How many recorded incidents are there of attacks on Australian soil?

How many recorded incidents are there of attacks on Australian soil?

There are two that I am aware of:

  • Japanese midget submarines entering Sydney Harbour
  • The bombing of Darwin 1942 and 1943

I am not looking for Naval battles but actual attacks on Australian soil.

Southeast New Guinea (Papua) was legally part of Australia during WWII, and there were battles there as the Japanese tried to take out Port Moresby. This includes the advance over the Owen Stanley Mountains and the landing in Milne Bay.

Depends on what you call "Australia" and "attacks".

One could say that the UK attacked and took over the country from the natives that were there initially.

Aside from attacks during the two already mentioned time periods - European colonisation and the Japanese attacks during WW2 - there was another attack on Australian soil, though not on the continent itself: In the early morning of 2004-09-09, a car bomb was detonated at the Australian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Of course, an embassy's area isn't, strictly speaking, sovereign territory of the country maintaining it. However, it does enjoy a wide array of protection similar to such a territory and any attack on such can be perceived as an attack on the country itself - and has on occasion been treated as such.

A Japanese submarine bombarded the suburbs of Sydney, including Rose Bay, with a small cannon. As part of the initial attacks on Northern Australia, there were air raids at several points including a devastating attack on a seaplane base at Broome in North-Western Australia. Eventually the Japanese had to re-deploy the carrier forces that led these attacks (they were largely destroyed at Midway) and the fighting shifted to New Guinea and the Solomons. The Japanese then had few resources to waste in attacks on mainland Australia.

The long, unfortunate history of friendly fire accidents in U.S. conflicts

WASHINGTON — The deaths of five Americans killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan stand as a fresh reminder of the dangers of friendly fire, an element of war that is older than the nation.

In 1758, during the French and Indian War, a detachment of the British Army led by Col. George Washington got into a firefight with a fellow infantry unit that had arrived to offer assistance. At dusk on a foggy day, they apparently mistook each other for French forces, and at least 13 British troops were killed.

In the Civil War, Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson died of pneumonia eight days after being hit by friendly fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia.

In World War II, Army Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair died when an errant Allied bomb struck his position as the Allies struggled to break out from Normandy.

In Vietnam, helicopter gunships killed U.S. troops on Hamburger Hill.

Today, the basic challenge remains the same: distinguishing between friend and foe.

Better training and the precision of modern weapons have helped to reduce fratricide but can’t completely eliminate the risk, says retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University.

“War is a very human endeavor, and mistakes inevitably will occur,” says Mansoor.

Some examples of friendly fire incidents in recent history:


It was a celebrated moment when Pat Tillman turned down an NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment when he was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The military said officers knew within hours that his death was from friendly fire but violated regulations by not telling Tillman’s family or the public for five weeks.

Some of the details that later emerged: Tillman was close enough to see the men shooting at him when he was killed his uniform was burned after his death medical examiners’ suspicions about the bullet holes in his head were ignored and comrades were ordered not to discuss his death. Just one day after approving a medal citation claiming Tillman had been cut down by “devastating enemy fire” in Afghanistan, a high-ranking general tried to warn President George W. Bush that the story might not be true.


On one of the Iraq war’s deadliest days for American troops, as many as 10 Marines were killed by U.S. airstrikes ordered by a Marine air controller who mistook their vehicles for enemy forces. A Pentagon investigation of the events of March 23, 2003, found “communications problems throughout the battalion.” While under heavy fire from Iraqi artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms, Charlie Company requested close air support, and two A-10 attack planes responded to the call. The Marine forward air controller cleared the A-10s to fire on the vehicles, not realizing they were from Charlie Company. The attack planes made multiple strikes until they were eventually told to cease fire.


Four Canadians died in April 2002 when an American pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb near where the troops were apparently conducting a live-fire exercise. The pilot blamed the bombing on the “fog of war,” saying he mistook the Canadians’ gunfire for an attack by Taliban forces. He said his superiors never told him the Canadians would be conducting live-fire exercises that night.


Three American soldiers and five Afghans died when special forces troops escorting Hamid Karzai’s fighters called in an airstrike meant to hit Taliban positions on Dec. 5, 2001. Instead, a B-52 bomber dropped a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb on a battalion command post occupied by the American forces and Afghan allies, including Karzai, the future president. Pentagon officials later said the bomb went astray, because the Air Force combat controller who set the coordinates for the attack had changed the batteries on his GPS receiver, which reset the coordinates back to the user’s own location rather than the Taliban position.


One of the worst self-inflicted losses in U.S. military history occurred in April 1994, when F-15 fighters shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in the “no fly” zone over northern Iraq. Twenty-six people were killed, including 15 Americans, military officers from Britain, France and Turkey and five Kurdish workers. They were supporting U.N. humanitarian relief efforts on behalf of Kurds in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. The F-15 pilots thought the Black Hawks were Iraqi craft violating the restricted zone.

General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave this summary in releasing a 22-volume Pentagon report on the incident: “In place were not just one, but a series of safeguards — some human, some procedural, some technical — that were supposed to ensure an accident of this nature could never happen. Yet, quite clearly, these safeguards failed.” No one was found criminally responsible.

Garissa University College Attack, Kenya, 2015

The worst mass shooting in recent recorded history took place in Kenya on April 3, 2015. On this dire day, 148 people were killed in a terror attack committed in the name of the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab. The gruesome killing had four gunmen target students and staff who self-identified as Christians. Victims were asked on the spot whether they were Muslim or Christian. Depending on how they answered, they were killed in broad daylight or let go.

Why kill? The perpetrators said they were retaliating for acts of violence committed by Kenya’s security forces in the country.

How many recorded incidents are there of attacks on Australian soil? - History

compiled by Wm. Robert Johnston
last updated 5 December 2017

  • use in warfare: multiple attacks within a war are grouped together.
  • use by terrorists: includes attacks with larger numbers of casualties.
  • other: several criminal incidents and accidental chemical releases are included because of their significance.
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© 2013-2016, 2017 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 5 December 2017.
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Separation canyon incident

On the first Powell expedition through the Grand Canyon in 1869, an incident occurred when the exploring party separated after a series of hardships and dangers. Some weeks into their voyage into "the great unknown" as Powell put it, the members of his expedition grew desperate when the dangers mounted and food supplies ran desperately low. Running harrowing Rapids and falls on frail wooden boats, numerous portages, and constantly being enclosed by sheer narrow stone walls and no end in sight, three of Powell's party announced on August 28 that they had enough of this dangerous voyage and planned to attempt to hike out on foot.

In Powell's words: "we come to a place that seems worse than any yet: to run it would be sure destruction. After supper, Captain Howland asks to talk with me. He, his brother, and William Dunn have determined to go no farther. Some tears are shed: each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course."

The three men hike up what is now known as Seperation Canyon while Powell and the rest of his party continue down the canyon in their boats. This tragedy is made worse by the fact that Powell  and his expedition floated out of the Grand Canyon a day later, all alive and well,  but the fate of the three hikers ended in death.

When Powell inquired of their fate, he heard that the three were killed by Indians as they emerged from the canyons in a mistaken identity situation. Powell, in a subsequent trip, went to these Indians to learn more about what happened and met those who killed Dunn and the two Howland brothers. The Indians were apologetic and Powell accepted the news with grace and understanding. His official report was that the three were killed in a situation where they were mistaken for a group of white troublemakers, but the unofficial version is more grim.

It is said that the Indians who slayed the three described them to Powell as stark raving mad: They emerged from the canyon in a ragged gait, their skin as grey as stone, covered with numerous and grievous open injuries, somewhat desiccated with no bleeding, and a hollow look in their eyes. Upon sight of the Indians, they moaned loudly, and charged after them in a clumsy manner. The Indians, realizing the nature of this "netherworld disease", killed them immediately, seeing they were already dead, and beyond hope. Powell, having observed something similar in an isolated incident during the Civil War, seemed to understand completely. No attempts were made to avenge their deaths, but the question remained as to what dreadful secret lurks in Seperation Canyon, as the cause of their infection remains a mystery.

Government Terrorist Trackers Before 9/11: Higher Ups Wouldn’t Listen

The road to 9/11 was littered with opportunities that the United States missed to cripple al Qaeda and to avert the attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout the 1990s, small dedicated teams of intelligence analysts and FBI agents toiled in obscurity, as al Qaeda and its associates attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000, along with several smaller “lone wolf” attacks. HISTORY talked to five intelligence and law-enforcement veterans of those investigations about the challenges they faced convincing others in the government of the threat posed by al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist groups.

Cynthia Storer, Former analyst with the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center

One of first big missed opportunities was just losing most of our intelligence collection after the Soviets began to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1988. It was that peace dividend that [President Bill] Clinton wanted, that the American people wanted after the Soviet Union collapsed, so we fired all of our Afghan assets and ramped down our signals-intelligence collection and everything else. If you don’t get the information to follow something closely, then you’re going to be behind the curve, which is what happened.

Everybody needed to have a change of mindset. At the end of the Cold War, the beginning of this international Sunni terrorist organization was something nobody imagined could happen, because 𠆊rabs can’t work together, and these guys are a bunch of ragheads who’ve been fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan.’ Except that we knew there was a lot of very well-educated people who had been hanging out together in Afghanistan for 10 years.

Those of us who worked it weren’t under those illusions, but that was the conventional wisdom—that they weren’t capable of doing anything. We were in the Counterterrorist Center, which was the first center in the CIA [established in 1986], so the rest of the organization didn’t really understand what we did, and we were looked down on. So that combination of factors, and having women, frankly, be in the forefront of this, made it hard to convince people. My experience is, from studying these things academically, it takes about 10 years to turn people’s mindsets around. We didn’t have 10 years.

New York City Police officers view the damage caused by a truck bomb that exploded in the garage of New York’s World Trade Center, 1993, that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. (Credit: Richard Drew/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

[The skepticism over al Qaeda’s threat] was bad enough that the week of the Africa bombings in �, I was supposed to go on rotation to another office, because I was tired of swimming upstream or battling uphill or whatever you want to call it. I was exhausted. And I was tired of being talked down to… I actually got counseled by my branch chief on my performance review that I was spending too much time on bin Laden.

It’s the first-through-the-door problem. The first people that notice something are going to be in the minority and people are going to pooh-pooh them until they get everybody on board.

Ali Soufan, FBI agent who worked on the Cole and 9/11 investigations

There’s lots of political missed opportunities. Seriously, where do you start? Bin Laden declared jihad on America in 1996, they did the East Africa embassy bombing, we were not serious about our response. We launched a few cruise missiles that did not have any significant damage on al Qaeda. At the time, we didn’t have domestic unity. A lot of people did not believe that there was something called terrorism… When we had the USS Cole attack, there was no response whatsoever… Bin Laden was emboldened more and more because he took that as a sign of weakness.

The 86th Airlift Wing Honor Guard carrying the coffin with the remains of Senior Master Sargent Sherry Lynn Olds, who was killed during the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. (Credit: Kevin Wolf/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Jack Cloonan, FBI agent who worked on the CIA-FBI Osama bin Laden unit from 1996-2002

You could say that while [al Qaeda] was beating up on the Soviets and helping us, that was terrific. But after the Soviets departed Afghanistan, the question [for U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement] then was, ‘Well, who are these people? What are they doing? What’s their focus? And was it the United States? If it was, when did that occur, and what were we doing about it?’ One of the things that I think about often is how these individual acts [like the 1990 assassination of ultra-nationalist orthodox rabbi Meir Kahane] were investigated, but not necessarily seen as part of a much broader, foreign-based radical Islam that was launching this and that the United States was Target Number One.

Matthew Besheer, Port Authority detective assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force

When we identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM] as the person who wired money to Ramzi Yousef for the � World Trade Center bombing, we indicted him and started looking for him. But as far as the greater, bigger role that he had, it was very difficult at the time to convince higher ups what we were doing… A lot of the upper echelon within the government want a CSI-type of investigation where you start the investigation at 9 o𠆜lock and by 10 o𠆜lock you’re all out having a beer because you’ve made an arrest and had a trial. But many times with these terrorist investigations, you’re chasing people that basically disappear into the wind, and you’ve got to find out all their different names, you’ve got to find out their contacts𠅊nd it takes time, it takes a huge amount of effort, and it takes a lot of money.

John Anticev, FBI agent who was part of the effort to build a case against bin Laden

Only folks in New York and a handful of really good analysts and mid-level bosses in FBI headquarters knew how important—prior to the � World Trade Center bombing—how important this group was.

I try to explain to people, when they go, ‘Why didn’t they do anything more?’ I just tell people, if you live on a certain street, and you know down the block is a dangerous intersection, and you go to your local official, and you say, ‘Let’s put a stop sign or a light there,’ they always tell you ‘no’ until a school bus crashes into something over there, and then they’ll put something up. The federal government works kind of the same way. You can tell them that this group is dangerous, and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know, we know,’ but they’re just not going to shift money and resources into it from drugs and organized crime because John Anticev says these guys are dangerous…That’s just the way it goes.

President Bill Clinton bows his head in a moment of silence during a memorial service for victims of the explosion on the USS Cole, 18 October, 2000. The attack in Yemen left 17 US sailors dead and 39 injured. (Credit: Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images)

HISTORY asked our sources what they learned during their time chasing al Qaeda in the 1990s that they would pass on to their present-day counterparts:

Storer: You need subject-matter experts whose job is only to look at the information—not to collect it, not to go to meetings, not to play politics. You need the experts to give you a sound read on what’s happening that’s free of political considerations. If you don’t get that, then it’s one of the way things kind of go off the rails.

Anticev: Work hard, become a subject-matter expert in what you’re doing, because the FBI now has become so transient, people are moving from one squad to another or one division to another. If you want to work with terrorism, stay with terrorism. There is no substitute for experience, sticking with a certain subject and becoming an expert in it, because it is so apparent to your adversaries—your competency when you talk to them.

Soufan: The importance of remembering we’re all on the same team. The importance of sharing information with each other, but also the importance of focusing on the ideology and focusing on the narrative, and not just getting blinded with names: ‘Is it al Qaeda? Is it ISIS? Is it Ansar al-Sharia? Is it AQIM? Is it AQAP?’ We are still fighting the same global jihadi narrative and there is no small little bit of information that’s irrelevant. Every bit of information, as small as it gets, might be important one day, and might be the piece that you need in order to put a big plot together.

Cloonan: You have to understand psychology, you have to understand their religion, you have to understand their motivation. You can’t just look at this like, ‘Oh, I’ve been given a case, I’ve got 90 days to do x, y and z.’ You need education, learning so much more about your target, and adding a level of sophistication that just wasn’t there. You need language skills. We𠆝 be better served if we had a lot of cross-training with the CIA, if we had people of different color and many more Muslim agents. Lastly, do we think this threat is going to end any time soon? If there’s anything I’ve learned from speaking to these people, it’s that their sense of time is a lot different than ours. Their sense of revenge is a lot different, meaning that revenge in their mind extends for centuries. And if we’re going to do anything to counter this stuff, you𠆝 better be prepared to be in this for the long haul.

Besheer: Do not think that any stone is not important. You have to look under every rock. If it takes six months’ worth of investigation to find out that he’s not connected, well then it takes six months of investigation, but you need to do it. Because in the very early days nobody was really giving a lot of credence to KSM as being a big player in all of this. And you know how it turned out later on. We also don’t need to be fighting over budgetary constraints when conducting these investigations. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of money. My daughter just had identical twin boys, and deep down in my heart I fear for what these guys are going to be fighting for in 20 years, because we still have our heads in the sand. We don’t see it…The terrorists are telling us, ‘We’re coming, we’re coming, we’re coming,’ and we’re not doing anything about it. It’s frustrating to me because I lost 37 good friends on 9/11 and every night I dream of them and every night I go to bed doubting myself that I didn’t do everything I could possibly have done, and because of that these guys are dead. It’s a terrible, terrible burden.

Timeline of fatal Australian shark attacks in recent history:

17 April 2017: 17-year-old Laeticia Maree Brouwer is surfing with her father at Wylie Bay, a few kilometres from Esperance, WA, when she was attacked by a shark, most likely a great white shark. Laeticia later died from her injuries in hospital.

31 May 2016: Ben Gerring, 29, from Mandurah south of Perth in Western Australia, is attacked by a great white shark at a popular surf spot called Gearies. He died in a Perth hospital four days later.

25 July 2015: Tasmanian man Damian Johnson, 46, is killed by a great white shark while diving for scallops with his daughter, between Maria and Lachland islands.

9 February 2015: Japanese national Tadashi Nakahara, 41, is killed at Shelly Beach, at Ballina, in northern NSW. A local surf shop employee, he was believed to be taken by a great white shark while he was out surfing.

29 December 2014: Jay Muscat, is killed at Chaeynes Beach, east of Albany in Western Australia.

15 December 2014: Daniel Smith, 18, of Mossman, is killed while fishing at Rudder Reef, off the coast of Port Douglas.

9 September 2014: Paul Wilcox, 50, is found floating and is unable to be resuscitated after being pulled from the water near Clarkes Beach at Byron Bay. Wiitnesses saw a 3m great white in the area immediately after the attack.

3 April 2014: Christine Armstrong, 63 is taken by a suspected bronze whaler shark as she lagged behind her daily swimming group at Tathra Beach, NSW.

8 February 2014: High school English teacher and experienced diver Sam Kellet, 28, is killed by a suspected great white shark while he was spear fishing near Edithburgh, SA.

29 November 2013: Zac Young, 19, dies from cardiac arrest after being attacked by a shark while bodyboarding with friends near Riecks Point north of Coffs Harbour in NSW.

23 November 2013: Chris Boyd, 35, is attacked by a shark, believed to be a great white, while surfing at the popular surf break Umbries off Gracetown in WA.

14 July 2012: Ben Linden, 24, is killed while surfing near Wedge Island, WA, 180km north of Perth. A witness who tried to help said the shark swam away with the body.

31 March 2012: Peter Kurmann, 33, is taken in south-western WA while diving in the Port Geographe Marina. His brother, who was diving with him, tried to fight off the shark with a knife.

22 October 2011: American tourist George Thomas Wainwright, 32, sustains horrific injuries and dies while scuba diving off Rottnest Island.

10 October 2011: Bryn Martin, 64, disappears at Cottesloe Beach and is presumed a shark attack victim. Only his damaged Speedos were found.

4 September 2011: Kyle Burden, 21, is taken by a shark while bodyboarding with friends at Bunker Bay, near Dunsborough, WA.

17 February 2011: An abalone diver is taken in an attack by two sharks, believed to be great whites, while surfacing near Perforated Island in Coffin Bay, SA.

17 August 2010: A 31-year-old man dies from serious injuries after being attacked by a shark while surfing near Gracetown in WA’s south-west.

27 December 2008: Fisherman Brian Guest, 51, is taken by a great white while snorkelling at Port Kennedy in Perth’s south. His son and beachgoers saw the shark attack and swim off with him in its mouth.

8 April 2008: A 16-year-old boy from Wollongbar is killed by a shark while bodyboarding off Ballina’s Lighthouse Beach on the NSW north coast.

7 January 2006: Sarah Kate Whiley, 21, is mauled by up to three bull sharks while swimming in waist-deep water with friends at Amity Point, off south-east Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island.

24 August 2005: Marine biologist Jarrod Stehbens, 23, is taken by a shark, believed to be a great white, while diving for cuttlefish eggs with colleagues off Adelaide’s Glenelg Beach.

19 March 2005: Geoffrey Brazier, 26, is attacked by a 6m-long shark, believed to be a great white, while snorkelling near the Abrolhos Islands, off Geraldton, 500km north of Perth.

16 December 2004: Nick Peterson, 18, is killed instantly when attacked by a great white shark while he was being towed behind a boat on a surfboard 300m off Adelaide’s popular metropolitan West Beach.

11 December 2004: Mark Thompson, 38, is attacked by a shark while spear fishing with two friends at Opal Reef, about 75km from Cairns in North Queensland. He died from a cardiac arrest soon after the attack.

10 July 2004: Brad Smith, 29, is attacked by two sharks, believed to be a great white and a large bronze whaler, while surfing near Gracetown in WA’s south-west.

8 February 2003: Bob Purcell, 84, is attacked by a 2.5m bull whaler while swimming in Burleigh Lake on the Gold Coast in Queensland.

16 December 2002: Beau Martin, 23, is attacked while swimming in Miami Lake on the Gold Coast in Queensland.

30 April 2002: Scallop diver Paul Buckland, 23, is dragged from a mate’s arms by a 6m-long great white while trying to get on board a boat in Smoky Bay in the Great Australian Bight, SA.

The Data

The data used in this descriptive analysis by The Heritage Foundation stem from the RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents (RDWTI).[3] The version of the RDWTI used in this analysis contains information on nearly 38,700 terrorist incidents from across the globe between February 1968 and January 2010. For this analysis, terrorist incidents were counted only if the recorded incidents were officially confirmed as a terrorist incident by RAND in the database. In addition, state-sponsored terrorist attacks are excluded from the analysis. The data are limited to incidents that occurred during a 40-year time span from 1969 to 2009. However, this figure underestimates the number of terrorist incidents because the last entries are not complete for all countries.[4]

To keep the RDWTI up-to-date, RAND staff with regional and language expertise review incidents around the world that can be potentially defined as terrorism.[5] In addition, terrorist incidents must be confirmed as such through press reports before they can be officially counted. While the version of RDWTI used by The Heritage Foundation covers terrorist incidents through January 2010, not all cases of recent terrorism are included in this analysis (such as the November 2009 massacre at Fort Hood perpetrated by U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan). As with any database that tries to contain the most current information, there are necessary delays in confirming cases of terrorism to ensure the incidents are correctly recorded.

An important attribute of the RDWTI is the consistent application of its definition of terrorism, as described by Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University:

According to this definition, terrorism is defined by the nature of the incident, not by the identity of the perpetrators.[7] The fundamentals of terrorism include:

  • “Violence or the threat of violence
  • “Calculated to create fear and alarm
  • “Intended to coerce certain actions
  • “Motive must include a political objective
  • “Generally directed against civilian targets and
  • “It can be [carried out by] a group or an individual.”[8]

Essentially, terrorism can be summarized as violent acts that are “calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm to coerce others into actions they would not otherwise undertake, or refrain from actions they desired to take.”[9] Further, regular criminal acts are not counted as terrorism. So, while drug-trafficking conducted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) is not counted as terrorism,[10] FARC’s attacks against Colombian citizens are.[11]

Sights Set on Record-Breaking Height

By this time, the Port Authority had decided that the trade center should replace the 1,250-foot-high Empire State Building, built in 1931, as the world’s tallest building. To fulfill the Port Authority’s requirement, architect Minoru Yamasaki designed two towers of 110 stories each. Instead of the traditional stacked glass-and-steel box construction of many New York skyscrapers, Yamasaki worked with structural engineers to come up with a revolutionary design: two hollow tubes, supported by closely spaced steel columns encased in aluminum. Floor trusses connected this exterior steel lattice to the central steel core of the building. In this way, the “skin” of the building would be strong enough that internal columns wouldn’t be necessary to hold it together.

Construction began in February 1967, after the Port Authority faced down criticism about the towers’ safety and viability from many powerful figures, including real estate tycoon (and Empire State Building owner) Lawrence Wien. Wien even ran an ad in the New York Times in May 1968 predicting that a commercial airliner was likely to fly into the towers. Plans had already been made to guard against such an accident–which had happened in July 1945 with a smaller plane at the Empire State𠄺nd the towers were designed to be safe in a collision with a fully loaded 707 plane (the largest existing plane at the time). It was assumed such a plane would have to be lost in fog for such an event to occur a terrorist attack was never envisioned.

Data Quality

What we can and can’t know about terrorism from the Global Terrorism Database


In our research on terrorism we rely on the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) as a key source of data on incidents and fatalities from terrorism across the world. It’s the most comprehensive database of incidents to date. It does, however, have limitations which we think should be clear before making inferences from trends or signals represented by the data.

In summary, this is our assessment of what the GTD should and should not be used for:

  • Recent data – particularly over the past decade – is likely to be sufficiently complete to infer the distribution of incidents and fatalities across the world, and how they have changed in recent years
  • The complete series, dating back to 1970, for North America and Western Europe we expect to be sufficiently complete to infer trends and changes in terrorism over time
  • GTD data – as its authors acknowledge – undercounts events in the earlier period of the database – the 1970s and 1980s in particular. We would caution against trying to infer trends in terrorism globally since the 1970s
  • We would also caution against trying to infer trends in terrorism across most regions – with the exception of North America and Western Europe – in the earlier decades of this dataset.

In the area of terrorism research, there are now multiple databases available which attempt to record and detail terrorist incidents across the world. Some of the most well-known databases include International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events (ITERATE) RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents (RDWTI) and the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). We take a more detailed look at the differences in estimates from these three databases here.

In our research on terrorism we rely mostly on the Global Terrorism Database for multiple reasons: it’s an open-access resource made available for researchers it is the most up-to-date database available (RAND, in contrast, only extends to 2009) and is the most comprehensive in terms of the number of incidents covered. 36

Since 2006 the database has been curated and maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), at the University of Maryland. In 2007 it was officially published as an academic output in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, and since then has been one of the widely used resources within academic research on terrorism. 37 A large body of peer-reviewed literature on topics ranging from global or regional trends in terrorism its link to poverty and socioeconomic factors governance and counter-terrorism strategy rely on it as the most detailed catalogue of terrorist incidents. 38 , 39 , 40 The GTD also forms the basis of the Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP).

The GTD is therefore well-respected and highly-regarded as a comprehensive data source on global terrorism. It does, however, have limitations which we think should be clear before making inferences from trends or signals represented by the data.

There are two main limitations or challenges with any long-term dataset on terrorism:

  1. The completeness of the database over time
  2. how the concept of ‘terrorism’ is defined, which affects which incidents are or aren’t included in the dataset.

Completeness of terrorist incidents over time

The GTD – as with other terrorism databases – are curated through records and analysis of print and electronic media. 41 This process has undoubtedly become easier over time. We expect that the collation of incidents across the world today and in the recent past is sufficiently complete to understand the global distribution of terrorist incidents and how they have changed over time. A valuable resource which also provides impressive accounts of terrorist incidents across the world is the many detailed entries in Wikipedia by year, by region or by country. Using this as a cross-reference with the GTD, we have high confidence in the completeness of global data in recent years.

Where we have less confidence is the completeness of the data for inferring longer-term changes. The GTD extends back to 1970. In their accounts of the GTD, the authors of the database acknowledge that data for this earlier period most likely undercounts the number of terrorist incidents and victims. 42 This is understandable: it seems unlikely that all terrorist incidents in the world in the 1970s were (1) reported in print media and (2) that all print reports across the world could be traced, collected and analysed. The shift to digital media in recent years has made this process much easier. 

Global records of terrorist incidents – at least in the first half of the dataset – are therefore likely to be an underestimate. We have found no research which attempts to quantify the extent of this underestimate, so we cannot say by how much. 

We do think some countries or regions – most notably the US and Western Europe – have a high degree of completeness over these decades. Since 1970, the GTD has been maintained by four organizations, all of them US-based. Until 1997 the GTD was collated by Pinkerton Global Intelligence Service (PGIS) which trained US researchers to identify terrorist incidents from reports, governmental records and international media to assess the risk of terrorism for clients. We would expect that this mandate would mean records are skewed towards more complete coverage of incidents in the US and countries with better reporting and records of incidents, such as Western Europe. 

In researching our posts: “Has terrorism increased in Western Europe?” and “Has terrorism increased in the United States?” we cross-referenced GTD records with the detailed accounts of these entries on Wikipedia. 43 The GTD contains a much higher number of incidents since those listed on Wikipedia for Europe are limited to attacks with ten or more civilians deaths. But for major incidents, there are closely matched.

For other regions we would caution against inferring trends over this complete time period. One key reason we have reservations about the completeness of earlier data is that there are several incidents we would have expected to have featured in the GTD which are not included.

Definition and methodology of assessing terrorist incidents

The other limitation to inferring particular trends in terrorism are changes in methodology and shifting – or unclear – definitions of terrorism over time. As we discuss in our post ‘What is terrorism?’ there is no clear consensus on a definition of terrorism. Even within the research community there are differences in its scope, and there are often blurry lines between what constitutes terrorism as opposed to other forms of violence such as homicide and civil war. 

We discuss the definition of terrorism used by the GTD here and how its methodology differs from other well-known databases here. But an additional question when trying to understand changes, is whether the GTD had a consistent definition and methodology over time.

As previously mentioned, the GTD has been maintained by four organizations since 1970. With time – and particularly with the shift towards maintenance by an academic organization – the criteria for a terrorist incident improved and refined over time. Whilst researchers have attempted to retrospectively revise estimates (particularly of the period from 1970 to 1997) based on updated criteria, the authors caution that there will inevitably be issues in data consistency over this period. This inconsistency will, most likely, be expressed in an underestimate of terrorist incidents earlier in the dataset.

For this reason, again, we would be cautious about trying to infer changes in the prevalence of terrorism globally and across most regions since 1970.

How (and why) do estimates of deaths from terrorism vary?

In terrorism research, there are multiple databases available which attempt to record and detail terrorist incidents across the world. Some of the most well-known databases include International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events (ITERATE) RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents (RAND/RDWTI) and the Global Terrorism Database (GTD).

In our research on terrorism we present data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) for several reasons: it’s the most comprehensive in terms of the number of incidents covered it is the most up-to-date and is open-access, so widely used in academic research. 44 RAND, for example, only extends to the year 2009 and ITERATE is copyrighted, and not open-access for external users.

Nonetheless, estimates of the number of terrorist incidents and fatalities vary across these databases. Understanding why these differences exist is important for how this data is interpreted, and what we can conclude about the prevalence, causes and consequences of terrorism. Our understanding of the sources and frequency of terrorism can have a significant impact on many areas of society and policy, including immigration, counterterrorism efforts, and international relations.

In the chart we see a comparison between estimates of terrorism fatalities from the GTD and RAND datasets. Both sources go back as far as 1970 (RAND to 1968), with GTD extending to 2017 whilst RAND was discontinued in 2009.

Here we see large differences between the sources until the late 1990s/Millennium, after which they appear to more closely converge. Why is this the case?

In a study published in the Journal of Peace Research, Sandler (2014) looked at the differences in methodology, estimates, and conclusions from the various terrorism databases in detail. 45 Sandler found that the largest differentiator between the databases was whether they recorded domestic, transnational, or both forms of terrorism. Domestic terrorist incidents are those where the venue, perpetrators and victims are all from the same country: for example, a terrorist attack committed in the United States by a US citizen against victims from the US. If an attack involves more than one country – if the venue or victims of the attack are not the same country as the perpetrators – then it is classified as transnational.

The largest difference between the datasets is therefore that:

  • GTD includes both domestic and transnational incidents across its entire dataset from 1970 onwards
  •  RAND includes only transnational incidents until 1997 thereafter it included both domestic and transnational
  • ITERATE includes only transnational incidents.

If we look again at the comparison of the GTD and RAND datasets in the chart below, this starts to make more sense. In the period prior to 1997, GTD consistently records more fatalities than RAND. During this time it included domestic incidents, whilst RAND did not. Since 1997 – when RAND also included domestic attacks – their figures have converged. 

A very clear example of this is seen if we look at figures in the United Kingdom. You can do this using the 𠇌hange country” button in the bottom-left of the interactive chart below. Here we see that during the 1970s and 1980s, RAND almost no fatalities compared to the GTD. During the 1970s and 1980s, terrorism in the UK – and Western Europe – was dominated by ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Most deaths would have been classified as 𠆍omestic terrorism’, hence why they are included in the GTD but not the RAND figures.

Understanding the reasons for variations in the estimates of terrorist deaths may have a substantial impact on research and resource allocation. The root causes of transnational and domestic terrorism can be very different. The economic impacts – whether in the form of counterterrorism strategies defence measures or tourism impacts – can also vary significantly. 46 Understanding the prevalence and extent of both is therefore very important.

Beyond differences in the inclusion of domestic and transnational events, some differences in estimates exist. Most databases used in terrorism research are curated and maintained from media reports, whether print or digital media. Differences in the completeness and choices of media sources can lead to further variation between databases. This is because media sources do not always report, or accurately report terrorist events this can lead to absent or conflicting estimates. 47

The GTD notes this limitation in its Data Collection Methodology. It states that “while the database developers attempt, to the best of their abilities, to corroborate each piece of information among multiple independent open sources, they make no further claims as to the veracity of this information”, meaning that inconsistencies are entirely possible. Therefore, even when databases use the same definition of terrorism, the reported number of deaths depend on which media sources the database uses.

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