The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) issued the ninth edition of the Global Terrorism Index (GTI 2022) which includes monitoring the impact of terrorism on 163 countries, covering 99.7% of the world’s population, and analyzing the different social and economic circumstances of terrorism, long-term trends of the emergence and development of terrorism over time, geopolitical terrorism-related motives, ideological objectives of terrorist groups, terrorist policies, tools, and the necessary counter-terrorism political responses.
Rise and Decline of Terrorism
The GTI revealed that the total number of terrorism-related deaths decreased to 7142 in 2021 with a decline of 1.2% from the prior year, and 33% since its peak in 2015 in which 10,699 were killed in terrorist attacks.
Despite the lower number of fatalities, the number of attacks grew by 17 percent from 4458 in 2020 to 5226 in 2021, marking the highest number of attacks since 2007. Only 52% of the attacks were affiliated to terrorist organisations. Mozambique recorded the highest decline in terrorism-related deaths, ranging from 507 deaths in 2020 to 93 in 2021. Five countries witnessed the highest levels of terrorism, four of which recorded an increased number of deaths: Afghanistan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, yet the total number of deaths declined only in Somalia.
2021 was the first year for Myanmar and Niger to join the list of ten countries marking the highest death rates on account of terrorism. These countries recorded 85% of the total deaths arising from terrorism the same year.
Mozambique and Nigeria recorded the highest decline in terrorism in 2021. Deaths in the former increased by 48% in 2020, then decreased by 82% in 2021 due to successful counter-terrorism measures implemented by the Mozambican forces in conjunction with Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community.
Deaths in Nigeria dropped by 51% in 2021 following three years of successive increases. This decline was due to a fall in deaths attributed to Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), particularly in the Borno region where deaths fell by 71%.
ISWAP overtook Boko Haram as the deadliest terrorist group in Nigeria in 2021, with an increased presence in neighboring countries such as Mali, Cameroon and Niger, presenting a substantial threat to the Sahel region. The fall of Boko Haram coincides with the death of its leader Abubakar Shekau in May 2021, and the subsequent defection of his followers in favor of other groups.
Syria experienced the third-largest overall decrease in deaths, with an estimated 488 deaths in 2021.
Myanmar, however, recorded the highest increased death rate arising from terrorism, with an estimated increase from 24 deaths in 2020 to 521 in 2021. Such a significant increase was predominantly driven by ongoing political instability and widespread protests that began with the military coup in February 2021. Anti-junta armed groups were responsible for over half of terrorism-related deaths in Myanmar in 2021.
Niger recorded the second largest increase in 2021. While the number of attacks in Niger remained consistent between 2020 and 2021, the number of terrorism-related deaths increased by 129%, amounting to 588 deaths, indicating increased attack lethality from 3.8 deaths per attack in 2020 to 7.9 deaths per attack in 2021.
The GTI, however, did not observe a significant impact inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, despite initial predictions that the pandemic would worsen its impact. Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2020, a rise in terrorism was anticipated. However, there is evidence to suggest that the pandemic has had very little impact on terrorism in 2020 and 2021. Despite this, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new and distinct counter-terrorism challenges, such as decreased counter-terrorism budgets caused by increased public spending and increased pandemic-related frustrations, leading to potential civil unrest and exploitation of pandemic spillovers by extremists seeking to aggravate more anger and disappointment, such as isolation, increased online activity, resentment against vaccinations and lockdown. With pandemic-related sociocultural restrictions all over the world, people are spending increasingly more time online. Terrorist groups have utilized the pandemic as an opportunity to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation to undermine confidence in governments and gather more support for their ideology.
The four terrorist groups responsible for most deaths in 2021 were Islamic State (ISIS), Al-Shabaab, Taliban, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). These four groups were responsible for 3,364 deaths from terrorism, representing 47% of total deaths in 2021. In 2012, these four groups were responsible for just under 16% of all deaths from terrorism. Another 2,775 of terror-related deaths were not attributed to any organization.
Islamic State (ISIS) and its affiliate groups: Islamic State– Khorasan Province (ISKP), Islamic State – Sinai Province (ISSP), and Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP), recorded the most fatal attacks of any terrorist group in 2021. ISIS deaths represented 29% of all deaths from terrorism globally in 2021. Despite this, ISIS attacks fell from 837 in 2020 to 794 in 2021. ISIS launched attacks in 21 countries in 2021 compared to 30 in 2020. The country most affected by ISIS’s terrorist attacks was Iraq, in which 327 attacks occurred in 2021, a decrease from 353 attacks in 2020. Meanwhile, Afghanistan recorded the most ISIS-related deaths, recording a quarter of ISIS casualties for 2021.
For the third year in a row, ISIS’s preferred method has been armed attacks, followed by explosive strikes. In 2021, there were 479 armed attacks, up from 414 the previous year. The number of people killed as a result of these incidents decreased by 12%.
Conversely, despite explosive attacks decreasing between 2020 and 2021 from 271 to 240 attacks, casualties as a result of these attacks increased by almost 50%. While the number of suicide bombing attacks declined from 18 in 2020 to 16 in 2021, the number of casualties doubled in 2021.
The most common target for ISIS’s attacks continues to be the military, representing 41% of all ISIS’s attacks in 2021. However, civilians recorded the most casualties, with 971 civilian deaths in 2021, an increase of 36% when compared to 2020.
As for Taliban, they had recaptured lands all over Afghanistan by 2021, and resumed power by August of the same year. They were responsible for 376 deaths in 2021, marking a 32% decline from 2020 and the lowest number of deaths since 2016. The total number of terrorist attacks by Taliban decreased from 242 in 2020 to 232 in 2021. 56% did not result in any fatalities. Taliban’s main targets were civilians, which accounted for 47% of attacks and 64% of deaths.
In 2021, terrorism-related deaths attributed to Al-Shabaab continued to decline, falling 17% from the prior year. Of the 571 deaths attributed to Al-Shabaab in 2021, 93% occurred in Somalia, compared to 6% in Kenya. The total number of terror attacks fell by 56 attacks to 303 attacks from 2020 to 2021.
Mogadishu has traditionally been the epicenter of Al-Shabaab terrorist operations. It was the site of 16 percent of Al-Shabaab attacks, with 115 people killed. In Kenya, terrorism-related deaths attributed to Al-Shabaab decreased by 14% in 2021. This is the lowest recorded number of Al-Shabaab casualties in Kenya since 2012.
Al-Shabaab has consistently utilized bombings and armed assaults as its main modes of attack. Almost 68% of terrorism-related deaths attributed to Al-Shabaab in 2021 were the result of bombings, while armed assaults accounted for 31% of deaths. The highest proportion of Al-Shabaab attacks in both Somalia and Kenya were directed at the military, followed by civilians. Overall, civilian deaths declined by 40% between 2020 and 2021.
In 2021, attacks and deaths as a result of JNIM activity reached their highest level since the group’s emergence in 2007. JNIM were responsible for 351 deaths in 2021, a 69% increase compared to 2020. Around 59% occurred in Mali, while 40% occurred in Burkina Faso.
In Mali, JNIM attacks increased by 80% between 2020 and 2021. The majority of terrorist attacks in Mali in 2021 were directed at the military; however, civilians comprised the majority of casualties. Malian civilian deaths as a result of JNIM attacks more than tripled between 2020 and 2021.
Over half of attacks perpetrated by JNIM were armed attacks, resulting in 341 fatalities in 2021. Casualties as a result of armed attacks represented over 97% of JNIM fatalities for 2021. Despite the fact that there were 26 JNIM-organized explosions in 2021, just seven people were killed, a 46 percent drop in JNIM-related deaths from the previous year.
Countries Most Impacted by Terrorism
The ten countries most impacted by terrorism remained largely unchanged. For the third consecutive year, Afghanistan and Iraq maintained their positions as the two countries most impacted by terrorism,
Burkina Faso overtook Syria and Nigeria to be the fourth most impacted country, Pakistan moved from eighth most impacted to tenth, and Nigeria dropped two places to sixth most impacted country.
The newest entries to the ten most impacted countries were Niger and Myanmar, which were in eighth and ninth place, respectively. Nigeria, Syria and Somalia were the only countries amongst the ten most impacted by terrorism to record an improvement in score from 2020 to 2021.
- In 2021, Afghanistan recorded 1,426 deaths, the highest number of terrorism-related deaths in the world. Overall, Afghanistan accounted for 20% of deaths from terrorism globally in 2021. Civilians accounted for over half of these deaths, making Afghanistan the country most impacted by terrorism for the third consecutive year. Terrorism increased in Afghanistan by 33%, with terrorist incidents recorded in 32 of its 34 provinces. The province of Kabul had the highest number of terrorism-related casualties, with the majority of them occurring as a consequence of assaults by the ISIS’s Khorasan chapter. Deaths in the Kandahar region have almost tripled in 2021.
- Iraq recorded 833 terrorist attacks in 2021, the highest in any country. This is an increase by 33% when compared to the previous year. Overall, deaths from terrorism in Iraq have decreased 91% from their peak since 2007. For the second consecutive year, the military were the target of the most terrorist attacks, accounting for 43% of deaths from terrorism in Iraq in 2021. The number of attacks against the military increased by 60%, and civilian fatalities increased by 28% in 2021. ISIS still dominates terrorist activity in Iraq, causing 71% of all deaths in 2021. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was the other active terrorist group in Iraq that year, as it was responsible for 22 attacks that killed 21 people.
- In 2021, terrorist attacks and deaths in Somalia fell from the prior year by 10%. Terrorism-related deaths declined only by 17% compared to 2014. Al-Shabaab remains the deadliest terrorist group in Somalia, responsible for 534 deaths, which represents 89% of all terrorism-related deaths in the country in 2021.
- Terrorist incidents in Burkina Faso increased between 2020 and 2021, jumping from 191 to 216 incidents. This is the highest number of attacks since the peak in 2019. Terrorism-related deaths mirrored this trend, increasing by 11% compared to the previous year, with more than half of the 732 deaths in 2021 being civilians. Burkina Faso recorded the second highest number of deaths in any country in 2021. Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) continues to be the most prominent terrorist group in Burkina Faso. Despite only taking responsibility for 13 terrorist attacks in 2021, JNIM’s death toll rose to 207, almost five times the number recorded for 2020.
- In 2021, 488 terrorism-related deaths were recorded in Syria, a decrease of 33% from the previous year. The number of terrorism-related crimes decreased by 23% between 2020 and 2021. The northern provinces were the most affected by terrorism, with 45% of attacks occurring in Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo governorates. ISIS remained the deadliest terrorist group in Syria for the eighth consecutive year, accounting for 49% of total deaths and 32% of claimed incidents. Despite this, terror attacks and deaths by ISIS fell by 34% and 26% respectively, when compared to the year prior. However, 54% of attacks were not attributed to any organization.
- Terrorism-related deaths in Nigeria declined to 448 in 2021, the lowest number since 2011. However, the number of terrorist attacks increased by 49% between 2020 and 2021. Attacks against police and prisons increased substantially from one recorded attack in 2020 to 75 in 2021, accounting for over a third of all attacks in Nigeria in 2021. Terrorism-related deaths among civilians decreased by 62 percent, while military terrorism-related deaths decreased by 50 percent over the previous year. ISWAP became the deadliest terrorist group in Nigeria. The decline of Boko Haram continued, being responsible for 69 deaths, a decrease of 77% from the previous year. This is the lowest number of deaths by the group for a decade. Boko Haram’s decline has resulted in a substantial improvement in Borno State, which experienced a decrease of 71% in terrorism-related deaths when compared to the previous year. Attacks in the state also decreased from 121 to 86 between 2020 and 2021. The state, however, remains the hardest hit region in Nigeria because of terrorism, accounting for half of all terrorism-related deaths in 2021.
- In 2021, Mali recorded the highest number of terrorist attacks and deaths in the last decade. Attacks and deaths from terrorism in Mali increased by 56% and 46% respectively, when compared to the previous year. Most attacks were directed at the military and counter-terrorism efforts; however, civilians accounted for the most deaths in 2021. The Tri-Border Area, which encompasses Mali’s border with Niger and Burkina Faso, continues to be the most plagued area for terrorist attacks, representing over 70% of Mali’s attacks in 2021. JNIM continues to be the most prominent group in Mali, being responsible for 72 terrorist attacks in 2021, an increase of 80% from the previous year.
- Niger is now amongst the ten countries most impacted by terrorism in 2021, for the first time; in 2021, it recorded 588 deaths as a result of terrorism. This is the highest terrorism-related death toll in the last decade. Civilians accounted for 78% of these fatalities, resulting in Niger becoming the country with the third-highest civilian death toll in 2021. ISWAP overtook Boko Haram as the most active terrorist group in Niger in 2021. It was responsible for 23 attacks, accounting for 60% of the total casualties in Niger. In 2021 the group executed 23 attacks, with an average of 15.2 deaths per attack. This compares with an average of 9.4 deaths per attack in 2020. Niger’s ISWAP is the most lethal group in the world in 2021.
- Myanmar (Burma) also appeared amongst the ten countries most impacted by terrorism in 2021. In 2021, terrorist attacks in Myanmar increased significantly, from 25 attacks in 2020 to 750 attacks in 2021. Terrorism-related deaths have dramatically increased, rising from 24 in 2020 to 521 in 2021, a stunning 2,071% increase. Armed anti-junta groups were responsible for almost half of terrorist attacks and deaths in Myanmar. 76% of all terrorism-related deaths in Myanmar were among government, law-enforcement and military personnel.
- In Pakistan, the impact of terrorism has marginally increased, with a 5% rise in deaths in 2021 compared to the previous year. In 2021, the number of terrorism-related incidents climbed from 171 in 2020 to 186. In 2021, Pakistan’s military continued its attempts to disarm and eliminate terrorist sleeper cells, making the military the most frequent target of attacks, accounting for 44 percent of all terrorism-related deaths.
Trends in Terrorism Since 2007
Terrorism-related deaths have decreased over the last four years, but the decreases have been minor, with the number of deaths remaining relatively steady since 2018. Overall, deaths from terrorism have fallen by over a third in total since the peak in 2015. Two of the countries with the largest declines were Iraq and Pakistan.
Total terrorist attacks in the West peaked in 2018, with 182 events, while terrorism-related deaths peaked in 2016, with 191 persons killed in terrorist attacks. Although the impact of religion-motivated terrorism has subsided in the West over the past four years, there has been a rise in the level of politically motivated terrorism. In 2018, the number of both deaths and incidents caused by political terrorism was higher than any other form of terrorism for the first time since 2007. In 2021, there were 40 politically motivated attacks, compared to just three religiously motivated attacks.
In 2021, 44 countries recorded at least one death from terrorism, compared to around 55 countries in 2015. Of the 163 countries included in the analysis, nearly 105 recorded no attacks or deaths from terrorism in 2020 and 2021, the highest number since 2007.
Conflict has been the primary driver of terrorism since 2007. In 2021, all of the ten countries most impacted by terrorism were involved in an armed conflict. There were 120,359 deaths from terrorism between 2007 and 2020. Of these deaths, 92%, or 111,191, occurred in countries involved in conflict. During the peak of terrorist activity in 2015, most deaths from terrorism occurred in war zones
However, conflict-ridden countries accounted for 95.8% of terrorism-related deaths in the prior three years, rising to 97.6% in 2021. The lethality of terrorist acts rises in tandem with the intensity of conflict.
Attacks in conflict-ridden countries are six times more fatal than those in non-conflict-ridden countries. In conflict-afflicted countries, more people are killed in terrorist attacks that target civilians than attacks targeting police, the military, and infrastructure. Since 2007, 39,943 people have been killed in terrorist attacks on police, military, and infrastructure targets in conflict-ridden countries. By contrast, 42,964 people were killed in attacks targeting civilians in conflict-afflicted countries.
In many conflict zones, violence is not only aimed at the government but rather takes place between extremists who look forward to dominating a disputed territory. This competition has an impact on an organization’s strategy and tactics, as some choose to utilize terrorist tactics against both the opposing group and its supporters, as well as citizens perceived to be aligned with the opposing party.
Terrorist Ideology in the West
Terrorism in the West represents only a small fraction of global terrorism. Between 2007 and 2021 there were 126,740 deaths from terrorism globally. Of these, only 865 occurred in the West, or just 0.68% of the total. However, terrorism in the West is notable because it occurs almost entirely outside the context of an ongoing conflict or war—the perfect environment for terrorism.
Religious attacks have been responsible for 61 percent of terrorist deaths in the West since 2007. 528 people have died as a result of this type of terrorism.
Prior to 2015, nationalist or separatist terrorism was the highest form of terrorism in the West, after which it was overtaken by religious terrorism. Over the period of 2007–2014, 145 attacks were conducted by separatist groups, resulting in 13 deaths. In 2021, only four attacks were attributed to separatist terrorist groups. The UK, Spain and France maintain the highest levels of separatist terrorism in the West, recording 81, 61 and 35 attacks respectively since 2007.
Political terrorism in the West can be divided into two sub-ideologies: far-left terrorism and far-right terrorism. Political terrorism has steadily increased over the last decade, with 73% of attacks in the West being attributed to politically motivated groups and individuals. In 2011, far-left groups and individuals were responsible for two attacks while far-right groups claimed five attacks. However, in 2021, far-left attacks increased significantly to 38 attacks while far-right groups claimed only two attacks.
Most far-left and far-right attacks are perpetrated by individuals or groups not officially affiliated to any formal organization. 95% of 393 attacks in the West from far-right and far-left groups were perpetrated under no formal affiliation. In 2018, the number of both deaths and incidents caused by political terrorism in the West was higher than any other type of terrorism for the first time since 2007.
Prominent Regional Trends of Terrorism
The impact of terrorism fell in eight of the nine regions of the world in 2021. The largest improvement occurred in Russia and Eurasia, with the region recording a 71% decline in terrorism-related deaths.
South Asia was the region with the highest average score on the GTI, a position it has held since 2007. Conversely, Central America and the Caribbean recorded the lowest impact of terrorism.
Between 2007 and 2021, the largest number of deaths from terrorism was recorded in the MENA region, with more than 49,000 deaths. South Asia recorded roughly 37,000 deaths over the same period, with another 30,500 occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.
More recently, terrorist activity has been concentrated in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Both regions recorded 74% of terrorism-related deaths in 2021. Ten countries in the Asia-Pacific region improved in 2021, compared to two that deteriorated: Myanmar and Indonesia, resulting in the impact of terrorism falling in the region for the third consecutive year.
No countries deteriorated in Central America and the Caribbean, with 11 of the 12 countries recording a score of zero on the 2021 GTI, meaning that they did not experience a single terrorist incident over the past five years. 21 of the 36 countries in Europe witnessed improvements in the impact of terrorism over the past year. Europe is the third best performing region, after Russia, Eurasia, Central America, and the Caribbean. 14 European countries have not experienced a single terrorist attack since 2017. Of the 113 attacks in Europe in 2021, only 20 were claimed by known terrorist groups.
Even though the Middle East and North Africa recorded the highest death toll from terrorism since 2007, the region’s share of the global total has dropped substantially over the past four years. Fatalities accounted for 39% since 2018, reaching the lowest percent in 2007 at only 16% of total deaths in 2021. MENA recorded an overall improvement in the impact of terrorism last year, with 16 countries improving and three recording no change. Algeria was the only country to record a deterioration due to an increase in terrorism-related deaths. This is the fourth year in a row that the region has improved.
ISIS has been the deadliest terrorist group in the Middle East and North Africa, accounting for over 11,500 terrorism-related deaths since 2014. Of the attacks witnessed by MENA in 2021, ISIS and affiliate groups claimed responsibility for 463 attacks or 36% of total attacks. Despite 13 terrorist groups claiming responsibility for attacks in the region in 2021, 57% or 727 attacks remain unclaimed by any known group.
South Asia has the highest average GTI score of any region, a position it has held throughout the last decade. In 2021, 23 terror groups were active in the region. ISIS was the deadliest group in the region in 2021, recording 555 deaths.
The impact of terrorism deteriorated slightly in sub-Saharan Africa in 2021. Of the 18 countries that recorded a deterioration between 2020–2021, eight were in the sub-Saharan region. Despite this deterioration, 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa recorded an improvement in their GTI score in 2021. Deaths from terrorism in the region dropped slightly to 3,461, compared to 3,849 in 2020,
Terrorism in the Sahel
Deaths from terrorism in the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal) rose ten times between 2007 and 2021. Deaths in the Sahel accounted for 35% of the global total of terrorism deaths in 2021, compared to just 1% in 2007.
In the Sahel, over the last few years, the terrorism environment has gone through several changes, as new groups emerged and others merged, adapting to the local, regional and international counter-terrorism operations. With its challenging terrain and porous borders, local terrorist leaders in the Sahel have tremendous autonomy to operate as they please. Terrorist activity has been primarily concentrated in the Lake Chad Basin, comprising parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and the Central Sahel area along the Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger border.
Terrorism is frequently used as a tactic by parties seeking to bring about political change in a conflict situation. The 2022 GTI reported several factors fueling the current crisis in the Sahel:
- Firstly, the prominence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had been reframing its engagement to gain support from elements within the Tuareg, leading it to form ties with groups such as Ansar al-Dine, Al-Mourabitoun, and Katiba Macina.
- Second, the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its desire to establish regional centres, which led to the formation of relations with local actors such as Boko Haram, resulting in the formation of the ISWAP and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
- Thirdly, ecological degradation forced people to search for new grazing routes, arable land, and water facilities.
The 2022 GTI has reported three types of terrorist groups operating in the Sahel:
- First: transnational jihadi groups with official links to al-Qaeda: (AQIM, JNIM) or the Islamic State (ISWAP, ISGS).
- Second: groups that focus on local issues, framing their actions through an ethnic-nationalist-religious paradigm: Ansar al-Dine (AAD), Al-Mourabitoun, and Katiba Macina.
- Third: groups that emerge as a response to specific situations and events, such as Dan Nan Ambassagou that appeared around 2016.
Historically, criminal activity has been present in the Sahel, particularly in Northern Mali, which has served as a key crossroad in transnational smuggling networks for licit and illicit commodities, such as fuel, cigarettes, foodstuffs, drugs, arms, and people.
There are indications that competition over the routes and the revenue gained from these illicit activities are putting further pressure on already strained social structures and inter-tribal, inter-ethnic relations. Kidnapping has been a common tactic used by terrorist organizations across the region, particularly in Burkina Faso, with 7 reported incidents in 2016 amounting to 111 in 2019. Kidnappings by AQIM have reportedly earned the group over $110 million since 2003.
Terrorism and Limited Resources
Understanding the context of water scarcity in relation to terrorism is critical because, while no group in the Sahel has yet used water scarcity as a justification for violence, a lack of water or concerns about access to it, as well as issues with water quality and quantity, would contribute to the conditions in which terrorist groups operate, recruit, and thrive.
Climate change has led to more droughts and floods, undermining food production in the region, destroying diverse human settlements, and causing widespread displacement. In 2020, over 43 million people in the Sahelian countries reportedly faced food insecurity, while almost 18 million suffer from crises or from emergency states.
One report looking at the water situation around Lake Chad emphasized that there are around 30 million people across Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon competing over dwindling water supplies and that Boko Haram is willing to exploit this situation. By controlling water, they can demand taxes for access to it; they can use it to demand that families provide recruits; or they can use the need for water to forcefully recruit individuals.
Food insecurity had motivated insurgencies in the region, where groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram took advantage of the situation to assert their power. Food insecurity could also affect terrorist groups themselves, as they would need to search and compete for food too like other people, which increases its scarcity. This was the case with Boko Haram, which created a food crisis in Northern Nigeria and Lake Chad, compelling it to head to Cameroon in search for food security.