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!
These graphics were designed by Michael Jensen, William Kammerer, and Brian Wingenroth.
The first graphic shows the most active regions in terms of total number of terrorist attacks since 1970. In the 1980s and 1990s, Latin America was the epicenter of global terrorism. In the first of those two decades, the region experienced more terrorist attacks (17,293) than all other regions combined (13,643), and nearly four times as many as the next most active region—Western Europe (4,729).
Terrorist violence in Latin America during this period was driven by the campaigns of a number of secular Marxist/Maoist organizations, most notably the Shining Path in Peru, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Violence dramatically subsided in the mid-1990s, after a number of governments waged successful—and often quite violent—counter-terrorism campaigns. (On a side note, the graphic also shows the tendency of global terrorism to migrate over time. As we see in the chart, global terrorism has migrated from Western Europe in the 1970s, to Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, and to the Middle East and South Asia where it currently resides.)
The second graphic is a snapshot of terrorism in Latin America in 2013. Currently, terrorist violence is largely confined to Colombia, where both the FARC and the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN) are still quite active. However, while levels of violence in other countries are small in comparison to Colombia, some still face challenges from armed organizations, namely Peru (remnants of the Shining Path) and Paraguay (Paraguayan People’s Army, or EPP).
The third graphic shows the six most active countries in Latin America by decade. The region experienced a particularly disproportionate share of terrorist violence in the 1908s. During that decade, 142 countries around the world experienced some level of terrorist activity . However, the six most active countries in Latin America—Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Peru—witnessed more attacks (16,004) than the other 136 combined (15,164).
The graphic also illustrates the massive scale of terrorist violence in El Salvador and Peru during the time period. During the 1980s and the 1990s, the two countries, combined, experienced more than 10,000 attacks that caused more than 24,000 fatalities. While violence levels have diminished dramatically in those countries, the threat posed by violent groups in Colombia remains persistent. In fact, the 2010s data includes only four years’ worth of activity. If trends continue, Colombia will once again experience more than 1,000 attacks in the decade, making it one of the most active countries in the world.
The final graphic displays the 20 most active terrorist groups in Latin America from 1970-2013. As the chart shows, the Shining Path and the FMLN were especially violent organizations at the height of their activity. In fact, the Shining Path still ranks as the world’s most violent organization over this period, outpacing the Taliban and the various al-Qa`ida affiliates, even though the group has not been particularly active since the mid-1990s and the lifespans of these groups are generally comparable. The graph also illustrates a common feature of terrorist groups’ lifespans: their short duration. Although there are outliers, most organizations do not survive much longer than a decade.
This last graphic also illustrates the notable counter-terrorism successes that the region has experienced. Counter-terrorism in Peru is often cited as the hallmark example of the potential utility of a leadership decapitation strategy. After Peruvian forces captured the Shining Path’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, in 1992, the group experienced a sudden and swift decline in activity.
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: kozumel