Report on Annual Suicide Attack Index

Thu., May. 14, 2015    |    Chinese Social Sciences Today; Translated by Li Chen, Graduate Research Associate

Xiaoxi Zhang, Chinese Social Sciences Today,

Link to the 2014 Index

Translated from the original Chinese by Li Chen, Graduate Research Associate, Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. 

Combating terrorism is an ongoing task for the international community. With the development of Internet and technology, the international community should take full advantage of the technological advancement to come up with new ideas and initiatives to further safeguard the security and stability of the international community. Recently, the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) created the world's first annual report on suicide terrorist attack "2014 Suicide Attack Index.” It aims at providing relevant information for governments and researchers to better formulate and implement counter-terrorism policies.

Terrorist attacks distribution shows regional concentration

The report shows that during 2014 more than 4,300 people in 15 countries were killed in suicide attacks. There are 504 verified attacks in total in 2014, compared to 2013, an increase of 18%. Among those countries, Iraq experienced the most attacks, accounting for 39% of the total attacks. Together with Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia, these 7 countries account for 95% of suicide attacks in the world. The distribution of global suicide bombings shows regional concentration. The most attacks occurred in the Middle East, West Asia and North Africa. The most common target type of suicide terrorism is the armed forces, accounting for 68% of the total attacks. 21% of the targets are civilians.

Our journalist interviewed CPOST’s research director Keven Ruby for more information about the report. In terms of the significance of the report, Dr. Ruby told us Afghanistan can serve as an example. From the data, we can see clearly that the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan has remained relatively constant for several years. This can serve as a reminder for U.S. foreign policy. Because the United States wants to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan, but there are no signs from the data that the campaign by the Afghan Taliban is letting up. Also, if you are just following the news on a daily basis, one might have the idea that the entire world has suddenly been engulfed in terrorism. However, from the report we can see that in fact suicide attacks are most likely to happen only in some specific regions.

Social network helps verifying information

CPOST was founded in 2004 by Dr. Robert Pape, a leading International Relations theorist and professor of political science at the University of Chicago. After 9/11 in 2001, Dr. Pape realized the importance of studying suicide attacks and began collecting data to better understand why terrorism organizations were increasingly using suicide attacks, to devastating effect. He argues suicide terrorism was conducted for strategic purposes, rather than out of passion. Because at the time there was no database of suicide attacks, the absence of data made it difficult to understand why suicide terrorism was on the rise, let alone predict when and where such attacks would take place. Dr. Pape therefore had this idea of creating a dataset of suicide terrorism and setting a standard for reporting such information. When Dr. Pape published the universe of suicide attacks from 1982 to 2001 as an appendix to his 2003 article in the American Political Science Review on the strategic logic of suicide terrorism, it was the first dataset of its kind.

According to Dr. Ruby, the database now contains the universe of suicide attacks in 40 countries from 1982 to February 2015.  Each attack includes data on the target, the group responsible, and biographic data on the bombers who carried it out. Since 2008, all the contents have been available online and for free to the global community through CPOST’s website. CPOST has a data collecting team with around 10 people and 3 data managers. All the data collecting researchers and analysts are students from the University of Chicago, each researcher has a different region of the world to track, seeking information on whom the terrorists were attacking, how many people were killed, and where the attack was taking place. Data collection begins two weeks after the end of the target month. The entire process -- from collection to verification -- takes about a month. Data managers are advanced undergraduates with at least two-year extensive experience at CPOST, they are in charge of coordinating data collecting and review each attack.

Dr. Ruby says the accuracy and reliability of the information sources are extremely important. Therefore, CPOST requires at least two independent sources for an attack to be included in the database. They usually rely on the famous database LexisNexis to collect information around the world. They also use local news sources, even terrorist group media and publications, as well as information from specific websites that are not yet available to the international media. The recent development of social media also helps researchers collect information and identify bombers.

Updating and maintaining the database are the key

Pape and his CPOST team hope the information from the suicide attack index and report will be helpful to policy makers, academic researchers and journalists to put the data into context. Dr. Pape emphasized that they are doing this to save lives. They hope to provide the accurate and high-quality data to develop better policies to save lives and to mitigate harm against bystander populations.

In terms of the key challenges in running the project, Dr. Ruby says that updating and maintaining the Suicide Attack Database can be challenging, especially in a time when the number of suicide attacks are rapidly increasing while access by reporters to the areas where suicide attacks are taking place becomes increasingly restricted. In 2014, ISIL rapidly expanded its control of territory in Iraq and Syria. According to the report from Iraqi government in early 2015, more than 15,000 people died in terrorist attacks and armed conflicts last year. This is the highest number in the past 7 years and a huge increase compared to 2013. Dr. Ruby says, “Our goal is to have the most complete and highest-quality and reliable data.” In order to satisfy the requirement of “two independent sources,” those cases with only a single source cannot be verified in the database. Therefore, CPOST periodically revisits possible cases to see if, with time, new information has become available.