America’s War on Terror: Democracy is No Panacea

Nine days after the attacks of September 11, the President declared America’s war on terror had begun. After the Bush Administration perceived early successes in Afghanistan, spreading democracy became one of the key policies supporting America’s strategy for the war on terror. Over time, the President came to view the promotion of democracy as a positive and transformational change agent for the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries. Empirical analysis, however, suggests democracy promotion did not help America achieve its broad objectives in the war on terror, though democracy indicators did marginally improve.          

This is Part 4 of 4 of Erik Goepner‘s paper. In case you missed them, read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3; the full paper is available here.

America’s efforts in the war on terror have not achieved the desired objectives. Whether measuring the number of global terror attacks, number of attacks against the U.S. homeland, fatalities caused by terrorists, number of Islamist-inspired terror groups or the amount of fighters aligned with Islamist-inspired terror groups, the data suggests U.S. efforts in the war on terror have achieved disappointing results. During the 12 years prior to 9/11, terrorists committed an average of just over 3,200 attacks annually. In 2001, that number dropped to under 1,900 attacks. Since the U.S. initiated its war on terror, however, the average number of attacks has climbed to almost 4,300 per year.[1] Regarding the U.S. homeland, the attacks of 9/11 were a statistical outlier, making it difficult to determine if other similarly sized attacks might have followed. In the 13 years before 2001, there were five Islamist-inspired terror attacks in America. That compares to four attacks in the 13 years since.[2] Another 63 Islamist-inspired terror attacks against the homeland have been thwarted in the past 13 years, as well.[3]

Similar to the rise in worldwide terror attacks, the number of fatalities have likewise climbed, but at a faster rate. Nearly 6,500 people were killed worldwide per year in terror attacks for the decade-plus before 9/11. In 2001, more than 7,700 were killed. Then, in the 12 years since, the annual average has risen to just under 9,500. The before and after numbers for U.S. citizens killed by acts of terrorism are similarly discomforting, with 45 killed per year before 9/11 and 64 each year since.[4]

A final macro measurement for the war on terror examines the number of Islamist-inspired groups identified by the Department of State (DoS) as foreign terrorist organizations and how many fighters comprise those groups. Since 2000, the overall number of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) increased by 86 percent, from 29 to 54. The subset comprised of Islamist-inspired FTOs, though, grew by 185 percent, from 13 to 37 groups.[5] Moreover, the number of fighters within those groups has dramatically increased from an estimated 32,200 in 2000 to more than 110,000 in 2013.[6]

Unlike the overall measures of performance for the war on terror which have all worsened since 2001, governance and democracy measures are not as clear-cut. Freedom House’s indicators show a marginal, though statistically insignificant, improvement for the 47 Muslim-majority countries since 2001. The average political rights and civil liberties’ scores for all Muslim-majority states were essentially identical in the years prior to, and including, 2001. Since that time, they have improved by nearly 6 percent (Freedom House scores range from 1 “most free” to 7 “least free”).[7] However, a chi-square statistical analysis indicates the difference in pre- and post-9/11 scores were not statistically significant (X2=7.819, p=0.729). Though insignificant, the modest improvement occurred as average freedom scores declined worldwide for the past nine years.[8]

Afghanistan and Iraq had the lowest possible Freedom House scores for the years prior to 9/11 (i.e., 7). Scores for both countries have improved since, though neither has yet been listed among the 125 countries currently meeting the definition of an “electoral democracy.” The Polity IV Project from the Center for Systemic Peace provides another governance measurement. Their assessment of Afghanistan is unchanged from 2001. Throughout the past 13 years, they have assessed the country as “moderately fragmented,” meaning 10 to 25 percent of Afghanistan is ruled by authorities unconnected to the central government.[9] The assessment of Iraq, though, has changed rather dramatically. In the decade prior to the U.S. invasion, they assessed Iraq as extremely autocratic. Beginning in 2003 and holding for the next six years, they assessed Iraq as seriously fragmented, with between 25 and 50 percent of the country being ruled by authorities that were not connected to the central government. Then, beginning in 2010, Iraq was listed as slightly democratic and that assessment remained through 2013, which was the last year recorded. [10] No assessment has been made since the Islamic State seized sizeable portions of the country, so it is quite likely that the next report will list Iraq as moderately or seriously fragmented.

In conclusion, the decision to include democracy promotion as a key part of the war on terror did not happen immediately. Rather, it appears to have occurred in response to perceived early successes in Afghanistan. Policymakers apparently missed or ignored much of the research and intelligence available at the time that highlighted the numerous challenges to successfully democratizing Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, the research since 9/11 largely corroborates the earlier research. Finally, the quantitative analysis indicates democracy promotion did not help achieve the desired outcomes in the war on terror, though modest gains in democracy measures were observed.

Image Credit: Cpl. James L. Yarboro

[1] Data from the Global Terrorism Database, available at
[2] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2013). Global Terrorism Database [globalterrorismdb_0814dist-1.xlsx]. Retrieved from
[3] David Inserra and James Phillips, “67 Islamist Terrorist Plots Since 9/11: Spike in Plots Inspired by Terrorist Groups, Unrest in Middle East,” The Heritage Foundation, April 22, 2015,
[4] Data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2013). Global Terrorism Database [globalterrorismdb_0814dist-1.xlsx]. Retrieved from
[5] Bureau of Public Affairs Department Of State. The Office of Website Management, “2000 (Patterns of Global Terrorism),” March 23, 2006, 2000/; Bureau of Public Affairs Department Of State. The Office of Website Management, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2013,” U.S. Department of State, April 30, 2014, http://; Martha Crenshaw, “Mapping Militant Organizations,” Stanford University, accessed March 27, 2015, /group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups.
[6] Martha Crenshaw, “Mapping Militant Organizations,” Stanford University, accessed March 27, 2015, See also Department of State Country Reports and Patterns of Global Terrorism at http://www.
[7] Data from
[8] Arch Puddington, “Discarding Democracy: A Return to the Iron Fist,” Freedom House, 2015,
[9] Monty Marhsall, Ted Gurr, and Keith Jaggers, Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2013: Dataset Users’ Manual (Vienna, VA: Center for Systemic Peace, 2014), 13.
[10] Monty Marshall, Ted Gurr, and Keith Jaggers. 2014. Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2013. [p4v2013-2.xls]. Retrieved from

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