Terrorism Against Religious Targets in Perspective

The START Center at the University of Maryland releases a report looking at terrorist incidents against religious figures, institutions and military targets.

by / May 22, 2009
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It is easy for perspective to get warped through too narrow a focus on recent events, especially when these events involve the tragic or the dramatic. That's why, for instance, Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network calls scenario planning for future oriented decision-making "the art of the long view."

The ramp-up of homeland security following 9/11 - certainly warranted to be sure - could easily convey that serious terrorist threats are something new this century.

With the arrest of four suspects charged for a plot to bomb a New York City synagogue and Jewish community center and to shoot down military aircraft, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has released information on attacks on both religious figures and institutions and on military targets in the United States. This is taken from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) which includes information on over 80,000 attacks between 1970 and 2007.

According to START's figures, the U.S. has experienced over 1350 terrorist attacks since 1970. And what's surprising is that these attacks peaked in the mid 1970s when there were 120 attacks per year. Since 1977 there have been fewer than 50 attacks per year. More than half of these have involved bombs or explosives, and the most common type of target has been private businesses.

START describes the GTD as an open-source database including information on terrorist events around the world from 1970-2007. Unlike many other event databases, the GTD includes systematic data on domestic as well as transnational and international terrorist incidents that have occurred during this time period. For each GTD incident, information is included on the date and location of the incident, the weapons used and nature of the target, the number of casualties, and - when identifiable - the perpetrator.

With news stories now circulating about the targeting of religious institutions by terrorists, START has released the following statistics concerning religions:
* There have been 25 terrorist attacks against religious figures or institutions in the United States, four of which were unsuccessful attempts. These 25 attacks resulted in a total of eight fatalities. Nine of the 25 attacks involved explosives or bombs.
* Nine of these attacks involved Jewish targets, including synagogues in Dallas, Nashville, New York, and Sacramento.
* Worldwide, there have been 1615 attacks on religious figures and institutions, with largest concentration in South America, Middle East, and South Asia.
* During the same period, there have been 38 terrorist attacks against military targets in the United States, eight of which were unsuccessful attempts. Attacks against military targets were frequently aimed at recruiting centers. The GTD contains no records of attacks against military aircraft in the United States.

START, based at the University of Maryland, is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. According to their web site, the organization employs state-of-the-art theories, methods, and data to improve understanding of the origins, dynamics, and social impacts of terrorism. To achieve this, START has assembled a team of more than 30 researchers from institutions across the United States and around the world to conduct cutting-edge research related to the terrorist threat. Additional information on START is available at:

Photo by Susan Sermoneta. CC Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic


Blake Harris Editor