First published in the Journal of Democracy
Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, London, Madrid, Manchester, New York, Nice, Paris, Stockholm, Sydney—over the past several years these and other cities of the democratic West have become places widely identified with terrorist attacks involving suicide belts, rammings by cars 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 of land in fragile states1 as homes for “emirates” and “caliphates” whose political ambitions are as vast as they are inimical to the liberal international order.
Offering their acolytes religious purpose, financial gain, sexual slaves, and the unfettered exercise of sadistic violence, jihadists have recruited more than forty-thousand foreign fighters from 110 countries. Of these, about six-thousand have been U.S., Australian, Canadian, or European Union (EU) nationals traveling to the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria, both before and since the ISIS caliphate declaration of June 2014. With ISIS suffering battlefield losses at the hands of the global coalition against it—the onetime ISIS strongholds of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, fell in late 2017—security officials across the free world worry that what had been a steady trickle of battle-hardened returnees will now grow into a deluge.
Not surprisingly, these trends have sparked public anxiety and sown fears in many countries that open societies have become the favored targets for both homegrown and foreign terrorists. These fears are not groundless. In November 2017, the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace in Sydney, Australia, found that while terrorism-related deaths had fallen 22 percent globally in 2016 from their peak in 2014 (the year that ISIS exploded on the scene), they were up in Europe across 2014–16 to their highest level in nearly three decades, with 75 percent of the deaths from terrorism in
Europe attributable to ISIS. Despite this worrisome development, the compilers of the GTI also find that Europe’s democracies have been foiling a higher proportion of attacks, thereby forcing ISIS to focus on “lower-level” tactics that involve fewer resources and less planning. Meanwhile, data from a longer term—going back nearly two decades rather than just a handful of years—show that when it comes to terrorism, reasonably high-quality democracies enjoy a vital, and seemingly growing, “triple democracy advantage.” That is, such democracies suffer fewer attacks than do other regime types, with a lower rate of increase, and fewer fatalities.
Terrorism is the deliberate use or threat of violence against civilians by a nonstate entity (individual or group) in pursuit of a political or religious goal. Terrorism—or, more precisely, Salafi-Takfiri terrorism of the type perpetrated by ISIS—is now perceived by people around the globe as the leading danger to their national security. A Pew study published in August 2017 found shares of national publics ranging from 62 percent in Ghana to 88 percent in France—and including 74 percent of U.S. respondents as well as 77 percent of Germans, 74 percent of Indonesians, and 66 percent of Indians—saying that ISIS is the top security threat facing their country. These concerns have large implications. Even among the world’s most advanced democracies, fear of terrorism—often intertwined with worries about immigration, particularly from Muslim-majority countries — is a driver of populist nationalism, support for illiberal alternatives, and heightened danger that civil liberties and the rule of law will be eroded. If liberal democracies in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia are especially vulnerable to terrorism, moreover, is that not a warning to other countries pondering liberalization that strengthening rights, freedoms, and legal guarantees could be too risky? Will not a more closed society—one that rejects or curtails such liberal-democratic niceties—be better able to defend itself against the terrorist scourge? At the very least, the relationship between regime types and contemporary trends in terrorism ought to be clearly understood in order to promote better risk analysis and counterterrorism policy both at home and abroad.
This article is part of the RED-Alert project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation Programme under grant agreement No 740688.