Most people remember exactly where they were when the Twin Towers collapsed in a pile of rubble and fire in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. For many Americans, that morning’s events acted as a signpost of sorts — a defining moment for an older generation that last experienced this kind of collective mourning after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and for millennials, for whom this was the first major news event of their lives.
In the 15 years since the attacks, anxieties about radicalism and violence have increased in the U.S. These fears have made terrorism a top-of-mind security concern for Americans, and led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration.
Since then, smaller-scale terrorist attacks — and reports of foiled plots — have kept Americans on edge. The so-called Beltway snipers had the Washington, D.C., region on high alert in 2002, and recent mass shootings in Southern California and Orlando have also kept terrorism in the news.
In 2015, there were 38 terrorist attacks or threats in the United States, according to data from the Global Terrorism Database. Although an unsettling tally, it doesn’t come close to the number of attacks in the 1970s and 1980s. During that 20-year span, there was an average of about 99 terrorism attacks or threats per year, largely due to nationalist or anti-war groups.
Incidents of terrorism have fallen significantly since that peak in 1970. But the 38 terrorist attacks or threats in 2015 mark the highest count since 2001, when there were 40. As the InsideGov visualization below shows, the number of attacks and threats has been increasing fairly steadily again since 2011.
Public opinion surveys reveal a similar pattern. Gallup polls show that concerns about terrorism are among their highest since the weeks following the 2001 attacks. In October 2001, for example, 59 percent of people reported they were very worried or somewhat worried that they or a family member would be a victim of a terrorist attack. As of December 2015, that number sat at 51 percent.
As of August 21, there have been seven terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2016, according to data from IntelCenter. That count includes police officer deaths in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as well as the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
As the map shows, those seven attacks put the U.S. on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to the number of terrorist attacks in each country this year. The Middle East has been hit particularly hard, with Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing the most attacks. In Syria, 1,416 attacks have taken place in the first eight months of 2016.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also referred to as ISIL, has been especially deadly there. IntelCenter data shows that ISIL has killed more than 2,000 people in Syria so far this year.
ISIL’s wrath in the Middle East reflects a changing landscape when it comes to terrorist groups. Although the group began in 1999 — and once allied itself with Al Qaida — ISIL gave itself its current name in 2013 and became more well known in the following years. IntelCenter data reveals that ISIL is responsible for at least 2,381 attacks in 13 countries, and for at least 13,603 deaths in total.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, on the other hand, were carried out by Al Qaida. That group was a bigger player in the early 2000s, when it perpetrated its most — and deadliest — attacks. But overall, it hasn’t been as prolific as ISIL. As a point of comparison, IntelCenter data shows Al Qaida is responsible for a total of at least 50 attacks in 10 countries, and for at least 3,516 deaths. That’s about a quarter of the total fatalities caused by ISIL.
That being said, Al Qaida executed the deadliest terrorist attack in world history. The group’s coordinated attack in 2001 killed 2,996 people and injured more than 6,000.
Without question, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were an American tragedy of the highest degree. But they were also an outlier.
In the last two years, ISIL’s deadliest attacks have taken place in the Middle East. As the visualization shows, the group has also inspired several attacks, especially in the United States.
The largest ISIL-inspired attack occurred in Orlando, when a gunman killed 49 people at a nightclub this June. That mass shooting marked the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
Like any terrorism-related fatalities, the shooting in Orlando was devastating. But, from a data perspective, these numbers — as well as the tallies from the 2001 attacks — don’t come close to some of the more common causes of death in the United States.
The most common cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, which claims about 610,000 lives every year, or about one in four deaths. In 2014 alone, more than 1.2 million Americans died from heart disease and cancer, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the visualization below, Graphiq research site HealthGrove outlines the top 50 causes of death in the United States, with data reflecting totals from 2014. For some perspective, the last on the list, chronic viral hepatitis, resulted in 7,476 deaths — 152 times as many U.S. deaths as caused by ISIL this year.
Similar insights come through when looking at data about natural disasters, like extreme heat, tornadoes and tropical storms.
According to the National Weather Service, 333 people died from natural hazards in 2014. That same year, the Global Terrorism Database reported 19 fatalities and six injuries from terrorist attacks in the U.S.
While death by terrorism doesn’t register as a particularly common way to die in the U.S., the same can’t be said for other countries. Take Iraq, for example, where 3,350 people have died so far in ISIL attacks in 2016, according to IntelCenter. That total would rank ISIL as among the top 15 causes of death in Iraq, using World Health Organization data from 2014 as a reference for leading causes of death in Iraq.
A recent InsideGov story looked at data specific to ISIL terrorist attacks in 2016. It pointed out that, in the U.S., you are about nine times more likely to die as a result of falling out of bed than in an ISIL terrorist attack.
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