New Database Debunks Terrorism Myths

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The majority of terrorist attacks result in no fatalities, with just 1 percent of such attacks causing the deaths of 25 or more people.

And terror incidents began rising some in 1998, and that level remained relatively constant through 2004.

These and other myth-busting facts about global terrorism are now available on a new online database open to the public.

The database identifies more than 30,000 bombings, 13,400 assassinations and 3,200 kidnappings. Also, it details more than 1,200 terrorist attacks within the United States.

The unclassified Global Terrorism Database (GTD) will give anyone interested the opportunity to peruse through the actual details of global terror attacks. The online terror rap sheet is expected to be a critical tool for researchers and policy-makers who can use it to improve responses to terrorism.

Digital weapon

The database was developed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) based at the University of Maryland, with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It includes unclassified information about 80,000 terror incidents that occurred from 1970 through 2004. (Visit the database.)

“This is a powerful new weapon in the hands of researchers and policy-makers who must respond to the threat of terrorism,” said Gary LaFree, director of START, a University of Maryland criminologist.

The searchable database parses the data by more than 100 variables, ranging from type of perpetrator—such as religious or ethno-nationalist—to type of weapon used and the number of injuries incurred. Summaries of each incident divulge the date, location, weapons used, target type, number of casualties and, when possible, the perpetrator.

“We’re not just counting up the number of attacks,” LaFree said. “We’re looking at a long list of specific details, as well as social and economic considerations that may help us understand the ’whys‘ and ’hows‘ of terrorism.”

He added, “This can especially help counterterrorism experts and researchers improve their understanding of violent radical groups and movements, and to predict the nature of future incidents.”

Myth busters

Searches of the database have uncovered some additional unexpected statistics. For instance, terrorist groups are not so long-lived, with about 75 percent of such alliances formed between 1970 and 1997 lasting no more than one year.

From 1998 through 2004, India reportedly experienced the greatest number of terror attacks (1,000), followed by Colombia, the Russian Federation and Iraq, which came in fourth with nearly 500 attacks.

LaFree and a colleague mined the database for clues about the effectiveness of counter-terror measures. Among their findings announced last year: British counter-terrorist interventions used in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1992 may have backfired and actually aided in a terror backlash.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.