A recent terrorism survey (Global Terrorism Index) found that while ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was successful in carrying out more attacks in Western countries (from 18 deaths in 2014 versus 313 in 2015) the organization suffered major setbacks elsewhere, especially in Iraq. ISIL losses in Iraq and Syria have escalated in 2016. Overall the ISIL setbacks contributed to a 10 percent worldwide decline in terrorism related deaths to 29,376.
Some things have not changed. Five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria) continue to account for most of the terrorism related deaths in 2015 (72 percent), as has been the case since 2013. Four Islamic terrorist organizations (ISIL, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and the Taliban) account for nearly 70 percent of all terrorist deaths. Many of the lesser terror groups are also Islamic. In fact, of the top ten nations by terrorist activity (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, India, Somalia, Yemen, Philippines and Thailand) only India and the Philippines had a significant minority of terrorist deaths that were not carried out by Moslems. In those two countries the minority terrorists were leftist rebels who had not noticed the collapse of radical socialism in 1989.
Most of the terrorism related deaths in the West (the developed countries) during 2015 were in Turkey and France, both of which have long had problems with Islamic terrorism. Turkey, bordering Iraq and Syria, is a relatively easy target for Islamic terrorists to reach. ISIL has, for several years, increasingly urged (via the Internet and mass media) Moslems in the West to make “lone wolf” attacks that do not involve direct contract with ISIL. About half of the serious attempts to carry out attacks in the name of ISIL were done so by individuals or small groups who had no direct contact with ISIL. Most of these attacks failed or were very small scale and generated more media attention than actual deaths and property damage.
Historically outbreaks of Islamic terrorism fail and do so relatively quickly. The problem is that because such violence is encouraged by Islamic scripture, it keeps recurring and will continue to do so until there is a fundamental cultural shift in the Moslem world. Efforts to make that happen in the last thousand years have been few and futile so far. On the plus side there have been some serious efforts, since the 1990s, to achieve such reforms. So far it’s been mostly talk, often sponsored by the Saudis. It’s not much but it is progress.
One of the things the Saudis, and most other Moslems, would like to change is the fact the most (often over 90 percent, depending on how it is counted) of terrorist acts since the 1990s are committed by Moslems. That phenomenon puts the spotlight on another problem. If you are trying to measure the impact of Islamic terrorism you need some agreement on exactly what constitutes a “terrorism related” death and which terrorism related deaths can be counted as connected with Islamic radicalism. This has produced many critics of such rankings, mainly because legal (government approved or carried out) terrorism is not counted. That has always been a problem, but more of a political than a statistical one. The commonly (but not universally) accepted definition of state sponsored terrorism is “bad government”. A fancy term for the horrors such bad government produces is “democide”. The 20th century was something of a peak period for democide. Soldiers and police killed over 200 million civilians in the 20th century. For every soldier killed in combat, more than two unarmed civilians were slaughtered in what has been, so far, the bloodiest century in human history. But it gets worse. Three quarters of those dead civilians were killed outside of a combat zone, and most were killed by their own government. That's simply democide.
The problem with Islamic terrorism is that while it is widespread and killing hundreds of thousands of people it is not the responsibility of any one nation. It is all about a religion that has, for over a thousand years, urged its followers to make war on people who not accept (“submit”, which is what “Islam” literally means) Islam. Actually it is worse than that because even within Islam millions have died because of disputes about which form (there are dozens of them) of Islam is the one correct approach. While Saudi Arabia has always opposed Islamic terrorism they are, because of their support of a very conservative form of Islam (Wahhabism) the source of a disproportionate number of recruits for al Qaeda and ISIL.
Meanwhile democide is bigger than ever. While not really a new development democide was never as big as it was in the 20th century. The major offenders have been; USSR (61 million killed), Communist Chinese (38 million), Nazi Germany (20 million), Nationalist Chinese (10 million), Imperial Japan (six million), Cambodian communists (two million), Ottoman Turks (1.8 million), Vietnam (1.6), Polish communists (1.5 million), Pakistan (1.5 million), Yugoslav communists (one million.) There are a number of surprises on this list. For one thing, Islamic terrorism doesn’t show up, even though it there as a major component of the deaths attributed to Pakistan and the Ottoman Turks.
Overall most people think the Nazis were the worst offenders when it came to democide but they are really only number three. That's because the communists managed to hide their mass murders for most of the century, aided by the tendency of the free world media to believe a lot of the propaganda regarding the "Worker's Paradise". Even before the Cold War ended, there was a growing pile of evidence that something very bad was happening behind the Iron Curtain. During the 1990s, scholars were able to investigate the communist democides more thoroughly because of access to source documents and witnesses and now we know. Some of the smaller offenders on the list are hardly noticed at all, but this is because after World War II most people were sick and tired of war and the massive deaths that accompanied it. But in Eastern Europe, revenge was in the air. While a lot of fascists got killed, so did a lot of innocents. Even being suspected of anti-communist tendencies could get you killed back then.
Democides continue and now they get a lot more attention, especially when they involve religion. Figuring out how to stop them is another matter. But when the media jumps on a tragic situation like this, they often zap a few innocent bystanders as well. A good example was the news stories in the late 1990s about the killing of South Korean civilians by U.S. soldiers in 1950 near No Gun Ri. This incident, and many similar ones, have long been common knowledge to U.S. soldiers who served during the Korean War or later. It was a not uncommon practice for North Korean troops to wear civilian clothes and mix in with fleeing South Korean refugees in order to get behind US troops. This tactic was learned by the 100,000 North Koreans who had served with the Chinese Communist army during the Chinese civil war, and then transferred to the new North Korean army in the late 1940s. The Chinese Communists openly preached the use of guerilla war tactics during their war with Japanese and Chinese Nationalist forces from the 1920s to 1949. As a result, civilians were often fired on if they approached troops who feared (often from past experience) that there were armed enemy soldiers mixed in with the civilians. Americans learned of this tactic the hard way in the Summer of 1950, as they retreated before the advancing North Koreans. A similar tactic was used against UN peacekeepers in Somalia in the early 1990s. In one incident, 24 Pakistanis soldiers were killed because hostile gunmen hid behind women and children. The same tactic was seen by U.S. troops in the 1993 Mogadishu shoot-out that killed 18 US rangers. In that fight, U.S. troops quickly learned to either shoot at the civilians the gunmen were hiding behind, or get shot themselves. Some two million Korean civilians were killed during the 1950-53 Korean War and the deliberate abuse of civilians by non-government groups (especially Islamic terrorists) became a major source of death and destruction early in the 21st century.
The Geneva Conventions do not prohibit the killing of civilians, recognizing that there is often what is termed "military necessity." If this were not the case, every nation involved in World War II would be liable for shelling or bombing civilians. There are cases where civilians are killed for no military reason, and these can be, and sometimes are, prosecuted.
It has long been U.S. Army policy to not publicize incidents like this, or things like the high friendly fire rate among American troops (estimated to be as high as 20 percent of friendly casualties in some 20th century battles.) It's bad for morale. The troops don't like dwelling on the fact that in battle their own weapons sometimes kill friendly troops, or innocent civilians. The commander on the spot is in a no-win situation. If he does not order using fire to keep civilians (and enemy infiltrators) away from your troops, then he has to suffer losses to his own troops when the enemy infiltrators get behind friendly lines and begin ambushing American troops. This use of civilians, illegal according to the “laws of war” was promoted by political and religious zealots throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Another favorite bad habit of zealots is deliberate terrorizing of civilians. Actually, this is a common characteristic of corrupt countries, where the primary thieves (whether in government or not) use terror to avoid prosecution or united action by very angry citizens. This is another grey area when counting terrorist acts. Even when dealing with leftist or Islamic terrorists there is often overlap between terror attacks done for “the cause” and those concerned mainly with raising cash to keep the terror organization (even bad guys got bills).