ISIL’s psychotic ambitions

Salil Mehta is a two-time Administration executive, leading Treasury/TARP’s analytics team, as well as PBGC’s policy, research, and analysis, as well as their first risk analysis function.  Salil is the creator of one of the most popular free statistics blogs, Statistical Ideas.”


Terrorist rings come and go throughout history, and Da’ish (ISIL) is the latest to spread horror and fear to a marred civilization.  The research here (assembling thousands of data points from regional news and government sources) shows that terrorism is on the rise, squeezed in one location(s) at times but sooner or later spread out in others.  The savage barbarism in Paris, on November 13, resulted in 137 deaths.  And yet it is but a passing thought to the group responsible (ISIL), who earlier this year, carried out 50 other attacks worldwide.  In this article we explore over 45 years of terrorism, a sick anti-freedom gospel that has resulted in over 140,000 attacks around the world.

Here is breakdown of those attacks (including credible foiled attacks), based on the death count within each attack:

1%   with >25 fatalities per attack
43% with <25 but at least 1 fatality per attack
50% with 0 fatalities per attack
6%   with unknown fatalities per attack

Our research here focuses on the top 1% attacks, each resulting in >25 deaths.  These sickening “mass terrorism” attacks resulted in the loss of 100,000 people (less than 10% of all terrorism related deaths, since most attacks per above result in a small number of deaths).

In the chart below we show the evolution of mass terrorism (the top 1% of all attacks) across time.  We can see ISIL initiating attacks in 2013, and making large headway in 2014.  The broader behaviours  of all terrorism attacks (all 100% of attacks either by count or by deaths) follow a similar pattern to what is shown below.

What makes ISIL disturbingly stand out, versus other terrorist groups, is in the speed with which they have been violent on a mass scale.  Generally terror networks from a prior generation took years to create mass violence.  But ISIL, in only its first full year, has committed more butcherings than any other terror outfits had during their peak year.

Some of this result is the macro evidence that terrorism has spread to all parts of the globe.  While in the U.S., the focus of terrorism is on the outrageous Al-Qa`ida attack on September 11, 2001 (9/11), we generally see that terrorism globally has increased and accelerated since 9/11.  And this is in both the number of incidents, and the fatalities per incident.
But the American-driven “War on Terror” is still a partial triumph, to the degree that the post-9/11 attacks are mostly only in the Middle East and in Africa.  Notwithstanding the Paris attacks recently, both of the terrorism statistics have come down considerably, in coalition countries all over the Americas and in Europe.  To illustrate this, the chart below shows the annualnumber of terrorism murders for a dozen years before 2001, followed by a dozen years subsequent to 2001.

Now we showed in the top charts above that ISIL is top of mind to many Americans and Europeans, while Boko Haram is also known, but to a smaller degree.  Has our media and knowledge been impacted by where and whom have been the victims of these terrorist attacks?  In the global map below, we show the location of where the ISIL and the Boko Haram attacks have been since the beginning of 2014 (through a week ago in November 2015).

It is without any doubt that these two super monsters have operated in different spheres.  The Western media obsesses over ISIL only because their targets are “closer” to home.  Boko Haram is however equally heinous in their mostly globally under-noticed, terrorism and rampage.

Focusing on ISIL for a moment, given the recent Paris attacks that have moved many, let’s see how their number of attacks has evolved since the start of 2014.  We pay particular attention to the movement of the attacks away from their core base of Iraq and Syria, and the overall level of and trend in the number of attacks.  And discarded from attention, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, was that just days prior coalition drone strikes are believed to have killed their most recognizable mouthpiece, the shrouded Mohammed Jassim Akdulkarim Olayan al-Dharifi (known as “Jihadi John”).

We see more information in the chart above that substantiates the early charts above.  That terrorism is unfortunately moveable.  We can push it away, and forget about it.  And that this sort of ugly evil doesn’t seem to be taking a breather, and sometimes the terrorism -let loose- simply returns.


About the author:

Salil Mehta is a two-time Administration executive, leading Treasury/TARP’s analytics team, as well as PBGC’s policy, research, and analysis, as well as their first risk analysis function.  He is a statistics adjunct professor at Georgetown, on the board of an American Statistical Association’s peer-reviewed journal and a council for BlackRock’s FutureAdvisor.  Salil is the creator of one of the most popular free statistics blogs, Statistical Ideas. He wrote a bestselling statistics book, Statistics Topics, and is often quoted in the New York Times, Bloomberg, and others.



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  1. patslatt commented on Nov 28


    To place the Paris terrorist acts in perspective,it should be noted that France’s road accident deaths are over 2,000 a year plus serious injuries.Yet most people in the West don’t worry about that risk.

    If news media contained graphic photos of mangled bodies in crashed cars and interviews of tearful relatives of the dead, maybe people would worry more.

    If news media could be persuaded to stop reporting terrorist incidents, terrorism would lack the fuel of publicity it thrives on. As Lenin said, “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorise.” but it can’t do so on a wide scale without news headlines.

    Since news media won’t stop reporting dramatic terrorist acts, people should resolve largely to ignore such news and take a fatalistic view of the insignificant risks involved.

    • Dick Watson commented on Nov 28

      patslatt is so right.

      The article starts by referencing terrorism throughout history, but only goes back to the 1970’s. Terrorism has been with us much longer than that. Think of the bomb-throwing Italian anarchists at the turn of the 20th century. Think of the string of assassinations about the same time — several rulers in Europe and our own president McKinley. An attack by a terrorist precipitated the First World War. One terrorist group blew up Wall Street in 1920. Individuals who want to inflict “terror” on the general population of a country will always be able to do so.

      But the individual risk of any citizen being injured or killed by a terrorist is miniscule. We lose thousands every year to automobile accidents, to gun violence, We are overreacting in terms of attention and resources to something that is statistically only an annoyance..

      ook boo, below, doesn’t understand the distinction between a nation projecting its power and a small group inflicting “terror” on a larger group by random violent acts.

  2. Robert M commented on Nov 28

    Whlle in Western Socoiology, you are considered Caucasian, remember until recently you were just a sand N!@@#$. Stop thinking like a white man fornothing else expalins this sentence, “Boko Haram is however equally heinous in their mostly globally under-noticed, terrorism and rampage.” Remind those you work w/ if you want to stop Daesh you going to have to have a comprehensive plan otherwise they are going to be just like AQ underground in Afghanistan.

    • Low Budget Dave commented on Nov 30

      I think we need to be careful not to over-simplify, or we run the risk of arguments (like Expat’s below) that terrorism is justified. The results of this over-simplification are clear: At least one leading candidate has already blithely stated that he would approve torture as a response to terrorism. (Terrorists love it when popular U.S. “politicians” come out in support of torture and terror; it proves what they have been saying about the U.S. all along.)

      The appropriate response (at least in a country as open as the U.S.,) should be to investigate and prosecute the people responsible for crimes against humanity. If Cheney personally approved torture and terrorism, for example, then he should be prosecuted. The whole country should not be prosecuted, unless the whole country was guilty.

      If all we do is blame “the United States”, as if it is a monolithic corporation, then it fools voters in the U.S. into thinking that terrorism is strictly an “us-vs.-them” proposition. When voters have the mentality that “you are either with us or against us”, then they will vote for simplistic ideas, which will always fail.

      When you end (as Chomsky did) with the idea that bombing terrorists is a form of terrorism, then you are saying that the U.S. should do nothing. If you present voters with only two choices (military force or nothing at all), they will choose military force.

      In reality, there are hundreds of different responses that can be fine-tuned to achieve slightly different results. There was a time when the state department could be counted on to sort through the different responses. Now, U.S. foreign policy seems to be in the hands of the CIA and the NSA, who are (by any definition) the wrong tools for the job.

  3. Ilsm commented on Nov 28

    Plans do not work when the tools are rusted The moral is to the physical as 3 is to 1.

    I became skeptical with the appeal to all the data points.

    Then: ” terrorism is on the rise”. That is because failed states are on the rise.

    Failed states in the Middle East come from the Wahhabi form of Sunni religious war, which was suppressed by the Ottoman, now by Egypt’s military junta. Elsewhere failed states are the tool of Sunni religious war. NATO and US have been a tool of the Wahhabi since the world put BP ahead of morality.

    NATO dumps Assad and Syria is a failed state.

    Terror breeds on US and NATO weakness in the moral dimension.

    My plan recognize the enemy is Wahhabi not a nation, then get out of the way of Shiites forming to counter Sunnis.

    Might not be so good for ARAMCO and BP.

    • patslatt commented on Nov 28

      After 9/11, Saudi Arabia’s leadership was reportedly so shocked by the terrorist violence of Saudi terrorists that it revised the religious curriculums of schools to emphasise religious piety and remove influences that might foster terrorism.

      That raises the question, why did Saudi Arabia seemingly allow undercover support for terrorist ISIS? Obviously,the vast scale of the Assad government’s violence against peaceful demonstrators including industrial scale torture factories provoked the Sunni Muslims to react. While the moderate rebels were unable to organise insurgency, as often happens in insurgencies the rebels with extreme ideologies are the best fighters, in this case ISIS. The Saudis may be hoping that ISIS weakens the Assad government to near breakdown without an ISIS victory and that Western airforce bombing can keep ISIS in a defensive mode and unstable indefinitely.

    • ilsm commented on Nov 29

      The data in the article excuses the state terror imposed by Assad (as well as Egypt’s ruling military junta, Saddam, and Qadafi).

      I recall a recent news headline concerning a backlog of 50 beheadings in the Saudi kingdom.

      There is evidence of Saudi royals’ (Bedouin leaders) pandering to Wahhabi sect before 1918, Wahhabists are the base of al Qaeda. If you think al Qaeda is moderate I have a bridge.

      Shiite or Alawite in charge provokes the Sunni Muslims. It is schism more violent against the apostate than Europe’s Thirty Years war ongoing since 800 ACE.

      Your last sentence in not solely a possible Saudi whim it is the pentagon’s plan for perpetual war profits.

  4. Expat commented on Nov 29

    “sickening attacks”. “Savage barbarism”. “Horror and fear”.
    Are we talking about US and Western actions against civilians throughout the world or the retaliation done by the survivors?
    I have sympathy for the individuals killed in Paris as well as for their families, but they represent France and the democratic processes that involved France in the subjugation, torture, and massacre of hundreds of thousands of Muslims across the Magreb and the Middle East.
    The attacks on 9/11 were spectacular but hardly unjustified or out of proportion to death and suffering the US inflicted on Arabs and Muslim throughout the Middle East either directly or through proxies.
    Put ISIL in uniforms and give them airplanes, tanks, trucks, some borders, and a seat at the UN and you have a war, not terrorism. When we blow up women and children, we are not even apologetic about “collateral damage”. When ISIL does it, it’s criminal! Why?
    And before I get gang-raped by everyone on this blog, bear in mind that I disagree with the policies on BOTH sides. I do not advocate gunning down my fellow countrymen in Paris cafés and I do not advocate waterboarding and executing women and boys in some dark Jordanian prison.

    • patslatt commented on Nov 29

      France has behaved well towards its former Muslim colonies since the Algerian War, assisting them with generous aid programmes, though perhaps denying them reasonable access to French agricultural markets.

      In Libya, who would have thought that France’s intervention to prevent Gadaffi’s potential mass slaughter of Arab Spring rebels would end so badly? Libyans’ lack of a sense of nationality has hobbled nation building and maybe the French diplomatic and intelligence services should have anticipated that.

      As for Iraq,President George W Bush’s invasion likely was partially motivated by fears that rising oil prices would enable Saddam Hussein to finance a nuclear weapons programme. Saddam would definitely be willing to use nukes if he had them. Still, it is a bad principle of foreign policy to go to war to prevent a contingency.

    • Expat commented on Nov 30

      While France has made a great effort to treat former colonies well, the French Civil War in Algeria is not something North Africans can easily forget or forgive. France continues to intervene throughout Francophone Africa, assisting friendly regimes, standing by while massacres occur, assassinating pesky politicians and business leaders, and corrupting most countries.

      Whatever delusions Bush had about Saddam’s pie-in-the-sky nuclear program, the invasion was totally unjustified, completely illegal, and massively immoral. Of course, the actual invasion was nothing compared to the deprivation, diseases, and starvation the US inflicted on Iraq in the years running up to the “liberation of Iraq”.

      And why do you say Saddam would be willing to use nukes? This is based on what? Bush bullshit? Cheney claptrap? Is this Condaleeza’s “smoking gun in the form of the mushroom cloud” that would have happened if Saddam had a nuclear program, fissible material, and ICBM’s?

      We know North Korea has nukes. So why haven’t we invaded them? Duh! BECAUSE they have nukes.

      I respect your relatively well balanced reply to my provocative comments but I cannot accept your explanation of Bush’s actions or your, in my view, misguided view of France’s paternalism. Speaking as a Frenchman, I can tell you, the French Army and Foreign Legion have been crawling over Africa for the past sixty years generating more than enough blowback for such a small country.

  5. DeDude commented on Nov 29

    Terrorisms is the warfare of the weak. What we are seeing is a lot of weak non-state parties fighting each other. Much of the underlying conflicts have existed for hundreds of years. However, most of the states now suffering from terror wars have had strong governments and brutal regimes suppressing those conflicts. When such regimes are weakened, the ethnic and religious tribalism will take over and civil wars or terror wars begin (depending on whether one group is outmatched against the other). Making things worse is that the Sunny/Shia conflicts inherent in many of these failed states can get substantial support from stronger states like Iran and Saudi Arabia (as they prefer proxy wars to direct war). Until they make the kind of peace that Catholics and Protestants made hundreds of years ago in Europe, the region will remain unstable to the point of being unlivable for civilized human beings.

    Democracy and peaceful co-existance is an anomaly that is counter to our tribal instincts. The idea that you can remove a brutal dictator and then democracy will take over is beautiful, but also naive. Yes the majority of citizens want to live in peaceful democracies, but it takes a huge amount of luck to create and stabilize such a system. You must have armed forces to defend against external enemies and fight internal crime; but how do you convince them not to use their overwhelming power to gain personal power and wealth. Even a small minority of sociopaths can take over and suppress the rest if they are willing to be sufficiently ruthless.

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