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President Barack Obama spoke with veterans and active military members at a CNN town hall, discussing extended wait periods at VA hospitals and and the threat of terrorism.
A major serving in the West Virginia Air National Guard asked Obama if the United States is doing anything greater to combat Islamic jihadists. He prefaced his question by saying that since Obama took office in 2009, "there has been a substantial increase in terror attacks around the world" and in the United States.
Obama contradicted the premise of the question, though.
"It's important to recognize that if you look worldwide, the number of terrorist incidents have not substantially increased," Obama said. "What we've seen are some very high-profile attacks, mostly in the Middle East, also in our European theaters."
Obama said the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also called ISIS) underscored "that the ideology of hatred and killing had metastasized" even after the killing of Osama bin Laden and the dismantling of al-Qaida. He also said military efforts, intelligence work and other improvements had made large-scale terrorist attacks more difficult.
Obama said there had not been a "substantial" increase in terrorism. Even though there’s no hard number to measure that against, we decided to look into it.
Obama’s numbers, and a caveat
When we asked, the White House referred us to data from the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau. Terrorism is defined as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."
That’s an increase, not a decrease, but in recent years the numbers have been declining.
In 2015, the total number of terrorist attacks decreased by 13 percent compared with 2014. Deaths due to terrorist attacks also decreased in 2015 compared to 2014, by 14 percent, according to the State Department figures.
"This was largely due to fewer attacks and deaths in Iraq, Pakistan, and Nigeria," the report said. "This represents the first decline in total terrorist attacks and deaths worldwide since 2012."
It’s problematic, though, to compare years between 2009 and 2015, because in 2012 the State Department changed the way it collected data about terrorist attacks.
In 2012, the State Department began using data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, from the University of Maryland. While the old count and the new count used similar methods -- data from open source information such as TV reports, specialized journals and think tank studies -- they are not exactly the same.
The State Department said that due to the collection change, the data is "not directly comparable."
Erin Miller, who manages START’s Global Terrorism Database, says the numbers it provides the department amount to "a conservative filter" on the broader definition used in START’s own database.
Totals presented by the State Department don’t include attacks targeting people in combat. They also exclude incidents in which there are mixed reports or vagueness.
START’s overall count of global terrorism attacks in 2015 is at least 3,000 more than the State Department’s 2015 figure, because it includes some combat deaths and less definitive incidents.
By START’s measure, there was a 214 percent increase in terrorist attacks from 2009 to 2015.
Joseph Young, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and School of International Service at American University, said it is tough to make claims about trends in terrorism since 2009. Obama’s statement is one possible interpretation of the data.
There have been small increases and decreases in attacks over recent years, shifts in targeted locations, more suicide attacks and a small decline of other terror actions, Young said.
"(Obama’s) statement is consistent with a range of outcomes," Young said.
START and State Department data both show there were fewer attacks in 2015 than in 2014.
More than 55 percent of all terrorist attacks in 2015 happened in five countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, according to State Department data.
The department also reported 382 terrorist attacks in Syria in 2015 (up from 232 in 2014), but says they are conservative estimates given limitations of media coverage in that country.
On top of attacks and fatalities rising, terrorist arrests are also up, noted Max Abrahms, a political science assistant professor at Northeastern University.
A December 2015 report from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University said 56 individuals were arrested in 2015 in the United States for ISIS-related activities, "the largest number of terrorism arrests in a single year since September 2001."
Brent Smith, director of the Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas, said there are attacks, like the one in San Bernardino, Calif., last year, where there were no arrests because the perpetrators were killed in the incident.
Obama said, "If you look worldwide, the number of terrorist incidents have not substantially increased."
There is no universally accepted definition of a terrorist incident, so there is no universally accepted count. Based on State Department data, there’s been a 7 percent increase in terrorist attacks worldwide from 2009 to 2015. But the State Department’s criteria for what can be counted as a terrorist attack is stricter than that of other databases. According to START’s Global Terrorism Database, for instance, there was a 214 percent rise in terrorist attacks from 2009 to 2015, a substantial increase.
Obama’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.https://www.sharethefacts.co/share/0174e372-7a3e-45be-b61e-724cad9e0ab5
CNN, Transcript town hall with President Barack Obama, Sept. 28, 2016
Email exchange, White House press office, Sept. 29, 2016
State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2015
State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2009
National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Global Terrorism Database
Email exchange, Jessica Stark Rivinius, communications director at National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Oct. 4, 2016
Email interview, Joseph Young, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and School of International Service at American University, Oct. 4, 2016
Email interview, Max Abrahms, a political science assistant professor at Northeastern University, Oct. 3, 2016
Phone interview, Brent Smith, director of the Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas, Oct. 12, 2016
Email exchange, Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, Oct. 12, 2016
Program on Extremism at George Washington University, ISIS in America, from retweets to Raqqa, December 2015
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