Recent Pew Research reports have documented worrying trends of increasing religious hostilities involving religion, with religion-related terrorism being a potential trigger in governments imposing greater restrictions on religion or belief more generally. Specifically, Pew found that countries where religion-related terror occurs have, on average, more than double the level of government restrictions on religious freedom as countries where no terror has occurred.
According to a statistical annex prepared by the University of Maryland for the recently released annual report on terrorism by the U.S. State Department and cited during the report's release (though not included in the report), "the number of terrorist attacks in 2014 increased 35 percent, and total fatalities increased 81 percent compared to 2013, largely due to activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria."
During the special briefing at the release by Tina S. Kaidanow, Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, stated that "more than 60 percent of all attacks took place in five countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria. And 78 percent of all fatalities due to terrorist attacks also took place in five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. The increase in total fatalities was in part a result of certain attacks that were exceptionally lethal. In 2014 there were 20 attacks that killed more than a hundred people, compared to only two such attacks in 2013."
Note, while the State Department cited these statistics compiled by the University of Maryland, they are not a U.S. State Department product and the lack full context found in the larger report. Kaidanow noted in particular that aggregate totals or numbers of attacks are not really a particularly useful metric for measuring the aims of the extremist groups or of our progress in preventing or countering those activities.
State Department Report & 2014 Trends
Comments below are from a special briefing by Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism Tina S. Kaidanow, Washington, DC June 19, 2015
"Despite significant blows to al-Qaida’s leadership, weak or failed governance continued to provide an enabling environment for the emergence of extremist radicalism and violence, notably in Yemen, in Syria, Libya, Nigeria, and Iraq. We’re deeply concerned about the continued evolution of the Islamic State of the Iraq in the Levant, ISIL; the emergence of self-proclaimed ISIL affiliates in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, and elsewhere; and tens of thousands of foreign terrorist fighters who are exacerbating the violence in the Middle East, imposing a continued threat to their own home countries.
The ongoing civil war in Syria has been a spur to many of the worldwide terrorism events that we have witnessed. Since the report covers only calendar year 2014, it notes that the overall flow of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria was estimated at more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from over 90 countries as of late December, which is a number that exceeds any similar flow of foreign terrorist fighters traveling to other countries in the last 20 years.
Many of the foreign terrorist fighters joined ISIL, which has seized contiguous territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Iraqi forces and the Counter-ISIL Coalition have dealt significant blows to ISIL, but it continues to control substantial territory.
As with many other terrorist groups worldwide, ISIL has brutally repressed the communities under its control and used ruthless methods of violence such as beheadings and crucifixions. Uniquely, however, it demonstrates a particular skill in employing new media tools to display its brutality both as a means to shock and to terrorize, but equally to propagandize and to attract new recruits.
Boko Haram shares with ISIL a penchant for the use of these brutal tactics, which include stonings, indiscriminate mass casualty attacks, and systematic oppression of women and girls, including enslavement, torture, and rape.
Though AQ central leadership has indeed been weakened, the organization continues to serve as a focal point of inspiration for a worldwide network of affiliated groups, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, a longstanding threat to Yemen, the region, and the United States; al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM; al-Nusrah Front; and al-Shabaab in East Africa.
We saw a rise in lone offender attacks, including in Ottawa and Quebec in October and Sydney in December of 2014. In many cases, it was difficult to assess whether these attacks were directed or inspired by ISIL or AQ and its affiliates. These attacks may presage a new area in which centralized leadership of a terrorist organization matters less, group identity is more fluid, and violent extremist narratives focus on a wider range of alleged grievances and enemies.
Enhanced border security measures among Western states since 9/11 have increased the difficulty for known or suspected terrorists to travel internationally. Therefore, groups like AQ and ISIL encourage lone actors residing in the West to carry out attacks on their behalf.
ISIL and AQ affiliates, including al-Nusrah Front, continue to use kidnapping for ransom operations, profits from the sales of looted antiquities, and other criminal activities to raise funds for operational purposes. Much of ISIL’s funding, unlike the resources utilized by AQ and AQ-type organizations, do not come from external donations, but was internally gathered in Iraq and Syria. ISIL earned up to several million dollars per month through its various extortion networks, in criminal activity in the territory where it operated, including through oil smuggling. Some progress was made in 2014 in constraining ISIL’s ability to earn money from the sale of smuggled oil as a result of the anti-ISIL coalition airstrikes that were conducted on ISIL-operated oil refineries. But the oil trade was not fully eradicated.
ISIL and AQ were not the only serious threats that confronted the United States and its allies. Iran continued to sponsor terrorist groups around the world, principally through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, the IRGC-QF – Quds. These groups included Lebanese Hizballah, several Iraqi Shia militant groups, Hamas, and the Palestine-Islamic Jihad. Addressing this evolving set of terrorist threats and the need to undertake efforts that span the range from security to rule of law to efficacy of governance and pushing back on terrorist messaging in order to effectively combat the growth of these emerging violent extremist groups requires an expanded approach to our counterterrorism engagement."