Terror attacks: some murky lessons
What can terrorism research tell us about vulnerability in the Middle East? The findings are not as predictable as you might think.
The Global Peace Index (GPI), published by the Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP), seeks to measure and document the relative position of nations’ and regions’ peacefulness. It is widely recognised that the relative peacefulness, which the GPI measures for 163 independent states and territories, roughly covers 99.7 per cent of the world’s population in terms of their peacefulness. The GPI has consistently documented an enviable record of peacefulness in New Zealand between 2008 and 2018.
The Christchurch mosque shootings on 15 March 2019 brutally shattered peace in New Zealand when a lone and foreign gunman perpetrated two consecutive terror attacks at two mosques in Christchurch and killed fifty people and injured fifty others. Before the grieving families of the victims of Christchurch shootings could wipe their tears off, retaliatory church attacks on the Easter Sunday rocked Sri Lanka and killed hundreds of churchgoers. The chain of terror attacks on innocent victims remains a constant and ominous theme of our modern civilisation.
Since 2012, IEP has also published the Global Terrorism Index (GTI), as an annual report to provide “a comprehensive summary of the key global trends and patterns in terrorism since 2000”. In order to arrive at an ordinal ranking of the impacts of terrorism on nations, the GTI generates a composite score and ranks countries in terms of the composite scores. Once again New Zealand has always been featured as one of the thirty countries that were least impacted by terrorism.
The picture changes drastically when we look at the Middle East and North Africa. According to the GTI, the Middle East and North Africa have bled from disproportionately large impacts from terror attacks. Terrorism is a global menace today and summarised in a senseless mass killing on behalf of violent religious, or other identity groups, only the targets or enemies are different, but their causes and consequences are remarkably similar. Every terror act – regardless of the identity or ideology of a terrorist – seeks to grab attention either to create, fuel and propel fear and hatred or catapult the grievances of an identity group to a wider community.
For a terrorist of any stripe, small is never beautiful – the larger the scale of his atrocities, the larger will be the histrionic effect of propaganda as a lot of people will be watching with sheer horror. Apparently, terrorism is a mass hysteria of psychopaths seeking to capture “headlines” without any concern for destroyed lives and grieving families. Global terrorism is just a collective race to the bottomless pit. Yet some striking features start emerging once we carefully study terror strikes in the Middle East and North Africa – a region severely rocked by terrorism.
In 2016, a research monograph of our continuing work was published, in which we devote our attention to understand the causes and consequences of terror attacks in the Middle East and North Africa. In the research monograph, one of our major contributions to the emerging literature on terrorism is to develop and apply an index of economic and social vulnerability to the terrorism research for understanding whether and how terrorism impacts on the vulnerability of a nation from the Middle East and North Africa during 1968-2009.
We find for all nations in the region of our study, that terror attacks and social and economic vulnerability of these nations are critically linked. As an example, we note that increases or decreases in economic and social vulnerability in Libya, Syria, Iran and Israel did increase or decrease terrorism in the entire region. In other words, there is a direct relationship between vulnerability and terrorism for these nations. However, the relationship reverses for Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon with an inverse relationship between vulnerability and terror attacks. Thus, vulnerability and terror attacks are a complex relationship that deserves further research.
An interesting discovery of ours is that terrorism does not have unequivocal impacts upon vulnerability of a nation as we find terrorism to lower vulnerability of some nations but to enhance resilience in others. There is clear evidence that regional terrorism has increased vulnerability in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Lebanon. Yet, there is evidence that terror attacks in the Middle East enhanced resilience for Israel and Libya between 1968 and 2009. An important global factor is the impact of global warming as we also note that global warming has unequivocally increased terrorism in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt and Lebanon. We find no such evidence for Iran. In a similar vein, the global oil market has its strong influence upon terrorism for the region: the larger the global demand for oil, the lower will be terror attacks. However, the oil price increase will boost terrorism. For Libya, Iraq and Lebanon the two effects are highly visible from data. For Israel and Egypt, the adverse effect of oil price increases on terrorism is only discernible.
An important ingredient in the analysis of terror attacks is counter-terrorism measures. We use arms imports as a proxy for counter-terrorism measures to detect the following observations from the region. We note that arms imports, as a counter-terrorism measure, have heterogeneous effects in the Middle East and North Africa between 1968 and 2009. Since arms imports, as a counter-terrorism measure, in Israel, Iraq and Lebanon are target-specific such imports are met with increased incidents of terror attacks. On the contrary, arms imports by Libya, Syria, Iran and Egypt helped their counterterrorism strategies to move away from target-specific projects, which can thereby trigger a decline in terrorism in these countries. As we examine the impact of arms import on the scale of regional terrorism, we see an interesting picture: we find arms imports by Libya, Syria and Iran have an effect to dampen regional terrorism, while such imports by Iraq and Lebanon have intensified terror attacks in the region.