Assessing the risk of terrorism

Ross Gittins’ column in today’s SMH takes up a topic sure to get RWDBs foaming with apoplectic rage:

FORGIVE me if I’m not shaking in my shoes over the risk of terrorism on our shores. There is a risk, of course, but it’s being greatly exaggerated. My scepticism comes after 30 years in journalism, watching such scares from close quarters. …

The risk of being killed in a terrorist attack is very much lower than the risk of being killed on the road. Yet after the attacks of September 2001 in America, many people switched from travelling by air to travelling by road, presuming it to be safer.

Gittins goes on to contrast the extraordinary public, media and political attention currently being given to terrorism with the much lower profile of (arguably) objectively more serious issues like road accidents and youth suicide.

Paul Norton takes up the same issue at Larva Rodeo (which has just mercifully been redesigned in a much less bilious purple theme than the previous one), and cites the somewhat hysterical (not to mention hypocritical) approach of politicians to illegal drugs like cannabis by comparison with legal but more risky drugs like alcohol. His post, like Gittins’ article, is well worth a read.

But Gittins’ article prompted me to explore the rather narrower question of just how great the current world risk of terrorism actually is, and how it has varied over time. You’d swear blind from media coverage and politicians’ responses that we are living in a new age of unprecedented risk of terrorist attack. But is that actually true?

From this WAPO article you’d think that the answer was unequivocally in the affirmative (albeit that you might also begin thinking about why that might be the case):

Overall, the number of what the U.S. government considers “significant” attacks grew to about 655 last year, up from the record of around 175 in 2003, according to congressional aides who were briefed on statistics covering incidents including the bloody school seizure in Russia and violence related to the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir.

Terrorist incidents in Iraq also dramatically increased, from 22 attacks to 198, or nine times the previous year’s total …

But a bit more Googling puts these scarey figures in perspective. This 1997 Christian Science Monitor article (written in the wake of the bombings of US embassies in Africa) observes:

Terrorism declining? The bombings come at a time when the number of terror incidents has been on a general decline. There were 304 terrorist attacks in the world in 1997, according to the State Department. That figure represents one of the lowest terrorism totals since 1971.

Thus, while terrorist attacks for 2004 were more than double the figure for 1997, the latter figure was one of the lowest since 1971 . Even the horrific 2004 terrorist attack count appears not to be especially high by comparison with “terrorism’s 1970s heyday”. Moreover, some 2/3 of the doubling of terrorist attacks from 1997 to 2004 is accounted for specifically by attacks in Iraq, events it is reasonable to suggest would mostly not have occurred had the West simply left Saddam in power (whether that would have been preferable on balance is a topic exhaustively canvassed in the past).

A similar picture emerges when we focus solely on air hijackings, as this analysis, written a little over a year before the September 11 hijackings, makes clear:

The number of hijackings peaked in the U.S. at 35 in 1969, and peaked at 53 for foreign carriers in 1970. The hijacking threat during this period, both in the U.S. and globally, galvanized authorities to put in place many of the security procedures seen routinely in operation today. As a result, the growth in the average rate of hijackings has abated.

From the history of hijackings, a number of observations can be made:

* The number of hijackings occurring each year is going down, including overseas (i.e., non-U.S. registered aircraft).

* In the peak years 1969-1970, there were eight times more hijackings than occur today.

Although the September 11 2001 hijackings were especially horrific and resulted in extraordinary loss of life, the fact remains that they occurred against a backdrop of falling overall numbers of hijackings, a trend that has continued thereafter.

It all leads to an obvious question. Why is there so much media and public attention on terrorism today, and such a plethora of quite radical anti-terrorism legislation which significantly impinges on basic human rights and freedoms we have previously taken for granted, when the objective threat level is almost certainly no greater than that which existed in the 1970s? Gittins and Norton point to the various vested interests who benefit from exaggerating the extent of the terrorism threat. But those vested interests also existed in the 1970s, so why didn’t they succeed in stampeding public and political opinion in those days? Were we more concerned with the objectively larger threat of communism, and therefore more able to keep the lesser but still significant threat of terrorism by non-state actors in perspective? Are today’s political leaders more willing than their predecessors to scare the bejesus out of the voting public for short-term electoral gain? Or are there other reasons?

Now before RWDB readers go ballistic, I stress that I’m not arguing against taking terrorism seriously. I’m not even arguing against some version of the current anti-terror bills before federal parliament (albeit with much stronger human rights and accountability safeguards). I’m simply suggesting that we should be keeping our emotional and legislative responses proportionate, and I’m also wondering why so manifestly we’re failing to do so.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2024 years ago

I take Ken’s point 100%. I suppose the real worry about the incidents of terrorism that we have experienced thus far is not so much the loss of life (compared with road accidents for example) but they signal that a group of people has declared war on us for reasons that we do not understand. These signals have triggered two very different responses, on the one hand the crusade to do whatever it takes to fight fire with fire, on the other the emergence of apologists and others of our adversary culture who have taken this opportunity to declare (again) their antipathy to significiant elements of our own culture. One is tempted to mutter ‘a plague on both your houses’. Anyway we can at least try to follow Ken’s suggestion to keep our emotional and legislative responses proportionate.

Jim Birch
Jim Birch
2024 years ago

By some weird emotional logic it makes the invasion of Iraq OK, rather than criminal deficient in real analysis.

2024 years ago

All right, I’ll bite.

I don’t buy the Gittins line at all. People accept the danger of dying in a motor accident as part of the business of living in a modern industrial society. Comparing fatalities from accidents on the road with those from terrorist attacks seems illogical to me. In the former case, the deaths are accidental and random; in the latter they arise from specific targeting and murderous intent. Of course the community is far move concerned about them.

As for the decline, in real terms, of the number of terrorist incidents, this argument misses the essential point – which is evident to governments and the security agencies: that, latterly, the west has realised that it harbours a surprisingly large number of poeple who are determined to destroy the civil society of which they are a part.

The nature of the terrorist threat changed in the late 1990’s, with the issue of UBL’s fatwa against America. Until then, terrorism in the main was a matter of pushing single and limited issues: Britain out of Northern Ireland, a separate homeland for the Basques, support for Palestine. These issues have not gone away, but are peripheral to the nature of the new threat – which is against the west in general, and the United States in particular.

The ‘new’ terrorism is particularly dangerous because, unlike its more ‘conventional’ forerunners, it does not have an achievable goal, which means it can neither be placated, bought off or appeased. It seeks nothing less than the re-establishment of the Islamic caliphate and its conquest of the whole world. As Abu Bakr Bashir, the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah, recently said: terrorism against the west will not cease until the west ‘consents to be ruled by Islam’. Since that won’t happen, there’s no telling when the terrorism will end.

And the counter-measures of the governments concerned have often been effective. Blair has said that since the July bombings at least two other terrorist attacks in the UK have been prevented. In Australia, from the information so far available, it seems a major terrorist operation was being planned and has been averted.

James Dudek
James Dudek
2024 years ago

Exactly Rob, there is a trade off to motor accidents. On the plus side I get to go where I want when I want. I can also personally manage the risk by doing things like slowing down, not driving when I am tired, or not driving when intoxicated.

The positive aspect to the accepted trade off to accepting the risk of getting blown up by crazy muslims is?

Why do Lefty commentators feel the need to stick their heads in the sand about terrorism? Is it because it’s cool to “contrarian”?

Clearly Joe Public hates the idea of randomly being blown to smitheriens by haters just for being himself.

The more wierdos like Gittens write this kind of shit, the more marginalized they become. Which in the end is a good thing.

2024 years ago

the worst thing about terrorism is the media oxygen it gives to pompous non-entities like Downer and other fear merchants

I hate terroroists because they take up air-time,

I’d much rather hear about knitted wedding dresses

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2024 years ago

” As for the decline, in real terms, of the number of terrorist incidents, this argument misses the essential point” etc

It’s a point, but the main point is that if a terrorist puts a bomb up your backside then you are dead. I don’t see how it’s any better to be killed by a Basque terrorist who has a rational political objective than an Islamist terrorist who does not.

And besides, the policy of govenrments for ever has been not to negotiate with terrorists, whether they be the crazy Islamist types or the not crazy but just as deadly other types.

This doesn’t mean that appropriate precautions shouldn’t be taken, but a bit of perspective is required. There has not been a single act of Islamist terrorism in Australia. In Britain, the danger from the IRA when they were active in the 70s and 80s was far greater than from Islamists. The IRA killed lots of people on a regular basis in acts of wanton terror. Yet we didn’t see the reaction then that we do today.

John Humphreys
2024 years ago

Absolutely agree Ken, and have been saying this for a while. But I go further…

The risk of terrorism is so small that it’s not worth worrying about. Smaller than death by car, by lightening, by pesticide poisoning, falling down stairs. To spend billions of dollars attempting to get rid of this imaginary threat defies common sense.

But I guess some people are just addicted to big government programs, hey RWDBs?

2024 years ago
Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago

I don’t think Rob’s point about the bizarre irrationality of the Islamists’ demands, versus the much more limited and “rational” demands of more “conventional” terrorists (like the IRA or Hammas) is as cogent as he thinks. In addition to Dave Ricardo’s point (that governments have long and rightly had a firm policy of not negotiating with or giving in to the demands of terrorists anyway), quite a few of the more limited “rational” demands of the conventional terrorists are in fact just as incapable of being met in the real world as the global Muslim domination fantasies of Bin Laden et al.

Can anyone, for example, seriously imagine that Israel would or should agree to cease to exist? Although there are concessions short of that which may well assist in empowering moderate Palestinian forces against their extremist brothers (and withdrawal from the West Bank as well as Gaza is prime among them), the fact is that nothing short of Israel’s utter annihilation will ever satisfy the extremists, and some of them will keep committing terrorist acts until they’re either killed or captured.

You can make similar observations about the limited “rational” aims of numerous other terrorist groups. So if their demands are equally incapable of satisfaction, why is this a useful distinction? Whatever their aspirations, surely we ourselves need to make and remake a rational analysis of the extent of the threat and a careful cost/benefit analysis of possible responses.

I think a more persuasive counter-argument to my primary post is that, in assuming for the sake of the argument that the risk of terrorism is no greater now than in the 1970s, I’m in a sense implicitly discounting the possibility that the much greater focus of governments on anti-terrorism activity since 2001 has itself contributed substantially to containing the number of terrorist attacks and has therefore reduced the apparent risk (though not the actual risk – perhaps we would now have lots more terrorist attacks if security hadn’t been tightened, intelligence efforts beefed up and authorities given stronger powers). Of course that’s exactly what ASIO etc would argue, and there’s no easy way for we non-intelligence types to assess its veracity, because we’re not (and can’t reasonably expect to be) privy to that intelligence information.

I think we need a strong, independent intelligence watchdog authority to ensure that the spooks aren’t exaggerating the extent of security threats to aggrandise themselves, and also to ensure the accountaibility of AFP and ASIO when exercising the extraordinary powers that they already have (let alone the ones currently under consideration), as well as to protect the rights of people subjected to those powers. That is, we need to construct a modern security-focused adaptation of John Locke’s fundamental notion of “checks and balances”, rather than just an interminable sterile, predictable stand-off between “left” and “right”, with the former doubting the existence of threat and opposing just about all government initiatives on principle while much of the “right” automatically supports any and all government moves labelled as “anti-terrorist” and automatically labels any level of scepticism, doubt or caution as latte left treachery and weakness. It’s a profoundly depressing debate on both sides IMO. We need a new paradigm.

2024 years ago

Part of the distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ terrorism lies in the fact that the former generally had its roots in some ancient or not so ancient injustice. This was true of the IRA, for example or the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide. Palestinian terrorism arose from the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the (legitimate) demand for a national Palestinian state. True, the extremists always had sought the annihilation of Israel; but it was not hard to see within the mix the call to right a historic wrong. And although no reasonable person could support the human bomb tactics of HAMAS and PIJ, it’s nonetheless not difficult to sympathise with the Palestinians’ demands for removal of the settlements and withdrawal form the occupied territories.

Although governments decline to negotiate with terrorism, it is possible to negotiate (as it were) with the underlying injustice to remove or diminish the impetus for terrorism. The old ‘root causes’ argument. After all, the UK government did end up negotiating with Sinn Fein. And even Sharon saw the need to withdraw froom Gaza.

But in the case of bin Laden, there’s nothing the west can do to address the ‘root cause’. As his list of demands linked above indicates, there’s no specific wrong to put right, no injustice to redress – unless you count the fact that Turkey found itself on the losing side of a war in 1918 and the caliphate was dismantled as a consequence. bin laden wants it restored, and more. He wants the whole world for Islam.

One of the difficulties the west has in dealing with Islamist terrorism is that it’s hard to believe they are serious. A liberal weterner would look at bin laden’s list, or Bashir’s statement that terrorism against the west will continue – using nuclear weapons if necessary – until the west succumbs, and say, ‘This is crazy; they can’t possibly be serious’. But they are. It really is their program.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago

Rob, I agree, although I’m not sure where it gets us, and it doesn’t negate my point about the need for dispassionate threat assessment and proportionate responses.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2024 years ago

“they signal that a group of people has declared war on us for reasons that we do not understand”
– rafe

The irony with this, of course, is that it is precisely the RWDBs who decry any serious attempt to understand those reasons as “.. [taking] this opportunity to declare (again) their antipathy to significiant elements of our own culture”.

“The positive aspect to the accepted trade off to accepting the risk of getting blown up by crazy muslims is?”
– James Dudek
Off the top of my head, let’s see – That we don’t put an unconstrained power to imprison people into the hands of big government. That we retain our liberties. That we can continue to tell Big Brother what he can do with his surveillance. That we don’t have goons with guns in public places. That old people and other nervous nellies don’t live in fear. That political debate focuses on issues that DO affect most people’s wellbeing. That we don’t undermine trust in strangers (a really important part of any successful society or economy, BTW).

In short, James, that we try and make our country into an Athens rather than a nasty little Sparta.

Gummo Trotsky
2024 years ago

Perhaps we should state the postion on road deaths a little more precisely; people accept the danger of someone else dying in road in a motor accident as part of the business of living in a modern industrial society. When someone gets into a car drunk and turns the ignition key, or runs a red light the last thing on their mind is that their behaviour could result in any danger to them. To describe this collective dumbness as a rational trade off of personal convenience against a small manageable risk of topping yourself is misleading to say the least.

Road deaths are something we’ve all gotten used to and rationalised away. Terrorism directed at someone else in a strange foreign country and reported on the evening news was equally acceptable, as something that happened to someone else. The possibility that it could happen to us – well that pushes a lot of buttons that deaths of other people on the roads due to human stupidity just don’t touch any more.

I guess I’ve just made it pretty obvious that I agree with Gittins on this one.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2024 years ago

One supposed difference between Islamist rerrorists on the old garden style variety is that the Islamists seem happy to kill themselves as they kill others, unlike, say, the IRA. This is supposed to worsen the threat.

This is true, up to point, but even here, the differences are exaggerated. There’s been Palestianian suicide bombers for years, ditto the Tamil tigers.

Another difference, and here the worriers lie Rob may have a point, is that old style terrorists were formally part of a terrorist oganisation. The IRA really was (or is) an army with a chain of command. British or Australian or Dutch Islamists may not be part of any organisation and intead are just inspired by Bin Laden or Zarqawi or whoever. It would be like if a whole lot of Catholocs around the world who were not part of the IRA decided nonetheless to start killing people, inspired by what was going on in Northern Ireland. Thankfully this didn’t happen. (Though an awful lot of Catholics, especially in the US, did a raise a heap of money for the IRA.)

In any case, what counts is not what the Islamists say they are going to do, or why they are going to do it, but what they are capable of doing and the likelihood that they will go ahead with it. This is the main game, not Bin Laden’s rhetoric.

2024 years ago

Can they do it? In terms of achieving tbhe goals expressed in their rhetoric, of course they can’t. But the bizarre twist is that they believe they can. The road here leads back to Afghanistan. The jihadis believe that by forcing the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan *they* caused the collapse of the ‘infidel’ Soviet empire. They believe they can do the same to the US (and the west more generally). It’s crazy, but that’s UBL’s belief.

It’s true Al Qaeda is not an organisation: it’s a loose network of like-minded affiliates. But again the Afghan experience is critical. The Soviet invasion was what radicalised UBL. He established The Cell in Afghanistan to draw in jihadis from all over the world to expel the Soviets from the daar al Islam. Once their task was accomplished, they travelled back to their homelands, including Indonesia and Malaysia (and Somalia, and Algeria), carrying the jihadi messsage with them.

In terms of their ability to conduct terrorist operations, I think they’ve more than proved their capability, in New York, Washington, Madrid, jakarta, Bali (twice) and now Amman.

James Dudek
James Dudek
2024 years ago

What’s the point of cracking down on drink driving or speeding?

More people die of heart disease than drink driving.

Having booze buses randomly pull people over is a violation of our civil liberties. Speed cameras and radar detectors are big brother. Old people and nervous nellies live in fear due to the graphic advertising that the TAC endlessly play.

Why bother doing anything at all?

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2024 years ago

“In terms of their ability to conduct terrorist operations, I think they’ve more than proved their capability”

Which is why you want ASIO and the cops keping a close eye on them.

That doesn’t mean we’re all going to die.

Perpsective, perspective, perspective.

Stephen Bounds
2024 years ago

The problem I always have with this debate is the straw man argument that ‘it is impossible to negotiate with Bin Laden’.

Of course we can’t! Bin Laden is an ideologue and ideologues are impossible to negotiate with by definition. (I’m tempted to add George W Bush to this list, but that’s beside the point.)

In this sense, demands for Israel to cease to exist or for us to become an Islamic nation are irrelevant. Since they are non-negotiable and impossible to acquiesce to, they can be disregarded.

On the other hand, have you noticed that it’s never Bin Laden who blows himself up in Bali? It’s some young guy or girl, generally poor, who is promised eternal happiness and a bereavement payment to his family. Or maybe it’s just someone who is sick of constantly being treated like a criminal because he “looks Muslim” and decides that our governments are just as bad as the charismatic mullah at his local mosque says they are.

*These* are the people who need to be convinced that our society is worth preserving. Without front-row troops, Bin Laden can do nothing.

The USA wouldn’t be fighting an insurgency of the scale they are now if they had been more judicious in their application of force to innocent Iraqis.

Likewise, if Muslims are able to hold down a good job and provide for their family in peace and security, what incentive do they have to engage in jihad? The cultural war is far more important than the military/police war.

None of this means that increased security measures are automatically bad, but it does mean that we need to scrupulously guard against discrimination to innocent people of ‘suspicious’ origins or even the *appearance* of discrimination.

One terrorist attack is one too many, of course. But it seems to me that failing to prevent one attack while remaining strictly attached to the principles of habeas corpus and rule of law *might* be preferable to a knee-jerk reaction that gets the Muslim community offside and lays the seeds for 10 more terrorists attacks in years to come.

Jim Birch
Jim Birch
2024 years ago

There’s an old guy who lives across the road from me who hates the Japanese with rhetoric akin to Bin Laden. He hasn’t forgotten what the they did to his mates and countrymen in WWII. However, he’s otherwise a lovely old bloke and not a security risk to anyone.

Similarly, Bin Laden (etc) may demand that until every westerner is exterminated or converted to Islam (or whatever) but it doesn’t really matter a lot.

There’s plenty of that sort of stuff going on everywhere, including here. In that crazy talker category I’d include people like Rob who claim that because the Islamic Death Beasts are saying some weird threatening things we must necessarily consider ourselves under a collective there-can-only-be-one-winner mortal threat. But words come and go and it’s actions that matter in the end. If every piece of jingoistic crap spoken was taken at face value we’d all be dead long ago.

Having read the above comments, I’d still say that at the base of the current furore is a guilt trip about our collective actions in the ME, Iraq in particular. No one will admit it but we’re all half thinking, “They’ve actually got a bloody good reason to want to kill us now.” It somehow kinda amplifies the threat in our minds. And no one must be half thinking this more than John Howard, who chose a leadership role in the abysmally poor best-case thinking (or was it just simple deceit) that created the Iraq disaster.

However, JH is an important man and he’s got more important things to think about than 100,000 dead and a country so trashed that it will take generations to recover. He has to figure out how to avoid copping the blame. Obviously, a terror attack on home soil would go a fair way to proving that the IDBs really are a bunch of lowlife nutters beyond reason who need to be put down. This could of course blow up in his face because he was the guy who decided to make us a target in the first place, in the name of peace, democracy, WMDs, or who can remember what.

Next best thing would be a great deal of agitation, debate and highly visible activity averting the terror threat to show leadership, neutralise the threat, assuage the collective guilt, and make us forget what caused the mess in the first place. (Hey, isn’t that what we’re getting now.) It’s pathologically twisted logic, I know, but Hell, hasn’t that been the norm for this whole Iraq thing. We’re pretty used to it now, aren’t we?