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Fact Check: Most Terrorism Victims are in Muslim Majority Countries

By far the vast majority of victims of terrorist attacks over the past 15 years has been Muslims killed by Muslims

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Long before there was an Islamic State, Muslim jihadists grappled with a nagging conundrum: how to build authentically Islamic states.

While some advocated toppling the near enemy – the so-called atheist regimes and their collaborators — others pushed for striking the far enemy — Western enablers, the United States in particular.

In the 1990s, al-Qaida put the debate to rest by taking the fight to the far enemy, a strategy that culminated in the attacks of September 11, 2001.

As al-Qaida has diminished in power in recent years, though, and given birth to myriad offspring and permutations with often local agendas, including the so-called Islamic State, the near enemy has borne the brunt of the terrorist violence.

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By far the vast majority of victims of terrorist attacks over the past 15 years has been Muslims killed by Muslims. In the latest instance, an Islamic State suicide bomber struck a Kurdish wedding in southeastern Turkey on Saturday, killing more than 50 people.

“I understand why the media cover terrorism in the West so closely, and I understand why people who follow these events become so frightened, but objectively speaking the threat of terrorism is not very great,” said Richard Bulliet, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University.

In this image taken from a video filmed by the Abu Sayyaf Group and released by the Islamic State extremist group, militants swear allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a ceremony in Basilan, Sulu Archipelago, Philippines. Photo Courtesy: International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore
In this image taken from a video filmed by the Abu Sayyaf Group and released by the Islamic State extremist group, militants swear allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a ceremony in Basilan, Sulu Archipelago, Philippines. Photo Courtesy: International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore

Of 167,221 terrorism-related fatalities reported from 2001 to 2015, almost all — 163,532 or 98 percent — occurred outside the United States and Western Europe, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. The U.S. government-funded GTD is the world’s largest public database on terrorist attacks.

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The database does not sort victims by religious affiliation. But GTD data on 25 Muslim-majority countries from Iraq to Malaysia reveal that these countries account for 75 percent of all fatalities from terrorist attacks from that period. The United States and Western Europe, with a combined 3,689 fatalities — including 2,977 from the attacks of September 11, 2001 — account for just 2.2 percent of terrorism-related deaths during the period.

Not all victims of terrorism in Muslim-majority countries are Muslims. In fact, the fatalities have included Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities just as there have been many non-Christians among casualties of terrorism in the U.S. and Western Europe. But it is safe to assume that the majority of victims in Muslim countries are Muslims, according to Michael Jensen, GTD data collection manager.

Driven by more than religion

The GTD data vary wildly from country to country. While Iraq accounts for more than 50,000 fatalities, Malaysia shows only six deaths for the past 15 years.

In many cases, the motive never becomes clear but the discrepancy in terrorism-related fatalities among Muslim countries suggests that “it’s not just religion driving it,” Jensen said. “It has to be something else.”

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Researchers at the Institute for Economics and Peace have combed the GTD data for patterns and identified two features common to countries where terrorism thrives. According to their research, 92 percent of all terrorist attacks in the past 25 years have occurred in countries with widespread state-sponsored political violence, while 88 percent of attacks have occurred in places with violent conflicts.

“The link between these two factors and terrorism is so strong that less than 0.6 percent of all terrorist attacks have occurred in countries without any ongoing conflict and any form of political terror,” the researchers write in the 2015 Global Terrorism Index Report.

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In most Muslim-majority countries with a significant level of terrorist activity, one or both of these features are present. Iraq may be the most extreme example of a country with a long history of state-sponsored violence and conflict over political authority. At the other end of the spectrum is Egypt, where authoritarian regimes have long sanctioned violence against political opponents.

Categories of targets

Historically, terrorism travels in waves. In the 1960s and 1970s, with wars raging in Vietnam and Algeria and a conflict in Northern Ireland, the epicentre of terrorism was Western Europe and to a lesser extent, the U.S.

In the 1980s, the focal point shifted to Latin America where insurgencies in Peru, El Salvador, and Colombia spawned a wave of terrorism in the region. Since the 1990s, the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa have served as the hotbed of global terrorism, as jihadists, emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, have sought to bring down regional governments.

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GTD’s Jensen said that in Muslim-majority countries, as in most other countries with a history of terrorism, militants often strike three categories of targets: Private citizens and property represent the largest target of terrorist attacks, followed by security forces, and government and diplomatic officials and institutions.

In Afghanistan, “you have a classic example of a progressive expansion of the categories of targets so that you see not only the Taliban but also other groups … progressively have begun to target individuals that they feel are associated with the government,” said Candace Rondeaux, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

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The victims include teachers and bus drivers “so it’s become a much more expansive category in a lot of cases and you see that replicated in other parts of South Asia, in parts of North Africa and in the Horn of Africa,” Rondeaux said.

The violence has involved Islamic State militants killing Kurds in Turkey, Sunni suicide bombers targeting Shiite mosques in Pakistan, Shiite extremists assassinating Sunni religious figures, Taliban bombs killing civilians in Afghanistan, Islamic State suicide bombers blow up Shiite shrines and massacring members of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, and Boko Haram militants killing peaceful Muslim worshipers and restaurant guests in Nigeria.

“I think in a majority of cases where Muslims are victims of terrorism, they’re largely targeted not because they’re Muslim but because they’re police officers or soldiers or happen to be in a public place,” said Jensen.

Political motivations

Nevertheless, he said Sunni-Shiite sectarianism “is a big part of it.” Proportionally, Shiites, who make up about 10% of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, are killed in increasingly large numbers as Sunni extremists from Iraq to Pakistan target members of a minority sect they view as heretical, according to Bulliet.

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While not all Shiite groups have been targeted by Sunni militants, ‘’it is striking how often in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, you have terrorist outrages that really focused on Shiites,” Bulliet said.

Terrorism. Image source: io9.gizmodo.com
Terrorism. Image source: io9.gizmodo.com

At its core, the violence is part of a broader struggle over power in predominantly Sunni societies where questions over political and religious authority as well as the relationship between religion and modernity longer unsettled decades after European colonial rule and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. With Sunnism collapsing as a unifying state institution, Islamists have turned to religion to combat authoritarian regimes, Bulliet said.

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“Sunni Islam… is falling apart drastically, and I think this is the source of a great deal of the violence,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s the problem: If you have an entrenched state, can you get rid of it without violence? If you don’t believe that’s a possibility, then violence becomes the alternative option.” (VOA)

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Rohingyas Repatriation to Myanmar Scrapped by Bangladesh

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months.

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An elderly Rohingya refugee holds a placard during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh.VOA

Bangladesh’s plans to begin repatriating Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar Thursday were scrapped because officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return to the country that has been accused of driving out hundreds of thousands in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The refugees “are not willing to go back now,” Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam told The Associated Press. He said officials “can’t force them to go” but will continue to try to “motivate them so it happens.”

Some people on the government’s repatriation list disappeared into the sprawling refugee camps to avoid being sent home, while others joined a large demonstration against the plan.

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Workers build a Rohingya repatriation center in Gunndum near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. VOA

UN urged a halt to repatriation

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state since August 2017 to escape killings and destruction of their villages by the military and Buddhist vigilantes that have drawn widespread condemnation of Myanmar.

The United Nations, whose human rights officials had urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation process even as its refugee agency workers helped to facilitate it, welcomed Thursday’s development.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Cox’s Bazar, said it was unclear when the process might begin again.

“We want their repatriation, but it has to be voluntary, safe and smooth,” he said.

Bangladesh officials declined to say whether another attempt at repatriation would be made Friday.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali told reporters in Dhaka late Thursday that “there is no question of forcible repatriation. We gave them shelter, so why should we send them back forcibly?”

Rohingya, myanmar
Rohingya refugee children shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Pleading with Rohingya

At the Unchiprang refugee camp, a Bangladeshi refugee official implored the Rohingya on Thursday to return to their country over a loudspeaker.

“We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we’ll take you to the border, to the transit camp,” he said.

“We won’t go!” hundreds of voices, including children’s, chanted in reply.

Some refugees on the repatriation lists, which authorities say were drawn up with assistance from the UNHCR, said they don’t want to go back.

‘I don’t want to go back’

At the Jamtoli refugee camp, one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox’s Bazar, 25-year-old Setara said she and her two children, age 4 and 7, were on a repatriation list, but her parents were not. She said she had never asked to return to Myanmar, and that she had sent her children to a school run by aid workers Thursday morning as usual.

“They killed my husband; now I live here with my parents,” said Setara, who only gave one name. “I don’t want to go back.”

She said that other refugees on the repatriation list had fled to other camps, hoping to disappear amid the crowded lanes of refugees, aid workers and Bangladeshi soldiers, which on Thursday were bustling with commerce and other activity.

Rohingya, Myanmar
Rohingya refugees shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Plan to return 150 a day

Bangladesh had planned to send an initial group of 2,251 back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.

Myanmar officials, speaking late Thursday in the capital, Naypyitaw, said they were ready to receive the refugees. Despite those assurances, human rights activists said conditions were not yet safe for the Rohingya to go back.

The exodus began after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts. The scale, organization and ferocity of the crackdown led the U.N. and several governments to accuse Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, viewing them as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

Rohingya, Myanmar
Rohingya refugees cross floodwaters at Thangkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. VOA

Refugee camps bleak

The refugees survived the ransacking of villages, rapes and killings in Myanmar, but for many, life in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps has been bleak.

The refugees who’ve arrived in the last year joined a wave of 250,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped forced labor, religious persecution and violent attacks from Buddhist mobs in Myanmar during the early 1990s.

Access to education and employment has been far from assured.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who hopes to retain power in December elections, has repeatedly complained that hosting more than a million Rohingya is taxing local resources.

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months, but plans last January to begin sending refugees back were called off amid concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that their return would be met with violence.

Foreign leaders, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, criticized Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week on the sidelines of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Also Read: Rohingya Muslims Remain Fearful Due To Forceful Repatriation

But on Thursday, Pence said that U.S. officials were “encouraged to hear that” the repatriation process would begin.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would continue working with international partners including the U.N. “to ensure that the Rohingya themselves are part of any decisions on their future.” (VOA)