terror. “The numbers don’t tell the whole story,” she told reporters, according to ABC. “They’re geographically very much in conflict areas and the lethality of those attacks have really gone up because of the savagery of them.”

In all, the report’s tally makes for depressing reading. The number of terrorist attacks jumped by 35 percent compared to the previous year, 2013. The number of fatalities increased by 81 percent. But even as the overall number of terrorist attacks increased, the heavy use of terrorism remains concentrated in a small number of countries. More than 60 percent of the attacks recorded took place in five countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria. Terrorism-related fatalities saw a similar trend: 78 percent of fatalities occurred in Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.

In total, the world experienced 13,463 terrorist attacks in 2014, resulting in 32,727 fatalities. The sharp increase in fatalities was due in part to a rise in mass-casualty terrorist attacks. 2014 saw 20 attacks that killed more than 100 people and only two such attacks the previous year.

The year 2014 was also a banner year for kidnappings and hostage-takings, impacting a total of 9,400 people — a three-fold increase compared to 2013. Again, such events were concentrated in a handful of countries, and the sharp increase was driven by several large-scale kidnappings, including, for example, the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria.

Iraq was the global leader in terrorist attacks in 2014, both in terms of the number of incidents and fatalities. That increase coincided with the Islamic State’s spread in Iraq and its seizure of extensive territory in northern and western Iraq. The country saw large numbers of coordinated terrorist attacks, experiencing 160 days during which the country saw more than 10 terrorist attacks. Of the world’s 20 deadliest terrorist attacks in 2014, five occurred in Iraq. All were perpetrated by the Islamic State. In total, just short of 10,000 people died in terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2014.

As in Iraq, Nigeria was the site of some of the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks as government forces battled a radical Islamist insurgency. Nine of the world’s 20 deadliest attacks occurred in Nigeria. The total number of attacks increased by 114 percent, fatalities grew by a staggering 304 percent, and the number of people kidnapped or held hostage grew by a mind-boggling 1,358 percent. In absolute figures, deaths totaled 7,512; those held hostage or kidnapped totaled 1,298.

With U.S. forces handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan government, that country also saw a sharp increase in terrorist attacks — 38 percent higher compared to the previous year. Fatalities jumped by 45 percent to 4,505.

Photo credit: STEPHANE YAS/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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