By Tom Wilson
Claims about terrorism, even in the form of dry statistics, are always going to be contentious.
Much of trouble here almost inevitably comes down to definitions. Disagreements about what should be recorded as terrorism are unlikely to be settled any time soon. Not least because there is no internationally agreed upon definition. That said, we should still always seek to avoid having the facts and data about terrorism misrepresented or politicised.
The problem with a new Europol report on terrorist trends in Europe is that it lays itself open to exactly this kind of misrepresentation. According to Europol, the vast majority of terrorist incidents last year were not carried out by Islamists—as most people might expect—but rather by Separatist groups like those in Northern Ireland. If these newly released figures are to be believed, just 16 percent of completed, failed or foiled attacks in 2017 were committed by Jihadists. By contrast, Europol estimates that 67 percent of all incidents related to Separatist terrorism.
Findings like this will come as a surprise to many. Policy makers might also look at this data and the headlines about rising Separatist terrorism and wonder if they should prepare for a radical rethink on counter-terrorism.
There are a number of reasons why the Europol stats have ended up being as misleading as they are. It is noticeable for instance, that according to the report, in 2017 a third of all attacks or attempted attacks in Europe are supposed to have happened in Northern Ireland. Again, the problem really comes down to definition. In places like Northern Ireland, Corsica and Athens, numerous incidents of politically motivated vandalism and street violence can occur. Many databases will log these incidents as terrorism. Throw into the mix the kind of organised crime and factional infighting that has gone on within Separatist groups in Northern Ireland, and the stats for these places go through the roof.
A more accurate way of recording terrorism might be to instead focus on attacks where assailants attempt to cause direct and severe harm to people. As the Europol report itself acknowledges, Jihadist terrorism causes more deaths and injuries than any other type of terrorism. Recording terrorism in this way could provide a more telling picture about the greatest threats.
Not only would this help correct Europol’s distorted figures on Separatist and Islamist terrorism, it could do the same with regards to terrorism from the Far Left and the Far Right. It is widely acknowledged that terrorism from the Far Right is on the rise and poses a growing threat. Yet according to the latest figures from Europol, Far Right terrorism accounted for a mere 3% of the total, while the Far Left was responsible for 12%.
If Europol had instead focussed on casualty figures and attacks that caused injuries, they would have seen the reverse; that in Western countries in 2017, the Far Right was responsible for killing and injuring far more people than the Far Left. This would have provided a very different insight into the threats we actually face.
Given how contested an issue terrorism is, the data is always going to be subject to fierce debate. If we are to strengthen our hand in the fight against terrorism, it is essential that we have the right data. Unfortunately, the figures released by Europol this year risk being woefully misleading.
Tom Wilson is Research Fellow at the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at The Henry Jackson Society.