Terrorism in Democracies

Yesterday the FBI arrested a Massachusetts man, who has been subsequently charged with a number of crimes related to terrorism. [1] This is the latest in a string of plots that the U.S. has successfully thwarted, yet it raises alarms for many Americans who have felt immune from Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism on U.S. soil. Erik Dahl, of the Naval Postgraduate School, has identified dozens of credible plots (as many as 45 by jihadist-inspired groups or individuals, according to John Avlon) since 9/11, all of which have been either botched by offenders or thwarted by the authorities.

Americans should not be too surprised by this latest wave of domestic plots. After all, domestic attacks make up the vast majority of terrorist activity—jihadist or not. Neither should they be too surprised about homegrown AQ-inspired activity, which is simply part of the current wave of terrorist activity around the world, as Karen Rasler and William Thompson tell us. Some scholars have even argued that Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism is simply a “fad” that will eventually go the way of all other other fads.

Nonetheless, this brings up three important questions:  (1) Will the current wave of jihadist terrorism be replaced? (2) If so, by what kind of terrorism? (3) Where?

My answers: (1) Probably. (2) Who knows? (3) Largely in democratic countries, most likely.

One of the most important continuities during the past forty years is the fact that terrorism tends to occur much more in democratic countries than in nondemocratic ones—the subject of the book I am currently completing for Columbia University Press. Take a look at this chart, which shows the the number of terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2008 according to the Global Terrorism Database, distributed by regime type (click on the image for a larger version):

This chart shows that democracies remain the most frequent targets of terrorist attacks around the world [2]. Additional research confirms that despite all of the concern about terrorism in weak states, democracies also remain the most frequent sources of terrorist activity.

There are lots of reasons why, about which much has been written.

But here’s the good news: terrorism is incredibly rare, even in democracies. As John Mueller insists, a person is more likely to drown in one’s toilet than to be killed (or hurt) by a terrorist. Although there is a fascination with terrorism among the public and in the media, and although it is certainly destructive, violent, and terrifying to those who experience it, terrorist attacks almost never occur.

Moreover, in a recent working paper with Joe Young, he and I find that terrorism does not actually threaten “our way of life,” as some argue. Democracies are incredibly resilient to terrorist threats, and although democracies occasionally do circumvent limits on civil liberties, such measures are usually temporary and are typically repealed over time. Martha Crenshaw has found that democracies almost never retaliate against foreign terrorist attacks using military force, although when they do, it can be quite consequential as we’ve seen in Afghanistan.

My point is that terrorist plots and terrorist attacks are rare but normal in democracies—and that’s likely to continue. Although terrorism is a nuisance, it is not an existential threat to the United States, nor is it ever likely to be.

On the whole, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

The Department of Homeland Security should put that on a billboard.

[1] I shan’t dabble in definitions of terrorism because the caveats and qualifications could go on ad nauseam. For those interested in debates on how terrorism should be defined, Chapter 1 of Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism is great on the subject. I use a fairly noncontroversial definition: terrorism is politically-motivated violence by non-state actors directed at civilians to produce fear in a broader population.

[2] 1993 is omitted due to missing data.

[this is a cross-post from the Duck of Minerva]

10 Responses to Terrorism in Democracies

  1. reflectionephemeral September 29, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    There’s always the question– in light of the recent revelations about the FBI’s training materials, and what we know about some past prosecutions— whether this fellow would have been any kind of threat at all on his own, or whether he was just weak-willed enough to go along with some guys who he thought seemed cool and seemed to like him. This arrest might have reflected a real threat, or it might not have.

  2. Scott Monje September 29, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    Now I have to be afraid of toilets!

  3. Sans September 29, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    “45 plots….. Nonetheless, this brings up three important questions: (1) Will the current wave of jihadist terrorism be replaced? (2) If so, by what kind of terrorism? (3) Where?”

    Huh? 45 Jihadist plots in a decade and what will replace this?
    There have been several hundred extreme right-wing domestic plots over the same period, including plots attempting to detonate energy infrastructure to inflict mass casualties. WTF are you looking for? Bhuddists?

    If Hyundai stops selling cars, what will replace the only cars sold in America?

  4. Erik September 29, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Great post. One question: how are terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq counted? Is that the anocracy boost in the late 2000s?

    • Erica Chenoweth September 29, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

      Hi Erik,
      Thanks for your question. Yes, the anocracy boost in the late 2000s is due mostly to Afghanistan and Iraq. There may be some trouble with conflating insurgent attacks and terrorist attacks in those conflicts, but even so, you’ll see that democracies are still the most frequent targets of terrorism.

  5. idiot September 29, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    One note though, 1993’s data isn’t exactly missing. It’s there buried in the Global Terrorist Database codebook, or at least it tells us how many terrorist incidents happened in each country in 1993. What’s missing is what those incidents actually ARE, but if we’re just looking at attacks in general, we don’t really need to worry about that.

    The reason I say that is that I’m using the GTD too, and I added in 1993’s data using the table in the GTD codebook.

    Sans: The GTD only counts actual terrorist incidents, NOT terrorist plots. And most terrorist incidents in the USA are not done by “Islamic extremists” but instead by eco-terrorists and “animal rights” terrorists. Take a look at this thread below to see the proportion of terrorism before 9/11 and after 9/11, using GTD and you’ll see “Islamic extremism” composes a very small portion of terrorism in the USA.


    Now, you might consider some of these incidents as, well, not actually being terrorism. That’s a problem with definition and the GTD though.

    • idiot September 29, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

      Actually, reading that thread made me realize I probably supplemented the GTD with other sources, and that there was some criticism about me excluding buytic acid attacks, but the data here mostly relies on the GTD, and I still think the conclusions there are valid. The fact is, there are other terrorist groups out there doing terrorism in the USA.

      • Erica Chenoweth September 29, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

        You’re absolutely right that jihadist terrorism incidents constitute a relatively small number, especially compared with extreme right-wing groups and eco-/animal rights groups. In my post, I didn’t mean to indicate that jihadist terrorism was the only kind terrorism of consequence in the US (or other democracies, for that matter), but perhaps it came off that way. Nevertheless, I do think that compared with right-wing and ecoterrorism, jihadi-inspired terrorism is more threatening to many, since such perpetrators almost always aspire to kill as many people as possible in psychologically high-value locations (e.g. mass transit or major symbols in the country). The right-wing groups of late are less ambitious than this, and the ecoterrorists almost never kill anyone.

  6. JHS October 1, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    Defining terrorism as it is defined here (and I agree, it is as noncontroversial as such a definition can get) makes the link between terrorism and democratic targets almost absurdly obvious. By identifying a purpose (“to produce fear in a broader population”) and a goal (“politically-motivated”), one has to ask where else terrorism could occur but democracies? If fear among a population is the mechanism to induce political change, it would have to be true that the emotions/opinions of the population would matter in making policy. Absent that assumption, violence against a civilian population would be absurdly ineffective. Without the paths of influence from the people to the government that are inherent in democracy (or the “political access,” as Brooks terms it), there would be no strategic advantage in fostering fear, nor would there be any symbolic vengeance to be wreak against civilians.

    At the same time, the link between democracy and the supply of terrorism might also be explained by the same assumptions. Brooks identifies ideology as one of the potential causes of terrorist action. A person or group that is rooted in democracy would be more likely to assume the possibility of effective popular action toward public policy, thus they would be more likely to target popular opinion/emotion through terrorism. Even when that action crosses national boundaries, the ideological assumption of effective public opinion is likely to hold sway. Certainly the assumption is going to be more likely held by an actor from a democratic society than an actor from a society with limited political access.

    Both in terms of the targets and sources of terrorism, even this noncontroversial definition makes political access a central element. Only when such access is likely will the public’s fear be considered as a strategic choice.

  7. rabi'a al adiwiyya October 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Why don’t you ask a muslim sociobiologist about why there is islamic terrorism?
    Islamic terrorism is a response to western interventionism.
    Want to stop islamic terrorism?
    Stop propping dictators, stop propping the Israelinazis, stop meddling in MENA, stop invading and occupying islamic countries, and stop killing muslims.

    Besides, it is impossible to impose/install/implant missionary democracy with freedom of speech in countries with shariah law.
    Proselytizing the poor and ignorant is forbidden by the Generous Quran and thus forbidden by shariah law.
    Want proof? 10 years and 4.4 trillion dollars later, A-stan is still 99% muslim and Iraq is still 97% muslim.