June 16, 2016

Abstract: This analysis of 47 cases of jihadist-inspired violence carried out in Western countries between January 1, 2012, and the June 12, 2016, Orlando attack sheds light on the evolving terrorist threat. The data shows that the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State have coincided with an increase in the number of attacks, with more than half of all violent incidents taking place in France and the United States. Notwithstanding the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, most attacks were carried out by individuals with no direct ties to overseas terrorist groups and were low-tech and relatively ineffectual. Half of all attackers had a criminal past, and perhaps as many were unemployed. A majority of attacks targeted civilians, although violence was also frequently directed against members of law enforcement or the military. Knife attacks were the most common while shootings were the deadliest.  

Shortly after 2:00 AM on the morning of June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, an American citizen of Afghan descent, stormed into a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and opened fire with an assault rifle and semiautomatic handgun, killing 49 people. Although many questions remain, Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call made during the attack. This would make it the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 in addition to the deadliest mass shooting regardless of motivation. It thus appears to be the latest in a steadily growing number of jihadist-inspired violent incidents in Western countries. Some of these incidents, most notably the deadly, coordinated assault in Paris last November and the bombing in Brussels four months later, are clearly directed and funded by foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). Others are carried out independently by autonomous groups and individuals who are often lacking substantial overseas connections but nevertheless share the same murderous ideology, while others still are conducted by troubled individuals who seem to be driven at least as much by mental illness as by exposure to jihadi propaganda[1] or related media coverage.

Precisely where Mateen falls on this spectrum has yet to be established. The manifestation of jihadist-inspired violence in the West is clearly extremely diverse. It also appears to have increased substantially since the outbreak of war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State. However, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the threat, it is important to examine the use of violence more thoroughly. This article analyzes all jihadist-inspired violent attacks executed in Western Europe, North America, and Australia from 2012 to the June 12 Orlando attack (i.e. since the escalation of conflict in Syria and Iraq). The analysis begins with a statistical assessment of the frequency and location of attacks, characteristics of perpetrators—including their links to foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs)—and modus operandi, followed by an examination of what the data reveals about the threat trajectory in the West.

Frequency of Attacks
From January 2012 to June 12, 2016, there have been 47 violent attacks in Western countries that were at least partially inspired by Islamist political concerns and/or violent jihadist propaganda and ideas, as promoted by al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State and widely covered in the media.[a] This compares to just 26 attacks during the entire preceding 11-year period, representing a significant increase in frequency. Moreover, the number of attacks has increased each year, with three in 2012, five in 2013, 11 in 2014, 16 in 2015, and 12 so far in 2016 (compared to five this time last year), which suggests a continuing upward trend in the coming months (see Figure 1).

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