Infographic: Four Decades of Terrorist Tactics Around the World


Editor’s note: We’ve partnered with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) to publish a series of infographics based on data from their Global Terrorism Database and related START projects.  Each week we’ll release a new set of graphics that depict trends in global terrorism activity.  Sign up for the War on the Rocks newsletter to make sure you don’t miss any of them!


This week’s infographic set looks at attack type variation in global terrorism since 1970.* Using data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), we can assess which attack methods have been the most prevalent in the areas that have experienced terrorist violence in the past 43 years. We can also examine which areas have experienced the most attacks of the particular types identified in the GTD and which areas appear to be particularly prone to attack type specialization.

The first map shows the most commonly used attack method in every country/area that has experienced at least one terrorist attack since 1970. It is worth noting that terrorism, while global, has not been evenly distributed. Some of the attack methods highlighted in certain areas of the map appear dominant in part because the areas themselves have experienced relatively few attacks. For example, while unarmed assaults have been the predominant attack method in Vietnam since 1970, the country has experienced a relatively low number (10) of total terrorist attacks.

START infographic - Most Common Attack Type, 1970-2013
Most common attack type in each country, 1970-2013 (click to enlarge)


  • While perhaps not surprising, the prevalence of bombings as an attack method is remarkable. Bombings have been the most commonly used attack type in 136 of the 201 countries that have experienced terrorism since 1970.
  • Armed assaults—attacks involving the use of firearms, incendiaries, or sharp objects—were the most commonly employed attack type in 47 countries during this time period, and they have been quite prevalent on the African continent.
  • Largely due to the complexity of the method and the implementation of counter-measures, vehicle hijackings, including the hijacking of airplanes, is the only attack method that has not made up the majority of at least one country’s attacks since 1970.

The second map identifies the areas that have experienced the greatest number of attacks for each of the seven types identified in the GTD.

START infographic - Highest Frequency of Each Attack Type, 1970-2013
Countries with highest frequency of each attack type, 1970-2013 (click to enlarge)


  • Iraq, the country that has experienced the most terrorist violence since 1970, has also witnessed the most bombings. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority (99%) of the 8,500 bombings that have hit Iraq in the past four decades have occurred since 2003.
  • The majority of hostage-taking/kidnapping events since 1970 have occurred in Colombia, a country that has experienced persistent political violence since the 1960s. Both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) use kidnap for ransom as a core part of their funding strategies.
  • India is the only country to have experienced the majority of more than one attack method—armed assaults and hijackings.
  • Facility/infrastructure attacks—those involving the violent (non-bombing) sabotage of physical structures—have been most prevalent in the United States. A large number of these attacks (252) occurred from 1970-1975, and were part of a larger pattern of violence that was triggered by U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
  • Finally, no area has experienced more assassinations (1,548) than Northern Ireland. All but eight of these assassinations occurred during the period known as “The Troubles,” when various Irish Republican and Protestant paramilitary groups waged an especially violent sectarian/nationalist war.

The final map shows the areas that have witnessed considerable attack type specialization since 1970. Like the previous map, this one charts the prevalence of the seven attack types identified in the GTD. But instead of plotting the most frequent occurrence of each attack type, this map shows the countries/areas that have experienced the most attacks of each type as a percentage of their overall number of attacks. In essence, this map shows where violent actors have specialized in each of these attack methods.

START infographic - Highest Relative Frequency of Each Attack Type, 1970-2013
Countries with highest relative frequency of each attack type, 1970-2013 (click to enlarge)


  • No area has experienced a higher concentration of bombings than the island of Corsica. Bombings, the preferred method of the Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC), have made up 90% of the attacks that have occurred in the French région since 1970. By comparison, Pakistan has experienced nearly four times as many bomb attacks as Corsica since 1970, but the country has seen far less specialization in the method. Bombings made up 50% of the attacks in Pakistan during this period.
  • As noted above, armed assaults have been particularly prevalent in Africa. This trend is, in part, driven by violence in Central African Republic, where armed assaults have accounted for 73% of the country’s attacks since 1970.
  • The highest concentration of facility/infrastructure attacks since 1970 have occurred in Germany, accounting for 41% of the country’s attacks. The specialization in facility/infrastructure attacks in Germany appears to be in part driven by racial violence in the country. Nearly half of all the facility/infrastructure attacks that have occurred in Germany have targeted Turkish owned businesses and Turkish cultural facilities.


*The data for 1993 are missing from the GTD.  That year is excluded from the analysis.



This graphic is based on preliminary data that is subject to change.  2013 GTD data is not yet available for public download or distribution.  It will be released via the GTD website later this summer.

Beginning with 2012 data collection, START made several important changes to the GTD collection methodology, improving the efficiency and comprehensiveness of the process. In general, comparisons of aggregate statistics over time and between locations should be interpreted with caution due to these methodological improvements, as well as the considerable variation in the availability of source materials.


Michael Jensen is the data collection manager for the Global Terrorism Database at START.


Photo credit: Nomadic Lass