First published in the Journal of Democracy
Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, London, Madrid, Manchester,New York, Nice, Paris, Stockholm, Sydney—over the past several yearsthese and other cities of the democratic West have become places widelyidentified with terrorist attacks involving suicide belts, rammings bycars or trucks, improvised bombs, mass shootings, or stabbings. Outsidethe West, meanwhile, groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria(ISIS), Boko Haram, and various al-Qaeda affiliates—in the Caucasus,the Arabian Peninsula, Sinai, and parts of Africa—have seized tracts ofland in fragile states1 as homes for “emirates” and “caliphates” whosepolitical ambitions are as vast as they are inimical to the liberal internationalorder.Offering their acolytes religious purpose, financial gain, sexualslaves, and the unfettered exercise of sadistic violence, jihadists haverecruited more than forty-thousand foreign fighters from 110 countries.Of these, about six-thousand have been U.S., Australian, Canadian, orEuropean Union (EU) nationals traveling to the conflict zones in Iraqand Syria, both before and since the ISIS caliphate declaration of June2014. With ISIS suffering battlefield losses at the hands of the globalcoalition against it—the onetime ISIS strongholds of Mosul, Iraq, andRaqqa, Syria, fell in late 2017—security officials across the free worldworry that what had been a steady trickle of battle-hardened returneeswill now grow into a deluge.Not surprisingly, these trends have sparked public anxiety and sownfears in many countries that open societies have become the favoredtargets for both homegrown and foreign terrorists. These fears are notgroundless. In November 2017, the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) com-
piled by the Institute for Economics and Peace in Sydney, Australia,found that while terrorism-related deaths had fallen 22 percent globallyin 2016 from their peak in 2014 (the year that ISIS exploded on thescene), they were up in Europe across 2014–16 to their highest levelin nearly three decades, with 75 percent of the deaths from terrorism inEurope attributable to ISIS.Despite this worrisome development, the compilers of the GTI alsofind that Europe’s democracies have been foiling a higher proportionof attacks, thereby forcing ISIS to focus on “lower-level” tactics thatinvolve fewer resources and less planning. Meanwhile, data from a longerterm—going back nearly two decades rather than just a handful ofyears—show that when it comes to terrorism, reasonably high-qualitydemocracies enjoy a vital, and seemingly growing, “triple democracyadvantage.” That is, such democracies suffer fewer attacks than do otherregime types, with a lower rate of increase, and fewer fatalities.Terrorism is the deliberate use or threat of violence against civiliansby a nonstate entity (individual or group) in pursuit of a political orreligious goal. Terrorism—or, more precisely, Salafi-Takfiri terrorismof the type perpetrated by ISIS—is now perceived by people around theglobe as the leading danger to their national security. A Pew study publishedin August 2017 found shares of national publics ranging from 62percent in Ghana to 88 percent in France—and including 74 percent ofU.S. respondents as well as 77 percent of Germans, 74 percent of Indonesians,and 66 percent of Indians—saying that ISIS is the top securitythreat facing their country.These concerns have large implications. Even among the world’s mostadvanced democracies, fear of terrorism—often intertwined with worriesabout immigration, particularly from Muslim-majority countries—is a driver of populist nationalism, support for illiberal alternatives, andheightened danger that civil liberties and the rule of law will be eroded.6If liberal democracies in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia areespecially vulnerable to terrorism, moreover, is that not a warning to othercountries pondering liberalization that strengthening rights, freedoms, andlegal guarantees could be too risky? Will not a more closed society—onethat rejects or curtails such liberal-democratic niceties—be better able todefend itself against the terrorist scourge? At the very least, the relationshipbetween regime types and contemporary trends in terrorism ought tobe clearly understood in order to promote better risk analysis and counterterrorismpolicy both at home and abroad.