Predicting Terrorism: A fool’s game?

Historical attempts by the counter-terrorist community to anticipate political violence have failed.

After the September 11 attacks against the United States in New York, there was a widespread assumption among practitioners that terrorism would continue to exponentially increase in lethality and scale. Concerns over chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) strikes, further hijackings of aircrafts, and cyber-terrorism proliferated.

The reverse proved true. Those who carry out political violence are increasingly decentralised, eschewing complex plots in favour of vehicle-rammings or stabbing sprees, often with little to no contact with senior terrorist operatives. This gives intelligence agencies no chance to detect, investigate and neutralise threats before they actualise. Individual acts of terrorism, therefore, are becoming increasingly difficult to predict. Indeed, the psychological shadow terrorism casts over the globe is inherently rooted in its unpredictability: anywhere, and anyone, is a target.

Yet, although political violence on an individual level may be becoming harder to map, this does not hold true on a global level. An analysis of the wealth of data available shows that terrorism follows certain trends in location, attack type and perpetrator. Assessing these statistics allows national and private-sector counter-terrorist experts informed insight into trends of political violence, and should inform our response to the threat.

Attack location

Terrorism, as stated, is a global phenomenon. Countries from Canada to Indonesia have been affected by it. However, the vast majority of incidents – around 75% – are concentrated in five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. These nations, all of which suffer from some form of systemic instability, have levels of insecurity sufficient to enable terrorist groups to operate in force.

There is little indication that this trend will shift over the short term. A United Nations report published in August this year suggested that up to 30,000 Islamic State (IS) fighters remain active in Iraq and Syria. For context, this number is approximately the same as the personnel strength of the British Royal Navy. In Afghanistan, despite almost two decades of United States-led military intervention, the Taliban continue to control or contest vast swathes of territory. Similarly, despite concerted efforts by the Nigerian state, the Boko Haram group remain active and highly capable in northern Nigeria, and continue to wage an insurgency against Nigerian forces. Finally, with respect to Pakistan, endemic instability persists in the border regions, a threat which the central government is ill-equipped to contain.

This shows how terrorism – despite panicked rhetoric in more secure, stable countries – mostly remains a symptom of an already weak security environment, rather than a driver of security breakdown. This is not to say that political violence does not pose a real and credible threat in other nations, but it does put the issue in proportion, allowing for PR actioners and security managers to take a more measured response to the threat.

Attack type

Non-state armed groups continue to capitalise on emergent technologies. The Houthi rebel group in Yemen has launched ballistic missiles against targets in Saudi Arabia, and unconfirmed but credible reports suggest it has used autonomous seaborne-craft to launch attacks against ships. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro suffered an attempted assassination – likely by a group of disgruntled army personnel – when two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) detonated in the capital Caracas while he was giving a speech at a military rally.

However, on a macro-level, certain trends remain apparent. In 2017, explosions constitute a plurality of incidents, with around 360 recorded. This is almost double that of the next most common attack type, armed assault, of which there were 180 recorded incidents during the same period. This allows us to build a more complete picture of terrorism trends: an interrogation of the available data demonstrates not only where incidents of political violence will occur, but how. This, in turn, allows for individuals and businesses building or upgrading their own security measures to make more informed decisions about resourcing and deployment.

Other factors

Mining data can also provide further interesting insights into trends of political violence. Research in 2011 by C. Berrebi and J. Ostwald, writing in the journal Public Choice, set out a plausible case that natural disasters lead to an increase in political violence, particularly in nations with low-to-middle per capita GDP. As evidence, they cite increases in terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka and Thailand, following the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Such a link has significant implications for policy-makers and humanitarian agencies, as it will inform their response to natural disasters.


Ultimately, on a granular level, terrorism will appear unpredictable to the casual observer. Attacks can strike the most well-defended and peaceful cities without warning, leading to breaking news coverage and a perception that those unlucky enough to fall victim to political violence were caught out by terrorism’s chaos. However, statistical analysis can show us where terrorism is concentrated, which group will likely be responsible, and even which attack-type they will use. Moreover, continued research can show that linkages can be discerned in surprising places, such as natural disasters. It is analysing these trends that allow us to pierce the veil of chaos that surrounds terrorism.

Written by James Pothecary, Regional Security Coordinator – Counter-Terrorism at Healix International.

Healix International recognises the risk political violence poses to facilities and personnel across the world, from the Algerian desert to central London. That is why our Global Security Operations Centre (GSOC) has established a counter-terrorism desk, to provide specialist intelligence and consultancy services to clients. For more information, contact us at

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