In the context of ongoing discussion over whether or not publics in the world are rational in their views on terrorism, this analytical commentary uses data about fatalities from terrorist attacks and results of a Pew Research Center global survey on public attitudes to assess whether concern about ISIS tracks with the threat ISIS has posed to countries. This analysis found that concern about ISIS in most regions of the world tracked with both fatalities caused by all terrorism and fatalities caused by ISIS specifically. Globally, concern about ISIS in a country showed the strongest correlation with fatalities caused by ISIS. The publics of particular countries that faced divergent threat levels from ISIS-affiliated terrorists and non-ISIS-affiliated terrorists also showed the ability to distinguish between the different threats. The results indicate that publics are not, in general, extremely irrational.
My commentary on public opinion and ISIS has been published at the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies. Read my CEJISS commentary here.
Are public fears about ISIS rational? A detailed global survey released by the Pew Research Center found ISIS is the issue the world’s people are most concerned about in a plurality of countries surveyed. Across 38 countries, 62 percent of the world is concerned about ISIS, narrowly surpassing climate change as the top issue.
This has caused some to suggest that the public’s fear of ISIS is irrational. Michael Cruickshank wrote, “Crazy how irrationally afraid people are off ISIS. Shows how effective their propaganda is”. It’s true that everyday risks like car crashes and murders by common criminals are bigger threats for ordinary people, but the impact of intentional, targeted attacks on civilizational values causes a bigger fear impact in many people’s minds. Whether or not that is “rational” per se is a question for psychologists and philosophers and others to debate some other day. Instead I shall undertake to assess whether, within the confines of human psychology, the relative risk assessments of various countries are in line with the threat posed to those countries by ISIS.
This analysis focuses on concern about ISIS, as registered in the survey; fatalities caused by terrorism within each country, as tracked by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s (START, at the University of Maryland) Global Terrorism Database; and fatalities caused by ISIS, also tracked by START’s database. The results were predictable: there were generally positive correlations between a country’s exposure to fatalities caused by terrorism and that country’s concern about ISIS. There were also some notable departures from correlation, which showed many publics are attuned to specific regional dynamics.
Link Between Terrorism and Concern About ISIS
One hypothesis going in is that the publics of many countries might conflate Islamic-inspired terrorism generally with ISIS. Even if a particular country hasn’t faced attacks by ISIS, but rather by Islamic terrorists not directly affiliated with ISIS, it would be expected that the publics of those countries would fear all kinds of Islamic-inspired terrorism.
ISIS’s online recruiting strategy and propaganda tactics appear designed to maximize its impact. In START’s database, however, only those attacks where a direct connection to ISIS can be confirmed are categorized as being caused by ISIS. For example, the shooting at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida, USA in 2016, by a man who pledged allegiance to ISIS in a phone call to police dispatchers, was attributed to “jihadi-inspired extremists”, not ISIS, as was the Bastille Day attack on Nice, France. Significant amounts of the public in both countries associate those attacks with ISIS. Attacks with more direct links to planning by ISIS leadership, like the 2015 Paris rampage, were attributed to ISIS.
There were correlations between the number of fatalities in all terrorist attacks in a country in 2016 and the percentage of the public in each country concerned about ISIS, although they were thrown off in some cases by outliers. When taking the logarithm of terrorist fatalities and plotting it against the percentage of the public concerned about ISIS, there was a positive correlation with an R2 value of 0.0238. There was also a positive correlation between fatalities per capita and concern, with an R2 of 0.0367. Plotting concern against the number of raw deaths, however, revealed no positive correlation.
The correlations between concern about ISIS and fatalities caused by terrorism were the greatest in the regions of North America and Europe and the Asia-Pacific. For reasons that will become clear later, there were weaker and more tenuous connections between terrorism in general and concern about ISIS in the Middle East and Northern Africa, Sub-saharan Africa, and South America. That might be because the threat of terrorism and the threat of ISIS track more consistently in North America and Europe than in the other regions.
ISIS has dominated the news and political debate in the United States and Europe, so it comes as little surprise that some of those countries are among the most concerned in the world about ISIS. Overall, among the 13 countries, on average 71 percent of their publics are concerned about ISIS, trailing only the Middle East (79 percent), although the countries in the region have suffered the second lowest number of fatalities in 2016 of any region. In France, the site of so many attacks and 95 deaths in 2016, the most in Europe and the fifth most in the world, 88 percent of the public is concerned about ISIS. In the United States, where 68 people died in terrorist attacks in 2016, that number is 74 percent. Overall, there was a strong positive correlation between countries in North America and Europe and fatalities from terrorism, with an R2 of 0.1065.
The other region that showed a strong correlation between terrorism and concern about ISIS was the Asia-Pacific, including Australia. The Philippines and India ranked second and third in the region, respectively, for concern about ISIS, and they were also the two countries to have suffered by far the most fatalities from terrorist attacks in the region, and in the top five in the world. Australia and South Korea (tied with Japan), both of which had 0 fatalities from terrorist attacks occur on their soil in 2016, had the two lowest levels of concern of Asian countries. Overall, the positive correlation between concern and fatalities in the region had an R2 value of 0.1328.
When plotted against the whole world, as opposed to just the countries within the Asia-Pacific region, however, the level of concern about ISIS in India and the Philippines appears to be lower than what might be expected from the number of fatalities in those countries. India, while having suffered the third highest total of fatalities on its soil in 2016, for example, registered only the 16th highest level of concern about ISIS. That difference of -13 points between its rank for fatalities and for concern is the sixth largest in the sample. The Philippines had the ninth largest difference, and Vietnam had the third largest. Of the 17 countries whose publics were more concerned about ISIS, nine were in North America or Europe, and none (in any region) had suffered more fatalities than did India.
By contrast, the Middle East and Northern Africa, Sub-saharan Africa, and South America showed little or no correlation between fatalities caused by terrorism and concern about ISIS.
The Middle East and Northern Africa, which consisted of four countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Tunisia), suffered relatively few fatalities in terrorist attacks—32.75 per country on average, just a few more than the North America and Europe—but had the most concern about ISIS—79 percent on average. There was a small positive correlation within the region, but the R2 value was just 0.0281.
In Sub-saharan Africa, there was actually a negative correlation, with an R2 value of just 0.0094, between deaths caused by terrorism and concern about ISIS. That negative correlation was influenced heavily by the extreme outlier of Nigeria, where there were 2,164 people killed in terrorist attacks in 2016, but public concern about ISIS was only 55 percent. Removing Nigeria from the sample showed a correlation between fatalities and level of concern within the other five countries in Africa, with an R2 value of 0.0458.
South America showed an extremely negative correlation, with an R2 value of 0.4859. Colombia and Peru were the only two countries in South America to suffer double digit deaths from terrorist attacks on their soil. They were also the two countries both tied as the second least concerned about ISIS in the whole global dataset. By contrast, the three countries in South America that suffered 0 or 1 fatalities—Brazil, Argentina, and Chile—were the only ones in the region to have 50 percent or more (and less than 55 percent) of the public express concerned about ISIS. South America was also the only region where the average percentage of the public concerned about ISIS in each country was fewer than the average level of the public concerned about the average of four other issues (global climate change, foreign cyberattacks, global economic conditions, and refugee outflow from conflict zones), while African publics were marginally more concerned about ISIS than other issues.
South America simply didn’t face much of a threat from ISIS or terrorists in general. Only 29 people in the six countries combined died due to terrorist attacks. Eleven individual countries each suffered most fatalities than that total. What threat of terrorism did exist in South America didn’t come from ISIS or from jihadist terrorists. Of the 86 terrorist attacks in Colombia in 2016 tracked by START, 74.4 percent of them were carried out by the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN) and 5.8 percent by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombia’s problem is Marxist militants, not ISIS and not jihad.
Neither do India, nor the Philippines face their primary threats from ISIS. Terrorism in India is more likely to come from Pakistani state-backed terrorists and communist/Maoist political terrorists. The Philippines has long faced terrorism from Muslim separatists in the south. Some of those groups have declared their allegiance to ISIS, including the Maute Group, which took over Malawi City earlier this year, but historic ties to ISIS are limited. According to START, 9.5 percent of those killed by terrorist attacks in the Philippines in 2016 were killed by ISIS, 4.5 percent in India, and 0 percent in Nigeria. (Though Boko Haram declared allegiance to ISIS analysts say they have limited operational ties.)
In fact, publics in much of the world appear able to distinguish between fear of ISIS and fear of terrorism generally. There is an even greater link between fatalities caused directly by ISIS and concern about ISIS than there is for fatalities caused by non-ISIS terrorists.
Link Between ISIS Attacks and Concern is Strongest
Far and away the country most concerned about ISIS was Lebanon, where 97 percent of the population expressed concern. Although that percentage is relatively high compared to the number of people who died there as a result of terrorism (25), it makes sense when one considers that Lebanon is sitting on the border with Syria and has been battling ISIS. ISIS has killed 147 people there since 2013 and taken territory, making Lebanon the biggest victim of ISIS terrorist attacks of the countries queried.
There is a positive correlation between total number of fatalities caused by ISIS since 2013, with an R2 value of 0.2646, and a correlation between the number of fatalities caused by ISIS as a per capita figure of the population, with an R2 value of 0.1885.
Only six countries—Lebanon, France, Tunisia, the Philippines, Russia, and Indonesia, in that order—suffered deaths attributed to ISIS. (Turkey, a subject of the larger survey, suffered even more deaths at the hands of ISIS, but Turkish citizens were not asked about ISIS.) Among the six countries, the average percentage of the public concerned about about ISIS is 78 percent, 16 points higher than the average of 62 percent for the whole sample of all countries.
The publics of those countries were also more concerned about ISIS than they were about other issues. On average, they expressed 26.3 points more concern about ISIS than they did about the other of four main issues. The average country in the sample was just 10.6 points more concerned about ISIS than about the average issue. Within the 27 countries that had suffered one or more fatalities from terrorism in 2016, the percentage of fatalities caused by ISIS correlated with concern about ISIS to an R2 value of 0.1498.
It is possible that even those European countries that didn’t face attacks from ISIS or other terrorists could identify closely with victims in their geographic and cultural vicinity and also fear that they might be next. Spain, for example, while suffering no fatalities from terrorism at all in 2016, was the most concerned country in Europe and the second most concerned in the world, with 88 percent of its citizens concerned about ISIS. Spain was also very concerned about other issues, registering the third highest average level of concern about all four issues, but its level of concern about ISIS was still 21 points higher than that of the average of the issues. Now terrorism has struck Spain, in similar fashion to automobile attacks in neighboring France, killing 14 on August 17, 2017, in an attack that ISIS has taken credit for.
Thomas Hegghammer has noted that the incidence of plots, deaths, and execution rates of Islamic terrorism in Europe have all increased over the past half decade. He also pointed out four trends he expected to cause jihadist activity to continue to increase in the near future: a larger recruitment pool, more entrepreneurs of terrorism, persistent conflict in the Muslim world, and operational freedom online.
The evidence suggests that the publics of many countries are rational in their ability to analyze the threat ISIS poses to their home country relative other countries. The more a country was threatened by terrorism in general, the more likely its public was to fear ISIS, and the more that country was threatened by ISIS specifically, the effect became even stronger. Many publics were also able to differentiate between ISIS and unrelated terrorist groups.
The scope of this article, however, is limited in that it cannot, and makes no attempt to, arrive at a conclusion as to whether the threat of terrorism is treated rationally relative to other threats within the same country or across humanity. The importance a society should place on terrorism as a political issue is in many ways a normative question beyond the scope of study.
There are some broad recommendations that follow. Governments generally can base their level of resource allocation towards anti-terrorism programs to a large degree on the relative threat ISIS poses. The public’s perceptions and objective risk factors seem to be pretty well aligned around the world. Governments that share common interests—for example, the United States and Lebanon versus ISIS in Syria—should consider strengthening partnerships.
Specific policies to limit the incidence of terrorist attacks should be chosen on the basis of evidence and cost. Governments should consider whether police surveillance and community monitoring is more effective than counter-propaganda activities or vice versa. Overseas components of anti-terrorism operations should be especially scrutinized where there is little benefit to be shown and no sign of exit.
There is room for optimism in that we can say publics aren’t irrational. They have the ability to discern whether their government is succeeding or failing at its mission of defending the public. Most of all, this means that a government should do what works to decrease the threat and public opinion will probably follow.
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