Some statistics the BBC R4 statistics programme managed to ignore

On January 19th BBC Radio 4’s statistics programme ‘More or Less’ included an item (available from 07:44 here) described in the webpage synopsis as follows:More or Less

“In the wake of the Paris killings, an imam in Paris told the BBC that 95% of terrorism victims around the world are Muslim. Is that true? More or Less speaks to Erin Miller of the Global Terrorism Database.”

Included in that item is a discussion between presenter Tim Harford and producer Ruth Alexander of what counts as terrorism.

TH: “But wait: what counts as terrorism? I mean saying that something is terrorism or isn’t terrorism – I mean this is something that politicians do all the time purely for their own convenience.”

RA: “It is, so the Global Terrorism Database has a particular methodology. They label an attack terrorism and put it into this data base if it’s intentional, violent or threatening and the perpetrators aren’t governments.”

TH: “So the alleged hack by North Korea of Sony Pictures?”

RA “If it was in fact by North Korea it wouldn’t count because that would be a state act and anyway it’s non-violent.”

TH: “OK and what else? Because if someone pulls a knife on me and demands money, well that’s an intentional, violent, non-governmental act so there must be some other criteria that go into the definition.”

RA: “That’s right; there are other criteria, other considerations. Is there a political, economic or religious goal is one. Is it an attempt to send a message to a wider audience – not just to the direct victims – or is it outside the context of legitimate warfare activities.”

TH “So all this goes into making up the definition of terrorism…”

Later on listeners were told that the countries suffering the most terror attacks in the ten years between 2004 and 2013 were Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with Ruth Alexander adding:

“And just to put the latest available numbers on this, over the ten years from 2004 the UK suffered 400 terrorist attacks – mostly in Northern Ireland – and almost all of them non-lethal. The US suffered 131 attacks – fewer than 20 of them were lethal. France suffered 47 but in Iraq there were 12,000 attacks and 8,000 of them were lethal.”

On January 20th an article relating to the same topic by Ruth Alexander and Hannah Moore appeared in the Magazine section of the BBC News website under the title “Are most victims of terrorism Muslim?“. In that article, the definition of terrorism provided to readers was as follows:More or Less written

“The GTD defines a terrorist attack as the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non‐state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”

Reflecting the audio report, readers were told that

“When people in the West think of terrorist attacks, they may think of Charlie Hebdo, or the 7/7 London tube and bus bombs, the Madrid train bombs and of course 9/11 – and although some Muslims did die in these attacks, most of the victims wouldn’t have been Muslim.

The overall number of deadly terrorist attacks in France, the UK, Spain and the US, however, is very low by international standards.

Between 2004-2013, the UK suffered 400 terrorist attacks, mostly in Northern Ireland, and almost all of them were non-lethal. The US suffered 131 attacks, fewer than 20 of which were lethal. France suffered 47 attacks. But in Iraq, there were 12,000 attacks and 8,000 of them were lethal.”

The article also includes a chart attributed to information sourced from the Global Terrorism Database.

Chart GTD Magazine art terrorism

As we see, Israel does not appear in the written or audio reports either in relation to the number of fatalities or the overall number of terror attacks. One reason for that may be that, somewhat oddly for a statistics programme, its two reports are based on information gleaned from one source – the Global Terrorism Database – which does not provide a particularly accurate or comprehensive view of terror attacks in Israel.

The GTD’s Israel-related data for 2013, for example, includes the incidents on December 24th (here) and November 13th (here) but absent from its list (which incidentally includes several incidents more accurately classified as criminal that terror-related such as this one) are the October 11th murder of Colonel Seraya Ofer, the murder of Sgt. Tomer Hazan on September 20th, the murder of St.-Sgt. Gal (Gabriel) Kobi on September 22nd and the murder of Evyatar Borovsky on April 30th.

Similarly, whilst the GTD clearly does classify missile attacks as terrorism, its data for 2013 records only four such attacks from the Gaza Strip: less than 10% of the actual number of attacks which took place during that year. In fact, were all the missile attacks – rocket and mortar fire – from the Gaza Strip between 2004 and 2013 to be counted as individual terror attacks – as they clearly should be according to the definitions provided by the BBC – then as far as the number of attacks is concerned, Israel stands alongside some of the countries in the top half of that chart above because thousands of attacks have taken place during that time.

Chart rocket attacks from Gaza Strip

Israel of course goes to considerable lengths to provide protection to its citizens and thereby manages to significantly reduce the number of fatalities from missile attacks. Nevertheless, during the ten-year period used by the BBC in its two reports, over 150 fatal terror attacks of various kinds have taken place resulting in more than three hundred casualties and thousands more non-fatal attacks have been carried out. The number of missile attacks from the Gaza Strip executed outside the periods of escalated conflict during that ten-year time span (Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012) is over 5,000 – not including mortar attacks – and if missile attacks on civilian targets during those conflicts are included (being, as they are, “outside the context of legitimate warfare activities”), the figure rises to over 12,000.

Notably though, in their partial inventory of terror attacks in Western states, the ‘More or Less’ team elected to ignore a country which has suffered more attacks than the UK, the US and France put together according to their data. Tim Harford’s remark about politicians “saying that something is terrorism or isn’t terrorism […] for their own convenience” is sadly sometimes no less applicable to journalists.