In our study we focused on the following questions:
- Has jihadist terrorism gone up or down around the world since the invasion of Iraq?
- What has been the trend if terrorist incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan (the military fronts of the "war on terrorism") are excluded?
- Has terrorism explicitly directed at the United States and its allies also increased?
In order to zero in on The Iraq Effect, we focused on the rate of terrorist attacks in two time periods: September 12, 2001, to March 20, 2003 (the day of the Iraq invasion), and March 21, 2003, to September 30, 2006. Extending the data set before 9/11 would risk distorting the results, because the rate of attacks by jihadist groups jumped considerably after 9/11 as jihadist terrorists took inspiration from the events of that terrible day.
We first determined which terrorist organizations should be classified as jihadist. We included in this group Sunni extremist groups affiliated with or sympathetic to the ideology of Al Qaeda. We decided to exclude terrorist attacks by Palestinian groups, as they depend largely on factors particular to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Our study draws its data from the MIPT-RAND Terrorism database (available at terrorismknowledgebase.org), which is widely considered to be the best publicly available database on terrorism incidents. RAND defines a terrorist attack as an attack on a civilian entity designed to promote fear or alarm and further a particular political agenda. In our study we only included attacks that caused at least one fatality and were attributed by RAND to a known jihadist group. In some terrorist attacks, and this is especially the case in Iraq, RAND has not been able to attribute a particular attack to a known jihadist group. Therefore our study likely understates the extent of jihadist terrorism in Iraq and around the world.
Our study yields one resounding finding: The rate of terrorist attacks around the world by jihadist groups and the rate of fatalities in those attacks increased dramatically after the invasion of Iraq. Globally there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks (28.3 attacks per year before and 199.8 after) and a 237 percent rise in the average fatality rate (from 501 to 1,689 deaths per year). A large part of this rise occurred in Iraq, which accounts for fully half of the global total of jihadist terrorist attacks in the post-Iraq War period. But even excluding Iraq, the average yearly number of jihadist terrorist attacks and resulting fatalities still rose sharply around the world by 265 percent and 58 percent respectively.
And even when attacks in both Afghanistan and Iraq (the two countries that together account for 80 percent of attacks and 67 percent of deaths since the invasion of Iraq) are excluded, there has still been a significant rise in jihadist terrorism elsewhere--a 35 percent increase in the number of jihadist terrorist attacks outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, from 27.6 to 37 a year, with a 12 percent rise in fatalities from 496 to 554 per year.
Of course, just because jihadist terrorism has risen in the period after the invasion of Iraq, it does not follow that events in Iraq itself caused the change. For example, a rise in attacks in the Kashmir conflict and the Chechen separatist war against Russian forces may have nothing to do with the war in Iraq. But the most direct test of The Iraq Effect--whether the United States and its allies have suffered more jihadist terrorism after the invasion than before--shows that the rate of jihadist attacks on Western interests and citizens around the world (outside of Afghanistan and Iraq)has risen by a quarter, from 7.2 to 9 a year, while the yearly fatality rate in these attacks has increased by 4 percent from 191 to 198.
One of the few positive findings of our study is that only 18 American civilians (not counting civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan) have been killed by jihadist groups since the war in Iraq began. But that number is still significantly higher than the four American civilians who were killed in attacks attributed to jihadist groups in the period between 9/11 and the Iraq War. It was the capture and killing of much of Al Qaeda’s leadership after 9/11 and the breakup of its training camp facilities in Afghanistan--not the war in Iraq--that prevented Al Qaeda from successfully launching attacks on American targets on the scale it did in the years before 9/11.
Also undermining the argument that Al Qaeda and like-minded groups are being distracted from plotting against Western targets are the dangerous, anti-American plots that have arisen since the start of the Iraq War. Jihadist terrorists have attacked key American allies since the Iraq conflict began, mounting multiple bombings in London that killed 52 in July 2005, and attacks in Madrid in 2004 that killed 191. Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London bombers, stated in his videotaped suicide "will," "What have you witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq." There have been six jihadist attacks on the home soil of the United States’ NATO allies (including Turkey) in the period after the invasion of Iraq, whereas there were none in the 18 months following 9/11; and, of course, the plan uncovered in London in August 2006 to smuggle liquid explosives onto U.S. airliners, had it succeeded, would have killed thousands.
Al Qaeda has not let the Iraq War distract it from targeting the United States and her allies. In a January 19, 2006 audiotape, Osama bin Laden himself refuted President Bush’s argument that Iraq had distracted and diverted Al Qaeda: "The reality shows that that the war against America and its allies has not remained limited to Iraq, as he claims, but rather, that Iraq has become a source and attraction and recruitment of qualified people....As for the delay in similar [terrorist] operations in America, [the] operations are being prepared, and you will witness them, in your own land, as soon as preparations are complete."
Ayman al Zawahiri echoed bin Laden’s words in a March 4, 2006, videotape broadcast by Al Jazeera calling for jihadists to launch attacks on the home soil of Western countries: "[Muslims have to] inflict losses on the crusader West, especially to its economic infrastructure with strikes that would make it bleed for years. The strikes on New York, Washington, Madrid, and London are the best examples."