The state of terrorism in the US, 15 years after 9/11

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.

RELATED: Look back at the harrowing events of 9/11

15 most iconic images from September 11, 2001 and aftermath
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15 most iconic images from September 11, 2001 and aftermath
Content in this photo gallery may be difficult for some to see -- viewer discretion is advised. 

This September 11, 2001 file photo shows US President George W. Bush interrupted by his Chief of Staff Andrew Card(L) shortly after news of the New York City airplane crashes was available in Sarasota, Florida.

(Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 (L) flies toward the World Trade Center twin towers shortly before slamming into the south tower as the north tower burns following an earlier attack by a hijacked airliner in New York City September 11, 2001. The stunning aerial assaults on the huge commercial complex where more than 40,000 people worked on an ordinary day were part of a coordinated attack aimed at the nation's financial heart. They destroyed one of America's most dramatic symbols of power and financial strength and left New York reeling. (REUTERS/Sean Adair)

The second tower of the World Trade Center explodes into flames after being hit by a airplane, New York September 11, 2001 with the Brooklyn bridge in the foreground. Both towers of the complex collapsed after being hit by hijacked planes.

(REUTERS/Sara K. Schwittek)

Photo shows the point of impact where a plane crashed into the North tower of the World Trade Center in New York City early September 11, 2001. Three hijacked planes crashed into major U.S. landmarks on Tuesday, destroying both of New York's mighty twin towers and plunging the Pentagon in Washington into flames, in an unprecedented assault on key symbols of U.S. military and financial power.

(Jeff Christensen / Reuters)

This 11 September 2001 file photo shows Marcy Borders covered in dust as she takes refuge in an office building after one of the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York. Borders was caught outside on the street as the cloud of smoke and dust enveloped the area.

(Photo credit STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

A true-color image taken by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) aboard the Landsat 7 satellite on September 12, 2001 shows New York City and the smoldering World Trade Center following the September 11, 2001 attacks in this handout photo courtesy of NASA. The image was captured at roughly 11:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time.


A person falls to their death from the World Trade Center after two planes hit the Twin Towers September 11, 2001 in New York City.

(Photo by Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images)

The south tower of the World Trade Center collapses September 11, 2001 in New York City.

(Thomas Nilsson/ Getty Images)

This 11 September 2001 file photo shows pedestrians running from the scene as one of the World Trade Center towers collapses in New York City following a terrorist plane crash on the twin towers.

(DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Rescue operations at Ground Zero; Firefighters finding victims and searching for survivors at the wreckage of the World Trade Center Towers following Tuesday's Terrorist attack in New York, United states on September 14, 2001.

(Photo by Graham MORRISON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Rescue workers carry fatally injured New York City Fire Depatment Chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, from one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, early September 11, 2001. Both towers were hit by planes crashing into the buildings and collapsed a short time later.

(REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

The damaged area of the Pentagon building, where a hijacked commercial jetliner slammed into it September 11, 2001, is seen in this file photo with the U.S. Capitol Building in the background, at sunrise on September 16, 2001.

(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Firefighters raise a U.S. flag at the site of the World Trade Center after two hijacked commercial airliners were flown into the buildings September 11, 2001 in New York.

(Photo by 2001 The Record (Bergen Co. NJ)/Getty Images)

A New York City fireman calls for more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center September 15, 2001.

(REUTERS/Handout/U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres)

Members of the New York Fire and Police Departments salute as a truck carrying the last steel column of the World Trade Center moves up West Street from inside of the World Trade Center site May 30, 2002 as the recovery effort at Ground Zero officially ends in New York.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


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.

Follow InsideGov on Twitter: @inside_gov

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