The last few weeks have been a grim warning that every major new terrorist attack creates the risk of overreacting to the point of panic, and of turning panic into prejudice. The attacks in Paris have led political leaders into a massive rush to act – in some cases with only limited consideration of what actions were really required and whether the benefits were worth their costs.

The same has been true of the attacks in San Bernardino, with the added problem that the American partisan political extremism generated by an ongoing Presidential campaign has produced talk of “war” without any clear picture of what this really means.

Fear Feeds ISIS and Violent Islamist Extremism

Worse, some candidates have fed on the kind of prejudice against Muslims that can hand ISIS and other violent Islamist extremists precisely the kind of victory they are seeking. Candidates like Trump have fed the kind of fear that makes every Muslim a terrorist, alienates Muslims and key allies in the fight against terrorism, and encourages levels of fear and anger on both sides that create precisely the environment ISIS can feed upon for justification, money, and volunteers.

The best way to fight a shift from counterterrorism to religious bigotry is to carefully assess the real world level and nature of the threat, examine the measures we have already taken to improve counterterrorism in the United States and in our operations overseas, and strengthen the partnerships that already exist with both our traditional allies and Arab and largely Muslim governments that are the center of the fight against violent Islamist extremism.

The worst way is to let a combination of panic, prejudice, and partisanship push America into actions that actually serve ISIS and Al Qaeda, increase the risk of terrorist attacks, limit freedom, and waste scarce resources on actions with only marginal benefit.

We need American political leadership that is based on facts rather than fear, and self-centered opportunism. We need to address the real world causes and risks of terrorism, and to carefully examine the costs and risk-benefits of new efforts to block terrorist attacks.

We Are Already Spending Some $125 Billion a Year

It is worth noting in this context just how much the United States is already spending. If one ignores the cost of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other military activity overseas, OMB reports that the cost of all the various agency efforts in Homeland Defense reached $70.9 billion in FY2015, and the President’s request for FY2016 was $68.8 billion. The cost for the Department of Homeland Security alone made up $36 billion in FY2015, and the request was $37.3 billion.

There is no doubt that much – probably most – of this $70 billion a year in expenditure has played some role in reducing the threat of terrorism, has helped to prevent some attacks, or has played a productive role in other aspects of national security and law enforcement. However, if one spends even a few minutes scrolling down the OMB analysis of FY2015 and FY2016 expenditures, parts of this list are a warning that some current expenditures are dubious or little more than pork.

Moreover, any broader review of the budget justifications and reporting by the departments and agencies involved shows there are few – if any – public measures of effectiveness. There is no shortage of rhetoric, but what passes for data or facts is usually little more than empty PR spin.

If one does looks at the cost of fighting terrorism outside the United States, virtually all of the budget for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) seems to go to fighting violent Islamic extremism in the form of terrorism, insurgencies, related conflicts, or is related aid and humanitarian relief. There is, however, the same remarkable lack of detail on how this money is spent and the same lack of facts and justification that applies to Homeland Defense.

A study by the Congressional Research Service reports that the OCO request for the State Department was some $5.2 billion in FY2016, but that the Congress has taken action that may sharply increase this and related emergency funding may add more to the total.

The request for the Department of Defense – where costs are also rising – was for $50.9 billion. Both departments, however, have steadily reduced their detailed reporting on the war in Afghanistan, have never really addressed the role of Pakistan, and provide spin and empty or no data on the effectiveness of the fighting in Iraq and Syria.

If all of these costs are summed up to provide a rough total of the publicly available direct costs of the overall fight against terrorism, they add up to $124.9 billion a year. This figure, however, is as unreliable as all of the other data on terrorism. Many key costs – like the full costs of the related intelligence effort – are omitted. Other parts of this total  – like the total for OCO operations – seem to include expenditures that are not really related and included in the OCO account to avoid reporting increases in the Department’s Baseline Budget and minimizing any rise above the level set by the Budget Control Act.

There are good reasons for classifying some details, but there are no reasons for a broad, sweeping lack of accountability and effectiveness in reporting. There certainly are no reasons for layering new legislation and expenses over the existing effort without careful efforts to show that they will really add to the effectiveness of the existing efforts.

There are no good reasons for candidates to feed on fear for self-advantage. There are no good reasons for members of Congress – including those who claim to be so concerned with the effectiveness and levels of federal spending, and who are so consistently critical of the Administration – to fail to demand and legislate the requirement for comprehensive public reporting on accountability and effectiveness.

Honestly and Openly Assessing the Threat

Here, it is critical to understand that the flood of data on terrorism does not mean there is any clear understanding of the facts.
There is no doubt that the United States and its allies face a critical threat from terrorism, and one centered in part in a region that is a primary source of the world’s oil and gas exports and that is critical to the global economy as well as to fueling the countries that are key sources of U.S. imports and trade. No one can minimize the tragedy inherent in the attacks on innocent lives in Paris, San Bernardino, or that have become a dominant source of violent civilian deaths and injuries in many majority Muslim states.

But, declaring an undefined form of “war” on ISIS is a classic example of panic turning into political opportunism. First, ISIS is only one source of violent Islamist extremism, and the broader problem of terrorism and related insurgencies and efforts to seize control of states with largely Islamic populations is virtually certain to continue for decades after – and if – ISIS is destroyed.

The Problems in Finding the Facts

The data involved are complicated, and often sharply distorted by a reliance on news media to count terrorist events because the National Counterterrorism Center has stopped public reporting. The U.S. government does not provide any official reporting and there are no reliable statistics on the size and patterns of terrorism.

Several NGOs have, however, used a database prepared by START to track the overall trends in terrorism. Two exceptionally good and recent reports include the Vision of Humanity Global terrorism Index Report, and START, “Mass-Fatality, Coordinated Attacks Worldwide, and the Terrorism in France, Background Report, and Country Reports on Terrorism 2014. They also include detailed reporting by mass media like CNN, BBC, the New York Times, and Washington Post – to name a few such sources.

It is important to note that while the United States no longer reports any official estimates of trends in terrorism, the U.S. State Department does draw on START for the data in the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism: Annex of Statistical Information, Bureau of Counterterrorism.

These patterns are shown in a comparison of the key metrics involved in a report entitled Key Trends in the Metrics of Terrorism which is now available on the CSIS website at

The data involved are complex and often show conflicting facts and trends. The metrics involved also cannot be taken out of the narrative context, definitions, and qualifications made in the sources just named without seriously limiting their value. Nevertheless, the patterns involved are clear in some areas.

One is that the START data base used in the State Department annual report on terrorism shows that even if one includes every reported attack in Syria and Iraq in 2014 – regardless of whether ISIS was responsible or the attacks was part of an ongoing insurgency rather than terrorism – they amounted to 2,723 attacks in 2013 and 3,602 attacks in 2014. This is only 27 percent of a total of 9,964 attacks worldwide in 2013, and 27 percent of 13,463 attacks in 2014.

The vast majority of these attacks were from violent Islamist extremist movements and the numbers in Pakistan and Afghanistan alone were greater than the ISIS numbers in Iraq and Syria. For all the focus on casualties, the number counted as killed in Iraq was 6,387 in 2013, and 9,929 in 2014. These numbers include substantial fatalities from counterinsurgency rather than classic terrorism, but they were only about a third of the total fatalities from violent Islamist extremism. If one looks at the much smaller figures for Syria, they were 1,084 in 2013 and 1,698 in 2014. These not only are a small fraction of the 18,066 killed in 2013 and 32,727 in 2014, they are a tiny portion of the 250,000 to 300,000 killed since 2011 in the fighting between the Assad regime and other Arab rebels – driven largely by Assad’s barrel bombing, artillery attacks, and sieges on civilians.

What is equally important is that while there is no precise way to identify how many casualties were Muslim, the vast majority of the 32,727 dead and 34,791 injured in 2014 counted in the annex to the U.S. State Department report did not come from the West or any “clash of civilizations.” They came from violent Islamist extremism in six countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria – which accounted for 25,827 (79 percent) fatalities and 27,035 (62 percent) injuries.

Uncertain as these numbers are, no one looking at any of the data involved – regardless of source — can avoid the conclusion that the vast majority of those killed by violent Islamist extremism are fellow Muslims, the attacks occur outside the United States and Europe, and are caused by natives of the countries involved and not by foreign volunteers.

All of these data show that an ISIS-centric approach to counterterrorism and violent Islamist extremism is inherently absurd. We either fight the entire threat – and address its causes as well as its violent actors – or our strategy is one of ignorance and driven by the political opportunism of voices who care far more about their own political advantage than national security or our allies.

The Need to Know the Truth

The United States cannot shape its strategy and public policy around the current data. NGOs and think tanks can be of vast value in providing summaries, insights, reviews and criticisms of the current data on terrorism. They cannot overcome the fact that much of that data has no intelligence source, reflects trends driven more by the focus on media reporting than the actual patterns in terrorism, and cannot reliably address the levels of violence involved, its causes, how much really is the product of violent Islamic extremism, the number and nature of terrorists and foreign volunteers, the distinction between terrorism and insurgencies, and many other critical factors necessary to creating an effective strategy for fighting terrorism.

The only potential source of such data and trends – none of which have any remotely valid reason to be classified – is the U.S. government, its intelligence and analytic resources, and groups like the National Counterterrorism Center. They are also the only potentially valid way of developing an effective review of U.S. strategy in fighting terrorism – rather than retreating into fear and bigotry in the face of ISIS – and developing a valid approach to assessing the effectiveness of U.S. domestic and foreign efforts and expenditures.

Here, however, the closest thing the United States has to an official assessment of terrorism is the annual State Department Country Reports on Terrorism. This is as close to an official assessment of the patterns in terrorism, the role of given non-state and state sources of terrorism, and the success of international and allied efforts as the government provides. It is also deeply flawed, poorly defined, politicized in many areas, and largely avoids any reporting on the causes of terrorism – including abuses by the counterterrorism forces and justice systems of allied and friendly states.

Critical Failures in U.S. Government Reporting

These problems are addressed in detail in a Burke Chair report for the CSIS called The Critical Lack of Credibility in State Department Reporting on the Trends in Global Terrorism: 1982-2014.

As that report notes:

The flaws in the State Department’s data on terrorism – which are the principal U.S. government unclassified source of such data – go far deeper than a lack of “full context,” or the politics of whether the United States is or is not winning the war on terrorism. They involve critical problems in the way the State Department has chosen to report on terrorism over the period from1982 to the present, and in the credibility of the State Department report.
The U.S. government has provided three radically different estimates of the trends in global terrorism over the period since 1982. These have been presented each year in the Statistical Annexes to the State Department’s annual reports on terrorism.

  • The initial set of data for 1982-2003 shows low to negligible levels of terrorist activity, with a maximum number of terrorist incidents of 665 in 1987, although the number killed did reach a peak of 6,695 in 1998 – the first year it was reported in the corrected figures issue in 2003.
  • The data for 2005-2011 suddenly lead to the point where the number of incidents rise to 11,153 in 2005 and peak at 14,338 in 2006, and never drop below 10,000 in any year. The number of killed leap to 14,618 in 2005, peak at 22,720 in 2007, and never drop below 12,000.
  • A new type of START estimate for 2012-2014 again creates a radically different pattern. The number of incidents suddenly drops to in 6,771 2012, but leaps to in 13,463 in 2014. The number killed is more consistent at 11,098 in 2012, but leaps to 18,066 in 2013 and 32,727 in 2014.
  • What is particularly critical in terms of U.S. government transparency and credibility is that the most recent figures for 2012-2014 show a radical increase in the rate of terrorism, the figures for 2005-2011 do not show any such increase, and are more than 40 times on average the totals used in an earlier methodology covering the period from 1982-2003.
  • The resulting lack of transparency and credibility is further complicated by the fact the START database used since 2012 does provide trend data by country in graphic form on charts that appear to go back to 1970 without any clear explanation.
  • …the country graphs on past trends seem to directly contradict the previous two sets of State Department estimates for the period from 1982 to 2011.

Unfortunately, the START database does not appear to provide a way of obtaining the precise global totals for these years.
Moreover, it is unclear in all three sets of estimates how it is possible for any such estimate to have distinguished between acts of terrorism and the violence coming out of counterinsurgencies and civil war.

Further, no effort is made to estimate acts of state terrorism by the military forces, law enforcement, and internal security forces of the many states cited for such actions in the annual State Department human rights reports and many other sources.
This not only makes it impossible to have any clear metric for knowing the official U.S. estimate of trends in terrorism, and whether there is any form of “victory” in reducing the level of violence, it creates a massive credibility problem for the State Department and for U.S. efforts to communicate the threat and the effectiveness of its counter terrorism efforts.

There is a clear need to correct this situation, and provide the kind of data and explanation that restores the credibility of the U.S. government. It does seem all too likely that there was a very real rise in the level of global terrorism from 2011 onwards, but at this point in time, there seems to be no way to either understand or trust the estimates being issued by the State Department.

Work underway by Craig Whiteside of the Naval War College indicates the seriousness of the issues involved. In an email dated December 4, 2015, he notes that,

“I would be careful about using START’s database on TwJ/AQI/ISI/ISIS/IS. They code using newspaper reports and not the original documents. That is why they have ISI and AQI coded attacks the same year (for example in 2008), when AQI did not exist after October 2006 as an official organization. As a result, if you look at their coded attacks in 2006 (when AQI was claiming attacks under MSC – the transition front before ISI) you will see almost no attacks. Having coded by hand their original documents (2003-2013), I can promise you that is not true. Not only that, but it stretches the imagination to believe that AQI/ISI conducted almost no attacks in 2006. Also, I was there in Iraq at the time and can assure you this is not the case. I discussed this with START and they told me they only code what a newspaper reported. Since the newspapers (and the USG for a long time) called the group AQI long after it ended and became the Islamic State of Iraq, there is some incorrectly coded events. If you look carefully at their data it becomes very obvious.”

Relying on Facts, Not Fear

In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he famously said that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” ISIS and the far broader threat of violent Islamic terrorism are all too real, and we do have far more to fear than fear itself – as do most of our friends and allies.

Given the drift toward political panic, however, it is even more important remember what else Roosevelt said that day,

“I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly…In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

Leadership must be based on facts, not fear. It must not react to what remains a very limited threat by condemning others, tolerating bigotry, the mass condemnation of a faith, throwing more money or extreme measures at the problem, rejecting refugees out of hand, or far too many of the other political reactions to Paris and San Bernardino.

We desperately need non-partisanship rather than defensive denial or a competition to see who can do the best job of exploiting the nation’s fears. We need media that ask hard question about the facts, rather than exploit the highest estimate or most dire interpretation of the threat.

We need to base action on a thorough examination of the merits of what has already been done, the costs involved, the merits of additional action, and the need to avoid waste and measures that do little more than add confusion.

We need to use our intelligence community and National Counterterrorism Center to establish a valid base of facts and trends, and look beyond ISIS. We need to understand that the focus of any battle against Islamist extremism must be working with our allies in largely Muslim states to deal with the mix of threats, and to address the causes of terrorism and not simply the acts of terrorists.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).