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Trajectories of terrorism: Attack patterns of foreign groups that have targeted the United States, 1970–2004

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Research Summary

Although researchers began to assemble open-source terrorism event databases in the late 1960s, until recently most of these databases excluded domestic attacks. This exclusion is particularly misleading for the United States because, although the United States is often perceived to be the central target of transnational terrorism, the domestic attacks of foreign groups targeting the United States are often ignored. We began this article with 53 foreign terrorist groups that have been identified by U.S. State Department and other government sources as posing a special threat to the United States. Using newly available data from the Global Terrorism Database composed of both domestic and transnational terrorist attacks, we examined 16,916 attacks attributed to these groups between 1970 and 2004. We found that just 3% of attacks by these designated anti-U.S. groups were actually directed at the United States. Moreover, 99% of attacks targeting the United States did not occur on U.S. soil but were aimed at U.S. targets in other countries (e.g., embassies or multilateral corporations). We also found that more than 90% of the non-U.S. attacks were domestic (i.e., nationals from one country attacking targets of the same nationality in the same country). We used group-based trajectory analysis to examine the different developmental trajectories of U.S. target and non-U.S. target terrorist strikes and concluded that four trajectories best capture attack patterns for both. These trajectories outline three terrorist waves—which occurred in the 1970s, 1980s, and the early 21st century—as well as a trajectory that does not exhibit wave-like characteristics but instead is characterized by irregular and infrequent attacks.

Policy Implications

Our results underscore the importance of proximity for terrorist targeting. Terrorists, like ordinary criminals, are likely to choose targets close to their operational base. However, when attacks occur further from the terrorists' home bases, they are more deadly. Approximately half of the terrorist organizations studied here exhibited wave-like boom and bust attack trajectories. Given that most attacks by groups identified as threats by the U.S. government are in fact aimed at non-U.S. domestic targets, the United States should pursue efforts to strengthen the capacity of local governments to combat terrorism and to communicate to them our understanding that groups that are anti-United States are also a threat to local governments. In framing counterterrorism policies, the United States should put threats into perspective by acknowledging that we are the exception and local governments are the rule. Terrorism is not just about us.
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Keywords: anti-U.S. attacks; global terrorism database; terrorism targets; terrorism trends; terrorism waves; terrorist groups; trajectory analysis

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland. 2: Assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University. 3: Senior fellow in the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute and a professor of political science (by courtesy) at Stanford University.

Publication date: 2009-08-01

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