Studying terrorism is, in many ways, a numbers game: How many casualties? How many attacks? How many members in a group? Policy makers and academic experts rely on data to guide their thinking about terrorist threats.
But what if the data is wrong or incomplete? This can have implications for both counterterrorism funding and efforts to counter violent extremism. In fact, in 2019, the US Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs heard proposed legislation, passed by the House of Representatives, “to require a joint domestic and international terrorism report” involving the collection of such data because of its importance to policy making. Furthermore, skewed data can decrease the value of expert analysis and harm the credibility of terrorism experts.
Two recent reports on terrorism in the United States contain several serious flaws that, while not deflecting from the most pressing terrorist threat facing the country—namely right-wing extremism—obscure the picture and risk undermining public confidence in terrorism experts.
First, in June 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released “The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States,” in which Seth Jones, Catrina Doxsee, and Nicholas Harrington argue that rightwing extremism is the greatest terrorist threat to the United States. Central to their analysis is a data set of 893 attacks and foiled plots in the United States between January 1994 and May 8, 2020. They categorize the perpetrators’ ideologies as right-wing (511 incidents), left-wing (222), religious (129), ethnonationalist (22), and other (6).
A few months later, the policy think tank New America, previously the New America Foundation (NAF), updated its running report on “Terrorism in America after 9/11,” which includes an interactive chart tracking fatal terrorist attacks in the US since September 11, 2001. Peter Bergen and David Sterman (and previously Albert Ford and Alyssa Sims) maintain(ed) the report, which groups terrorists’ ideologies into five categories: Far Right Wing (43 incidents), Jihadist (19), Black Separatist/Nationalist/Supremacist (3), Ideological Misogyny/ Incel (Involuntary Celibate) Ideology (3), and Far Left Wing (1).