Costly Delusions

Last Friday’s failed ‘bucket bomb’ has produced yet more one-eyed coverage of Islamic terrorism and roiled the cauldron of social media. Islam, the crazed 7th Century death cult bent on universal domination,™ has struck again. Now, I carry no more brief for the fairy tales of Mohammed than I do for those of the followers of the Carpenter of Nazareth. Nevertheless, I don’t accept the general charge that Islam is a religion evil above all others. Nor, despite my own atheism, can I join wholeheartedly in the savaging of Islam by ministers of the ‘new atheism’ – such as Sam Harris – who appear to have given up worshipping every god save the Holy American Empire. I also reject the widespread charge, expressed by David Cameron a few years ago, that ‘Isis is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.’[1] Certainly, I repudiate the accusation that Islam by itself is a sufficient condition to give rise to terrorism.

Simple arithmetic ought to be enough to illustrate the point. The Global Terrorism Database compiled by the  National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) offers itself as the most comprehensive non-classified database of terrorist attacks in the world. It holds details of approximately 170,000 terrorist attacks carried out globally between 1970 and 2016 by all affiliations and creeds (excluding states but that’s a different discussion). During the same period the global Muslim population increased from approximately 700 million to 1.8 billion.[2] I don’t have the demographic skills or inclination to estimate how many unique Muslims have been alive for each year of that period but to round to 1bn seems a reasonable approximation. Let’s assume – wrongly – that each one of those 170,000 terrorist attacks was carried out by a different Muslim, so there have been at 170,000 Muslim terrorists. Dividing those fictional 170,000 Muslim terrorists into our one billion Muslims would mean they comprised just 0.00017% of all Muslims. Put another way, about one in every 5883 Muslims would have committed a terrorist attack. Of course, this calculation wildly exaggerates the number of Islamic terrorists in the world but, even after so doing, the idea that Islam itself causes terrorism is revealed as absurd. If Islam causes terrorism why hasn’t  it turned the other 999,830,000 Muslims into terrorists as well?

Deaths by terrorism in Europe

According to Europol, there were 142 failed, foiled, or completed terror attacks reported in the EU 2016 (in six states). This was down from 211 in 2015 and 226 in 2014. Of those 142 attacks in 2016 99 were carried out by ethno-nationalist and separatist groups. Left-wing extremists carried out 27 attacks, there was one right-wing attack, and two could not be attributed. This means that just 13 were carried out by jihadists (six of which were attributed to Islamic State).[3] These 13 attacks were also the only attacks with a religious motive -90% were secular. It is true that Islamist attacks caused most of the casualties that year but it is still the case that less than 10% of terrorist attacks in the EU in 2016 were carried out by Islamists. This assessment also generalises for previous years – the majority of terrorist attacks have been carried out by ethno-nationalist groups and not by adherents of any religion.[4] On these figures, Islam – and religion generally – are a very poor predictor of terrorism. Perhaps a better predictor of Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe can be deduced from the graph above.

Deaths from terrorism in the US

The most recent whole year figure for terrorist attacks in the US is for 2015 and is calculated by START.[5] There were 61 attacks in the US during that year of which nine (or just under 15%) were committed by Islamic extremists. Another study in 2016 looked at 201 terrorist incidents recorded since 2008, finding that while 63 incidents involved perpetrators ‘espousing a theocratic ideology’ 115 incidents were down to right-wing extremists. In other words, right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many terrorist incidents as were associated with Islamists. The Islamists caused 90 deaths while the right-wing extremists killed 79.[6]

To put these deaths in perspective, in 2015 91 Americans died in accidents involving lawnmowers.[7]  In the same year 44,193 killed themselves.[8] Between 2005 and 2015 the number of Americans killed by gun violence was 301,797.[9] Excluding disease, it is Americans who constitute by far the greatest threat to Americans.

There are, of course, hotspots elsewhere in the globe where nearly every terrorist attack is carried out by a Muslim. Perhaps not coincidentally, these often are places like Afghanistan and Iraq – made warzones by the US and UK – where they are fighting occupation.

Well, all suicide bombers are Muslims, aren’t they?

Again, no. In fact, between 1980 and 2004, the world leader in suicide attacks was the Tamil Tigers, a secular Hindu group. Moreover, at least a third of the suicide attacks in predominantly Muslim countries were carried out by secular groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey.[10] The leading authorities in this field, Robert Pape and James K Feldman, studied every one of the 2178 reported suicide attack between 1980 and 2009. They find that,

“Islamic fundamentalism cannot account for the steep upward trajectory of the annual rates of suicide terrorism— from an average of three attacks per year in the 1980s to over 500 in 2007—since it is implausible… that the number of Islamic fundamentalists around the globe rose by a similar astronomical rate (over 16,000%). Further, the geographic concentration also casts doubt on the causal force of Islamic fundamentalism. If religious fanaticism or any ideology was driving the threat, we would expect a spread of more or less proportionately scattered attacks around the globe or, in the case of Islamic fundamentalism, at least spread randomly across the 1.4 billion Muslims who live in nearly every country in the world. However, we are observing nearly the opposite of random, scattered attacks that would fit the pattern of a “global jihad,” but instead tightly focused campaigns of suicide terrorism that are limited in space and time and so would appear related to specific circumstances.”[11]

Pape and Feldman also note that Islam cannot explain why important suicide terrorist campaigns in recent years have ended. For example, since Israeli combat forces left Lebanon in 2000 there had not been a single Lebanese suicide terrorist attack by the time Pape and Feldman published in 2010; not evening during Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006. Yet Hezbollah remained an Islamic fundamentalist group throughout that decade.[12] The bottom line, as they put it, is that it is military occupation, not Islam, that drives suicide bombing.

Well, even if Muslims aren’t all terrorists, they certainly all support terrorists, don’t they?


Some of the most detailed and reliable work on opinion polling is done by the US-based Pew Research Centre. They found in 2013 that ‘Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam.’ Roughly 75% of Muslims reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians. And in most countries the prevailing view is that such acts are never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies.[13]

In the US, a 2011 survey found that 86% of Muslims say such tactics are rarely or never justified. An additional 7% say suicide bombings are sometimes justified and just 1% say they are often justified.[14] A 2009 study by the Network of public opinion in predominantly Muslim countries reported that ‘very large majorities continue to renounce the use of attacks on civilians as a means of pursuing political goals’. This was despite respondents supporting the goal of groups like al Qaeda to expel US forces from all Muslim countries and approving of attacks on US troops in Muslim countries.[15] Of course, there are Muslims with reprehensible views and there is stronger support in some countries for terrorism including against civilians (40% in Palestine and 39% in Afghanistan according to the Pew study) but several Muslim nations have been under western attack for decades. A hardening of attitudes should be expected. What matters is that being of the Islamic faith is not, by itself, a reliable predictor of attitudes to – or participation in – terrorist acts. So long as we continue to delude ourselves as to the complexity of the reasons behind terrorism, we are throwing more bodies on the pyre.




[1] David Cameron  “Threat level from international terrorism raised: PM press statement,” 29th August 2014, available at

[2] To derive this figure, I have taken two estimates from H. Kettani, “World Muslim Population: 1950 – 2020,” International Journal of Environmental Science and Development (IJESD), Vol. 1, No. 2, June 2010 (;jsessionid=300C9E31537245BA23E3D381C6B7C642?doi= )and

[3] Europol “EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2017”, pp. 11 & 49. The report notes that completely accurate figures are difficult to establish as the UK does not provide disaggregated data.

[4] Europol “TE-SAT 2014: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report,” available at

[5] American Deaths in Terrorist Attacks, 2016

[6] Mythili Sampathkumar “Majority of terrorists who have attacked America are not Muslim, new study finds,” Independent 23rd June 2017, available at

[7]  Deaths in 2015 with ICD10 code W28 (Contact with powered lawnmower). Data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2015 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released December, 2016. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2015, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at

[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[9] Linda Qiu “Fact-checking a comparison of gun deaths and terrorism deaths,” 5th October 2015, available at

[10] Robert A. Pape, James K. Feldman (2010) “Cutting the Fuse, The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It,” p. 20. See also Pape’s 2004 study, “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”

[11] Ibid. pp. 38-39.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Pew Research Centre “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society,” 30th April 2013, available at

[14] Ibid. “Appendix A: U.S. Muslims — Views on Religion and Society in a Global Context,” available at

[15] “Muslim Publics Oppose Al Qaeda’s Terrorism, But Agree With Its Goal of Driving US Forces Out,” 24th February 2009, available from  Two polls conducted in 2006 by Pew and Terror Free Tomorrow reported that ‘Strong opposition to terrorism was found among Muslims in seven out of ten countries polled by Pew. This is especially true in the Muslim populations of Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey, where six in ten or more say that “suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets” are “never justified.” The TFT poll of Indonesia and Pakistan found even bigger numbers rejecting all attacks on civilians. Pew also found complete rejection of terrorism among very large majorities of Muslims living in Germany, Britain, Spain and France. Trend line data available for some countries also show a significant increase in those taking this position in Indonesia and a remarkable 23 point increase in Pakistan. Only Turkey showed a slight downward movement.’ ( “Large and Growing Numbers of Muslims Reject Terrorism, Bin Laden,” 30th June 2006, available at )


4 thoughts on “Costly Delusions

  1. Send this the article to the parents that lost their children at Manchester, sure this will cheer them up, or Barcelona, they will probably smile and say this chap knows his onions, why should we be sad as he’s got stats,


    • I’m not sure what criticism you’re making Arnold. Isn’t the first step to eliminating terrorism to understand it? Are those victims of terror served by not doing so?


    • Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya have been under periodic US attack for decades (since the 50s in the case of Iran). The Palestinian territories have been under attack from the US’s regional proxy since the 70s.


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