Fatalities and the Annual Chance of being Murdered in a European Terrorist Attack

Recent terrorist attacks in Europe have increased death tolls and boosted fears on both sides of the Atlantic. Last year, I used common risk analysis methods to measure the annual chance of being murdered in an attack committed on U.S. soil by foreign-born terrorists. This blog is a back of the envelope estimate of the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States from 2001 to 2017 is about 1 in 1.6 million per year. Over the same period, the chances are much lower in European countries.

Methods and Sources

Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom are included because they have suffered some of the largest terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years. Sweden and Germany are included because they have each allowed in large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers who could theoretically be terrorism risks.

The main sources of data are the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland for the years of 1975 to 2015, with the exception of 1993. I used the RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism to fill in the year 1993. I have not compiled the identities of the attackers, any other information about them, or the number of convictions for planning attacks in Europe. The perpetrators are excluded from the fatalities where possible. Those databases do not yet include the years 2016 and 2017, so I relied on Bloomberg and Wikipedia to supply a rough estimate of the number of fatalities in terrorist attacks in each country in those two years through June 20, 2017. The United Nations Population Division provided the population estimates for each country per year.

Terrorism Fatality Risk for Each Country

This section displays the number of terrorist fatalities and the annual chance of a resident of each country being murdered. The results in this section answer three important questions: What is the annual chance of having been killed in a terrorist attack from 1975 through 2017 in each European country? Has the annual chance of being killed in a terrorist attack gone up since the 9/11 attacks? How does the risk in Europe compare to the risk in the United States?

European Terrorism from 1975 through June 20th, 2017

Residents of the United Kingdom have suffered the most from terrorism. Almost 78 percent of the European fatalities reported in Table 1 were residents of the United Kingdom and about 95 percent of those British fatalities occurred before 2001.

Residents of the United Kingdom suffered the most from terrorism with the highest annual chance of dying at one in 964,531 per year (Table 1).

Table 1: Fatalities and Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack, 1975–June 20th, 2017

 

Fatalities

Annual Chance of Dying

United Kingdom

2,632

1 in 964,531

Belgium

64

1 in 6,936,545

France

506

1 in 4,984,301

Sweden

20

1 in 19,001,835

Germany

148

1 in 23,234,378

United States

3568

1 in 3,241,363

Sources: Global Terrorism Database, RAND Corporation, United Nations Population Division, Bloomberg, Wikipedia, author’s calculations.

The deadliest terrorist attack across these five European countries was the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270. An additional 110 residents of these five countries were murdered in that year. The next deadliest year was 1976 with 354 victims. The third deadliest year was 1975, when there were 252 murders in terrorist attacks (Figure 1). The number of fatalities in European terrorist attacks increased to 172 in 2015 and fell to 133 in 2016. Every death in a terrorist attack is a tragedy but Europeans should feel comforted by the fact that their chances of dying of such an attack are minuscule.

Figure 1: Terrorism Fatalities in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, 1975–2017

Sources: Global Terrorism Database, RAND Corporation, United Nations Population Division, Bloomberg, Wikipedia.

Terrorism Risk in Europe versus the United States

The annual chance of being murdered in any terrorist attack in the United States from 2001 to 2017 is about 1 in 1.6 million per year (Table 2). The annual chances were much lower in every European country during the same period. Table 2 also includes the United States without the fatalities from the 9/11 attacks as they were such extremely deadly outliers that are unlikely to be repeated. Thus, excluding the 9/11 attacks in one example allows a potentially better cross-country comparison of the annual fatality chances. Strikingly, the annual chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack is almost identical across the two periods when 9/11 is excluded – evidence that those attacks were outliers that punctuated an otherwise steady trend.

Prior to 2001, the annual chance of dying in a terrorist attack in every country in Europe was higher than in the United States, with the sole exception of Sweden. When 9/11 occurred, the relative risk to residents in these countries flipped and the United States became more dangerous.

Table 2: Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack by Period

 

Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack

 

1975–2000

2001–2017

United States

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 1,602,021

France

1 in 6,059,061

1 in 4,006,878

Belgium

1 in 9,611,873

1 in 4,373,511

United Kingdom

1 in 590,389

1 in 8,796,562

Sweden

1 in 22,145,655

1 in 15,858,016

United States (exc. 9/11)

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 19,772,468

Germany

1 in 17,338,091

1 in 47,429,484

Sources: Global Terrorism Database, RAND Corporation, United Nations Population Division, Bloomberg, Wikipedia, author’s calculations.  Through June 20th, 2017.

Terrorism Risk Since 9/11

Many think that Islamic terrorism since 2001 is deadlier than past terrorism. This is certainly true in the United States where at least 3,246 people were killed on U.S-soil in all terror attacks from 2001 to through 2017 compared to only 322 from 1975 through 2000. Those differences are reflected in the greater, but still small, annual chance of an American dying from terrorism in the later period (Table 2). The chances of being murdered in a terrorist attack are also higher in France, Belgium, and Sweden but they are still tiny. Residents in the United Kingdom and Germany were less likely to die, per year, in a terrorist attack from 2001 through 2017.

The largest decline in risk was in the United Kingdom where the annual chance of being killed by terrorists went from 1 in 590,380 per year prior to 2001 to 1 in 8,796,562 per year from 2001 through June 20th, 2017. For 2016 and 2017 (so far), the chance of a British resident dying in a terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million per year. The chance of a British resident being murdered in a non-terrorist homicide in 2013 was about 133 times as great as his or her chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in the same year.

Conclusion

The chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack is greater than for a European resident of any of these five countries from 2001 through June 20th, 2017. Future terrorist attacks are unlikely to be as deadly as 9/11 even though there is a fat-tailed risk. When the unprecedented deadliness of 9/11 is excluded, the annual risk of being killed in a terrorist attack is reversed and residents of every European country except for Germany have a greater chance of being murdered than an American on U.S. soil.

The number of deaths from terrorism is so tiny that the addition or subtraction of another few murders can drastically change the annual chances of being murdered, which is evidence of how manageable the threat from terrorism actually is. If terrorism was as common or deadly as people erroneously believe it to be, then another attack or two would not make a big difference in the annual chances.

A total of 3,370 residents of Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom were murdered by terrorists from 1975 to June 20th, 2017. About 231 million people lived in those five countries in 2015. If they were combined into a single country, the annual chance of dying would be about 1 in 2.8 million per year over that period. The annual chance of being killed in a terrorist attack was a mere 1 in 8.3 million per year if those five European countries were judged as one state from 2001 through June 20th, 2017. That is a lower risk than the 1 in 1.6 million per year chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil from 2001 through 2017. Even in Europe, terrorism is a relatively small and manageable threat.