National Security & Defense

Are All Terrorists Muslims?

French soldiers stand guard at the Eiffel Tower in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack. (Getty Images)
Obviously not, but there’s a reason we don’t worry about Basque separatists.

Deigning to condescend to Fox News viewers, the Daily Beast’s Dean Obeidallah purports to have debunked the oft-repeated trope that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” “Overwhelmingly,” he writes, “those who have committed terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe aren’t Muslims. Let’s give that a moment to sink in.”

The argument comes in two parts: first, the statistical evidence that only a tiny minority of terror attacks carried out in Europe and the United States are committed by Islamists; second, a listing of the variety of terrorists who do not garner media coverage because they are not sufficiently, in Obeidallah’s words, “brown” and “scary.”

As Obeidallah writes, according to the European Union Police Office, or Europol, the percentage of terror attacks motivated by religious extremism within the EU over the last five years is very small, somewhere south of 2 percent]; and the number in the United States is only slightly larger.

However, to look at the West in isolation is misleading. The most comprehensive listing of terrorist attacks is the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), managed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. According to the GTD, the ten countries with the most terrorist attacks in 2013 were, in descending order, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and Egypt. In 2012, Turkey held the No. 10 spot instead of Egypt. In 2011, Turkey didn’t make the list, while Russia did. Otherwise, the list, except for some shuffling in the rankings, has had the same composition for the last three years — that is, 70 percent majority-Muslim countries.

Moreover, even some of the minority-Muslim countries on the list are prone to Islamist terrorism. India has been no stranger to high-profile attacks; bombs tore through Mumbai in 2003 (44 killed), 2006 (209 killed), and 2008 (164 killed). And much of the terrorism in Russia stems from jihadist groups in the Chechen region: Islamists were responsible for, among much else, such horrors as the 2004 Beslan school massacre (385 dead, including 186 children) and the 2011 Domodedovo International Airport bombing.

Granted, it can be difficult to separate political from religious motives. Islamists in Chechnya are animated both by religious fanaticism and by separatism; which came first? And in Iraq, as elsewhere, ethnic and religious differences mutually reinforce one another. But the fact remains that, as one can see at a glance from GTD’s WebGL Globe, which visualizes the global distribution of incidents of terrorism, attacks in the last few years tend to cluster in majority-Muslim countries — where the victims are, more often than not, “brown,” too.

But why should frequent terror attacks in Pakistan and Somalia concern Westerners — who, it is true, are extraordinarily unlikely to be victims of a terrorist attack? That is where the second part of Obeidallah’s argument fails. It may, indeed, be the case that the majority of terrorist attacks that occur in Europe are the work of separatist and anarchist groups. But if the average American has not heard of the National Liberation Front of Corsica, which wants an independent state for the French island of Corsica, or the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), which agitates for Basque independence, it is not because of a media conspiracy or their own ideological blinders; it is because these organizations’ grievances and tactics are strictly local. Americans — or Belgians, or Dutchmen, or Poles, or, for that matter, most Frenchmen or Spaniards — need not fear these groups for the same reason that Americans did not fear terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s. The same is true of those Buddhist and Jewish terrorists Obeidallah mentions.

Islamic extremism is, of course, precisely the opposite kind of threat; it has robust international ambitions — as the rise of a brutal, conquest-oriented outfit calling itself “the Islamic State” attests. From Osama bin Laden to Anjem Choudary, the leaders of Islamic extremism have been clear that they are interested in much more than regional politics.

And their actions support their words. “Separatism,” of course, has no international constituency — separatists in the Pyrenees share little with separatists in Ireland. But Islamic extremism’s transpolitical motives facilitate the formation of wide-ranging networks in pursuit of common aims. In that vein, START reports not only that each of the eight most lethal terrorist organizations in 2013 was Islamist, but that seven were al-Qaeda affiliated. It is no coincidence that the Charlie Hebdo gunmen took part in weapons training in Yemen, the headquarters of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Americans and Europeans are concerned about Islamic extremism because, unlike Basque separatists, its adherents are eager to export their wares.

As Westerners know. Thus when Obeidallah argues, straight-faced, that “in 2013, it was actually more likely Americans would be killed by a toddler [five deaths, by accidental shooting] than a terrorist [three, in the Boston Marathon bombing],” any thoughtful reader recognizes that that was a matter of the Tsarnaev brothers’ fortunate incompetence, not intent. The reality of Islamist terrorism is more than the mere numbers reveal.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

[Editor’s Note: This piece incorrectly identified the group Resistência Galega​ as a Basque separatist group; it in fact advocates the independence of Galicia, in northwest Spain. The piece has since been corrected.]

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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