A recent study from the University of Maryland funded in part by the Dept of Homeland Security in the US mapped out the concentration of terrorist attacks throughout the country from 1970-2008. The findings show that the number of attacks has been significant in urban areas such as Los Angeles and New York City over time, but many terrorist attacks actually took place in rural areas. The primary source of data for the study is the Global Terrorism Database that includes not only attacks from foreign terrorist groups, but attacks from home-grown leftist and right-wing ‘extremists’, along with violent religious groups. Authors of the study define terrorism broadly as ‘the threatened or actual use of illegal force by non-state actors, in order to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal, through fear, coercion or intimidation’. Taking this definition into account, the number of terrorist attacks in the US has actually dropped significantly since the early 1970s.
Fatalities caused by terrorist attacks in the US have also went down since the 1970s and early 1980s with the exception of large events such as the 9/11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
What is striking about the study is that it concludes that immigration itself is not associated with crime and instead actually functions to suppress crime according to previous studies. Other researchers have argued that language diversity, or the number of different languages spoken in an area, should be used instead of focusing simply on foreign-born populations. Perhaps, but during uncertain economic down times and in an age of increased national security, immigrant populations are often used as a scapegoat. Could immigration actually lead to less terrorist attacks? In terms of crime in general this seems to be the case. For example, a study from 2010 published in Social Science Quarterly, asked whether immigration influenced the drop in urban crime in the US from 1990-2000. It found that cities with the largest increase in immigration experienced the biggest drop in homicide and robbery during the same time period. But maybe stretching these results beyond ‘ordinary crime’ would be going too far?
We found no significant relationship between the likelihood of terrorist attacks and the percentage of the population that is recently foreign-born or the racial composition of the population of the county. The substantive story remains virtually the same when controlling for the homicide rate and in the model with no ordinary crime controls. The main exception is the effect of concentrated disadvantage on the probability of a terrorist attack. START
Surprisingly, the study found that while ordinary crime tends to go up in economically disadvantaged areas terrorist attacks are less likely to occur. Also, counties that experienced a terrorist attack usually have higher crime rates than those that have never experienced an attack. While the results are indeed interesting there is plenty of room for questions regarding whether identifying ‘language diversity’ as an indicator of terrorism could potentially cause more problems in areas where a diverse range of cultural values, especially language, are the backbone of many communities. Also, assuming that homogenous areas (where everyone is the same) of the US are more stable can also be delusive as they are the least culturally diverse and potentially more isolating. There is clearly a much larger discussion here about the advantages and limitations of social science in understanding terrorist threats as well as how these threats are perceived within individual communities, if at all.