The numbers don’t lie: Even in the Middle East, most terrorism is not 'Islamic'

Alain Gabon's picture
Last update: 
Tuesday 20 June 2017 8:39 UTC

Ask most people who has committed the worst terrorist attack in Europe in the past decade or two. They'll probably say Muslims. They would be wrong.

“Islamism” and “terrorism” are often portrayed today as synonymous – but an analysis of terrorist acts committed throughout the world shows that most are not a result of Muslims acting in the name of their faith.

Humanity’s worst terrorists have always been ruling states and regimes

In contrast with common perceptions, political statements and media coverage, the notion that most terrorism – defined as the use, or threat of use, of violence against civilians and non-fighters for political, religious or social non-strictly personal reasons (such as score-settling or crimes of passion) –  is caused by Muslims acting in the name of their faith is simply wrong. 

Academic research, investigative journalism and official statistics from organisations such as the FBI and Europol show that in Western societies, only a tiny fraction of terrorist attacks are committed by “Islamists”, “jihadists” or similar even though these varieties have experienced a surge in recent years in, at most, three or four countries.

France is the only Western country seriously affected by this phenomenon. In the Western world beyond France - which includes 38 countries with a total population of nearly one billion – the number of victims of “jihadism” comes to around 450 since 11 September 2001, including the attacks in Manchester last month.

What the numbers say

Between 1980 and 2005, only 6 percent of terrorist attacks on US soil were perpetrated by “Islamists” while more than 90 percent were committed by other groups: Hispanics, Christians, Jews, far-left activists, environmental activists, far-right white supremacists, anti-government groups, anti-abortion groups, sovereigntists, separatists and others.

This applies both to the number of attacks (successful or not) and the number of terrorists, as can clearly be seen if one bothers to look at the annual and comprehensive country-by-country statistics issued by the Global Terrorism Database (START/GTB) at the University of Maryland, which is the standard reference on this subject. 

Similarly, in Western Europe, the proportion of “Islamic” or “Islamist"-inspired terrorist incidents from 1970 to 2017 is minuscule compared to the total number of attacks, as this graph clearly shows. 

This remains true as far as the number of victims is concerned: since 2006 (the year Europol stats begin), despite being the period of the rise of “jihadism”, most Western losses have been caused not by Muslims, but by other types of terrorists, as in the United States: anti-abortion far-right Christians, anti-governmental sovereigntist individuals and groups, separatists (ETA, IRA, etc), ethno-nationalists, white and Christian supremacists like Anders Breivik or Dylan Roof, and so on.



Norwegian mass murder Anders Behring Breivik makes a Nazi salute ahead his appeal hearing in January 2017 (AFP)

The years in which “Islamic”-inspired terrorism was the most common cause for victims in EU counties are rare: from 1970 to 2017 (Table 3) over a period of nearly half a century, “Islamist” terrorism surpassed over other forms for only five years: 2004-2005 with the London-Madrid attacks; 2012, the year of Mohammed Merah’s attacks; and 2015-2016, essentially the four attacks of Charlie Hebdo, 11 November, Brussels and Nice (insofar as the latter case was indeed the work of an “Islamist”, which has never been proved).

Selective memory

Everyone can empirically verify the result of the mystification imposed on us for years by the media and the political world.

Just ask around - who has committed the worst terrorist attack of the last 10 or 20 years in Europe? Almost always, you will get the classic “I don’t know exactly, but it must be jihadists, right? Charlie Hebdo? The Bataclan on 11 November? Nice? London in 2005?”

In fact, it appears that the deadliest terrorist act committed on the European continent – casting the net wide from France to Russia and omitting nothing – was not committed by Muslims.

It was the destruction by a Russian missile of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over an area of ​​Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatist forces in the midst of a civil war, on 17 July 2014, killing nearly 300 passengers and crew. An event that, strangely, the media, politicians, and with them our populations, immediately hastened to forget.

This attack occurred less than three years ago, at a time when the Western media spotlight was on this region. But you will be hard pushed to find someone giving you the right answer to this question.



A woman looks on before lighting a candle in front of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kiev in July 2014 to commemorate passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 (AFP)

On the other hand, everyone remembers the Boston Marathon attack in 2013, albeit more distant and which, with only three victims, was much less deadly.

This curiously selective memory can obviously be explained by the fact that the second attack was perpetrated by two Muslims, unlike the first one, which was therefore immediately expelled from our hard drive although it remains, far ahead of Charlie Hebdo and the 11 November 2015 together, the worst terrorist act committed in Europe since the 9/11 attacks. But no one talks about it, and no one remembers it.

The attacks on 9/11 - to expand the scope of the discussion to the United States - can be regarded as an exception that confirms the rule (any rule has one), because the scale and murderous toll of these historic attacks has never been reproduced. There is not even a remote comparison before or after, in the West or elsewhere, or even in the Middle East and North Africa where jihadist activity is the most intense and the ground among the most fertile.

The worst terrorists of all

Even in the Middle East, the region most affected by “jihadism”, the idea that most terrorism is “Islamist” is also false.

The deadliest terrorists in this region are not al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, but mostly secular regimes and non-Islamic heads of state whose political violence is by no means executed in the name of Allah or any “caliphate”. 

Humanity’s worst terrorists have always been ruling states and regimes.

Today, the deadliest terrorist in the Middle East-Maghreb region is not Islamic State - contrary to the lie tirelessly propagated by our media and governments - but Syrian president Bashar al-Assad himself, assisted by Russia and Iran. Assad’s civilian victims far exceed those of Islamic State – a fact no one denies.

Neither Assad, nor Putin are “Islamists”. Their regimes and armed forces, however, have certainly been the two main sources of violence in the region since 2011, something that no longer needs to be demonstrated.

In the hierarchy of horror, Assad also succeeds in surpassing the worst of Islamic State, since he goes as far as using the murder and torture of children, in their hundreds, as punishment, as an interrogation tool and as a deterrent against the families of his opponents. This policy is well documented by UNICEF, the United Nations, and other private sources such as Syrian activists, who all agree.



A Syrian man shows marks of torture on his back, after he was released from regime forces in Aleppo in August 2012 (AFP)

In April 2016, the leak of half a million official documents by Syrian activists and international human rights lawyers revealed the scale and atrocity of the torture and mass murder campaign decided upon and meticulously planned by the regime of Damascus and Assad in person.

The administrative meticulousness and bureaucratic callousness of this campaign of terror and violence recall the plans of the Third Reich for the extermination of the Jews.

Thousands of orders for the capture, torture and assassination of opponents signed by Assad himself are now documented and archived amid this mountain of official documents (leaked out of the country by “Caesar”, a courageous under-cover spy in Damascus).

Stephen Rapp, who led teams of prosecutors during international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone and also served for six years after Obama appointed him as the US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, said that this documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen”. And we can imagine that he has seen a lot throughout his career.

The persecution and abuse inflicted on Syrian anti-Assad opponents and activists is unbearable to read about. In some cases, it is inflicted on children no older than 13. I will spare the details here, but to get an idea, you can consult the documentation, provided that you have a strong stomach. It may be enough to say that the horror would nauseate even the most hardened IS fighters, for even they do not engage in this kind of atrocity.

We have recently learned that the massacres of prisoners and opponents reach such an industrial scale that Assad has now had to build crematoria to dispose of the dead bodies.

Islamic State in comparison? Amateurs. Beginners. Small fry.

State terrorism

Before Assad, the infamous Palme d’Or of terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa went to Saddam Hussein who, according to estimates, exterminated around 200,000 domestic opponents, plus hundreds of thousands of Iranian and Kurd civilian casualties who perished in the Iraq-Iran war (which Hussein himself triggered). Many were killed in his chemical attacks, such as the Halabja massacre in March 1988.

Neither of these two heads of state is or was “Islamist”. And they certainly did not commit their massacres in the name of Islam. On the contrary, Assad and Hussein are (or was, in the latter case) Baathist secular leaders.

As for Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, he unleashed his own state terrorism against Islamists, massacring between 15,000 and 40,000 civilians and members of the Muslim Brothers in 1982 alone.



An Iraqi Kurd family visits a grave yard for the victims of a gas attack by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1988, as people mark the 26th anniversary of the attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 2014 (AFP)

Compared with this terrorism, even IS and al-Qaeda combined look like amateurs, as much by the number of victims and the methods used as well as the extent and degree of cruelty they have used against their enemies.

Another convincing example: in Egypt, on 14 August 2013, a few weeks after his 3 June military coup, general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military and police forces massacred in a single day nearly 1,000 civilian supporters of the democratically-elected president Mohammed Morsi, whom Sisi had overthrown and kidnapped at gunpoint and whose restitution the Muslim Brotherhoods requested with their non-violent sit-in.

Compared with the terrorism of the Assads and Saddam Hussein, even IS and al-Qaeda combined look like amateurs

This massacre was methodically planned and executed by Sisi and his armed forces, as has been documented by all Egyptian and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The latter even described the repression of the sit-in in Cairo as the “worst mass unlawful killings in country’s modern history”.      

And it was only one of them, others preceded it and others followed, all committed by the regime of Sisi against its political opponents, either secular or pro-Morsi, first of all the Muslim Brotherhood. Without even counting the victims of these other massacres, on 14 August 2013 alone, Sisi, also a non-Islamist head of state, murdered more defenceless civilians in a few hours than so-called “terrorist” groups did in the Sinai in several years. 

Moreover, these groups mainly target soldiers, unlike the Egyptian regime which, on the other hand, attacks primarily civilians.

Semantic pirouettes

Incidentally, given that France and the United States are the political and military allies of the “Cairo Butcher”, and that both arm his regime, we must conclude without frills and logically that in addition to Putin and Assad, Hollande, Obama, Trump and probably soon Emmanuel Macron are also state terrorists.

Indeed, this crime extends (including legally) to anyone helping terrorists carry out their terror and murders, for example by providing them with weapons, as is the case here.

Hence, we can see that this permanent lie which constantly assures us that the worst terrorists are groups like Islamic State, al-Qaeda or Boko Haram can only be maintained thanks to a deception and a semantic pirouette which is both simple and effective: the exclusive reduction by everyone – politicians, journalists, media, think tanks, and a large part of academic research centres and “specialists”– of the word “terrorism” to non-state terrorism, and the concomitant and deliberate oversight of state terrorism, the most murderous type of all.

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We cannot talk about state terrorism without mentioning Israel, this rogue state led by religious extremists and insane racists which has made terrorism a real method of government.

There, it is literally in their thousands that Palestinian civilians are exterminated: men, women, children, elderlies, and the wounded, even in hospitals.

Yet, no more than their illegal and ultra-violent colonisation carried out weapons in hands, or their total disregard for international law, the terrorist moves of the Israeli authorities have never prevented our leaders from arming them and giving them unconditional support, including when they exterminate whole families before our eyes yelling “self-defence!”.

Dr Alain Gabon is an associate professor of French based in the United States and the head of the French Department at Virginia Wesleyan University. He has written numerous papers and articles on contemporary France and on Islam in Europe and throughout the world. His works have been published by academic reviews, think tanks, such as Great Britain’s Cordoba Foundation, and mainstream media outlets, such as Saphirnews and Les cahiers de l'Islam. His essay entitled ‘Radicalisation islamiste et menace djihadiste en Occident: le double mythe’ will appear in an upcoming Cordoba Foundation publication.

Opinions expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A combo of reproduction pictures taken in 2012 in Beirut shows portraits of people allegedly killed during the 1982 Hama massacre on a Facebook page entitled "Hama" described as a page run by independent citizens of the central Syrian city (AFP)

This piece originally ran on MEE's French site.