Leftist vs Religiously Motivated Terrorism: A Side-by-Side Comparison


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.


Experts have suggested that there are marked differences in the behaviors of leftist and religious groups, namely that religiously motivated groups tend to target civilians at a greater rate and kill more people per attack than do leftist organizations. This week’s graphics examine the three most active leftist and three most active religious groups in the last 10 years to see if these assessments are supported by the data. The first graphic looks at a breakdown of target types by leftist and religious groups using these six groups as representative samples. Based on target selection, there isn’t much difference between leftist and religious groups. They target civilians roughly the same amount. Leftist groups do tend to target businesses more than religious groups, who, in turn, tend to focus more on security targets.

Target Selection, Leftist vs Religious Groups
Target Selection, Leftist vs Religious Groups (click to enlarge)

However, what is supported by the data is the idea that leftist groups tend to be less deadly than religious groups. The next graphic shows the number of attacks and the average lethality of attacks for each of the six groups. As the chart shows, each of the religiously-motivated organizations killed more people on average than did the leftist groups. In the case of AQI/ISIL, the group averaged nearly 7 deaths per attack, while the most lethal leftist group—CPI Maoist—killed on average 1.24 per attack.

Attack Lethality of Leftist and Religious Groups
Attack Lethality of Leftist and Religious Groups (click to enlarge)

The final graphic shows the individual breakdown of target types for each of the six groups. When we look at each group individually, we see that AQI/ISIL and NPA seem to be the archetypes for the hypothesized behaviors of religious and leftist groups. However, the story is a bit more complicated for the rest of the groups. All of them include a substantial number of civilians among their targets, with CPI-Maoist targeting civilians more than any other target type. Each group also appears to prioritize security forces as targets, which is not surprising.

Target Selection of Specific Leftist and Religious Groups
Target Selection of Specific Leftist and Religious Groups (click to enlarge)

Ultimately, what these graphics show is that neat conceptualizations of the targeting practices of terrorist groups are difficult to develop based purely on ideological motivation. Efforts to create them will very often be frustrated by groups that stubbornly refuse to fit the explanatory mold.


**NoteBeginning 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: Johan Althén