You are more likely to be struck by lightning than killed or injured in a terrorist attack.
This is the type of rhetoric that is often used to calm the public when the national threat level is increased. Although the days of the color-coded ranking system from the Department of Homeland Security are long gone, the U.S. government is still quick to warn the public when there are credible reports of an upcoming terrorist plot against Americans.
Public concerns over terrorism have certainly declined precipitously since September 11, 2001 and have remained far behind the economy, job creation and political polarization on the list of voters’ worries. Yet it only takes one mass casualty attack or a single, publicized beheading of an American citizen to regain the attention of the American public. The fact that 71 percent of American voters in the 2014 midterms were worried about a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland is an indication that violent groups like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are still hovering in the minds of many Americans.
Like it or not, terrorism will continue to be a problem for the United States, its allies and the rest of the international community. Like narcotics or petty crime, terrorism cannot be eliminated—it can only be degraded and managed to a point that allows everyone to live their lives in relative peace.
Here is a list of the five deadliest terrorist groups that are operating today, and the five that are no doubt at the top of Washington’s radar:
1. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant:
It takes a special kind of terrorist organization to force the world’s most powerful and professional military into action halfway around the globe. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS or simply the Islamic State) is exactly this type of organization: strong enough to rout several divisions of a national army, and rich enough to sustain their operations at an impressive pace.
Estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency to have a size of 31,000 fighters, ISIL has single-handedly swept across an area of the Middle East roughly the size of Belgium. The swift and easy capture of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, by several thousand ISIL fighters in June 2014 had the effect of not only embarrassing the Iraqi government in the eyes of its people, but revealing how poorly led and pathetic the Iraqi security forces had become. Absent President Barack Obama’s decision to authorize targeted airstrikes against ISIL positions in early August, there wasa very real possibility that several more divisions of the Iraqi army could have collapsed.
A major difference between ISIL and the litany of other Islamist terrorist organizations competing for fundraising and recruits is that the former is succeeding in a task that not even Al Qaeda could accomplish: capturing territory, holding that territory and declaring an Islamic caliphate in the very heart of the Arab world. And ISIL is doing it in the most brutal way imaginable: rounding up and executing anyone who shows the slightest bit of resistance to its domination. At least four cases of mass killings by ISIL terrorists have been documented, including the execution of 250 Syrian troops in August after the group captured the al-Tabqa air base. Several weeks ago, over 200 Iraqi tribesmen were massacred west of Ramadi in what can only be described as an attempt by ISIL to extinguish any competitor, however passive, who dares to rise up and challenge its authority.
Combined with a Treasury Department study that assesses ISIL’s crude oil revenue at a value of $1 million per day, it’s safe to say that the United States and the coalition it has assembled has a lot of work ahead of them.
2. Boko Haram:
The jihadist group in northeastern Nigeria catapulted to the world’s attention when a boarding school in the Nigerian border town of Chibok was raided in the middle of the night. Around 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were taken captive by Boko Haram militants and threatened with forced marriage and forced conversion.
Yet Boko Haram has been menacing Nigeria’s northern communities for years. Public reports state that the organization was founded in 2002, but it’s activities only reached global spotlight in 2009, when Boko Haram’s new leader, Abubakr Shekau, launched what can only be described as an insurgency against the Nigerian government using nothing but terrorist tactics.
Boko Haram has razed entire villages to the ground, its inhabitants often killed with bullets to the head or burned alive. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that at least 6,742 people have been killed as a result of Boko Haram’s violence since May 2011—although the murky nature of violence in Nigeria and multiple claims of responsibility guarantee that this is an incredibly conservative figure. No target is off limits for Boko Haram either; last Monday, over fifty schoolchildren were killed in a suicide bombing that many speculate was a Boko Haram member. This wouldn’t be all that surprising, given the group’s history of destroying schools and burning students alive in their dormitories.