Worldwide, the number of terrorist attacks and the number of victims from such attacks have more than tripled in recent years. Yet contrary to what is generally believed, religion is the motivating factor in only a minority of cases. In terms of location, moreover, most violence-prone conflicts and most instances of political militancy can be found not in the Middle East, but in Asia. These are some of the findings from a global study carried out by the Bertelsmann Stiftung on the nature of politically motivated violence and extremism.
According to the study, over the past five years the number of terrorist attacks perpetrated has risen from 700 to 2,200 each year, and the number of people who died in such attacks has increased from 4,000 to 13,000. And while transnational terrorism based on religious belief has increased, it is not the main motivation when it comes to violence aimed at achieving political objectives: Only 26 percent of all terrorist groups around the world are inspired by religious extremism -- groups that, above all, adhere to Islamicist beliefs. Militant leftist organizations account for roughly the same percentage. As in the past, the largest share of organizations advocating political violence -- 36 percent -- is made up of nationalist and/or separatist groups.
Moreover, even though the number of conflicts around the globe has gone up, the overall level of violence stemming from political causes has declined. In contrast to conventional wisdom, such violence is mostly found in Asia, which has three times as many politically inspired conflicts as the Middle East. Overall, 80 percent of all terrorist attacks can be traced to a few key regions: Russia and Chechnya, Columbia, Iraq, and the India-Kashmir-Pakistan and Thailand-Philippines-Indonesia triangles. "Although we perceive things based on the attacks in New York, London and Madrid, political violence usually takes place where it has its roots -- in areas where social injustice and the exclusion of disadvantaged groups are found," explains the study's author, Prof. Aurel Croissant of the University of Heidelberg.
According to the study's findings, the main causes of political violence are not religious fundamentalism, but poverty, ethnic divisions, failing states, dysfunctional political systems and external intervention. "Our one-sided attention to Islamicist terrorism and the Middle East keeps us from seeing the actual causes of political violence and effective means for fighting it," says Dr. Hauke Hartmann, project manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. "Attempts to seal ourselves off from dangerous elements and to deploy mechanisms aimed at controlling the problem cannot by themselves provide us with true security. Instead, the West's development policies must be empowered to provide increased, effective responses -- by combating poverty, promoting democracy and supporting effective political governance -- as a way of counteracting political violence."
Conflict management in the form of de-escalation and reconstruction must therefore be matched with comprehensive, long-term development strategies. Sabine Donner, project manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, warns of expecting too much from short-term external intervention. "Implementation of external strategies for promoting democracy, supporting development and carrying out state-building needs to be designed for the long term," she explains. "What's more, such efforts quickly reach their limits if local leaders are not willing to take responsibility for ensuring stable democratic structures."
The study "Violence, Extremism and Transformation" was produced in conjunction with the 2006 Bertelsmann Transformation Index. Every two years, BTI specialists gather and analyze the latest data on democracy-related developments, free market economics and political governance in 119 countries. In 2006, in a supplemental survey of 250 experts around the globe, the Bertelsmann Stiftung also collected information on the presence of nonstate political extremists, their strength, their supporters and, above all, their willingness to use violence. Data from the CONIS Conflict Database at the University of Heidelberg and the RAND/MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Database were also used in preparing this special study, which provides a cross-national comparison of the strength and militancy of extremist movements. An appendix provides summaries of the 23 regions most impacted by political violence. The study is published by Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung (ISBN 3-89204-921-1), 118 pages, €15.