Mitchell Blatt


Are public fears about ISIS rational? A detailed global survey released by the Pew Research Center in August found that across 38 countries, ISIS is the issue the world’s people are most concerned about, besting climate change, in a plurality of countries surveyed. But did those surveyed overstate the real threat of ISIS?

Combat journalist Michael Cruickshank wrote on Twitter, “Crazy how irrationally afraid people are off ISIS. Shows how effective their propaganda is.” It’s true that everyday risks like car crashes and murders by common criminals are bigger threats for ordinary people, but the impact of intentional, targeted attacks on civilizational values causes a bigger fear impact in many people’s minds. Whether or not that is “rational” per se is a question for psychologists and philosophers and others to debate some other day. Instead I focused on analyzing whether, within the confines of human psychology, the relative risk assessments of various countries are in line with the threat posed to those countries by ISIS. The results show that public concerns about ISIS in the countries surveyed are, in fact, broadly consistent with the threat ISIS poses in each country.


The countries that suffered the most fatalities caused by terrorists were also the most likely to rate ISIS as a great threat. The numbers for fatalities came from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s (START, at the University of Maryland) Global Terrorism Database. And countries that faced a particular threat from ISIS, as opposed to non-ISIS terrorists, were the most likely of all to consider ISIS a great threat.

Overall, the results, which are noted in greater detail at my website, show there was a positive correlation, on a number of variables and important regional differences. When taking the logarithm of terrorist fatalities and plotting it against the percentage of the public concerned about ISIS, there was a positive correlation with an R2 value of 0.0238. There was also a positive correlation between fatalities per capita and concern, with an R2 of 0.0367. Plotting concern against the number of raw deaths, however, revealed no positive correlation.


The correlations between concern about ISIS and fatalities caused by terrorism were the greatest in the regions of North America and Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

ISIS has dominated the news and political debate in the United States and Europe, so it comes as little surprise that some of those countries are among the most concerned in the world about ISIS. Overall, among the 13 countries, on average 71 percent of their publics are concerned about ISIS, trailing only the Middle East (79 percent). Overall, there was a strong positive correlation between countries in North America and Europe and fatalities from terrorism, with an R2 of 0.1065.

The other region that showed a strong correlation between terrorism and concern about ISIS was the Asia-Pacific, including Australia. The Philippines and India ranked second and third in the region, respectively, for concern about ISIS, and they were also the two countries to have suffered by far the most fatalities from terrorist attacks in the region, and in the top five in the world. Overall, the
positive correlation between concern and fatalities in the region had an R2 value of 0.1328.

By contrast, the Middle East and Northern Africa, Sub-saharan Africa, and South America showed little or no correlation between fatalities caused by terrorism and concern about ISIS. Middle Eastern countries “overrated” ISIS, in comparison to the number killed there by terrorists, while South American and African countries “underrated” ISIS. The primary reason for that result would appear to be the nature of the threats those countries face. The Middle East is much closer to the home base of ISIS, while South America is more removed, facing more of a threat from leftist militants and drug lords, like the FARC in


Far and away the country most concerned about ISIS was Lebanon, where 97 percent of the population expressed concern. Although that percentage is relatively high compared to the number of people who died there as a result of terrorism (25), it makes sense when one considers that Lebanon is sitting on the border with Syria and has been battling ISIS. ISIS has killed 147 people there since 2013 and taken territory, making Lebanon the biggest victim of ISIS terrorist attacks of the countries queried.

There is a positive correlation between total number of fatalities caused by ISIS since 2013, with an R2 value of 0.2646, and a correlation between the number of fatalities caused by ISIS as a per capita figure
of the population, with an R2 value of 0.1885.

Only six countries—Lebanon, France, Tunisia, the Philippines, Russia, and Indonesia, in that order—suffered deaths attributed to ISIS. (Turkey, a subject of the larger survey, suffered even more deaths at the hands of ISIS, but Turkish citizens were not asked about ISIS.) Among the six countries, the average percentage of the public concerned about about ISIS is 78 percent, 16 points higher than the average of 62
percent for the whole sample of all countries.

It is possible that even those European countries that didn’t face attacks from ISIS or other terrorists could identify closely with victims in their geographic and cultural vicinity and also fear that they might be next. Spain, for example, while suffering no fatalities from terrorism at all in 2016, was the most concerned country in Europe and the second most concerned in the world, with 88 percent of its citizens concerned about ISIS. Shortly after the survey was taken, terrorism struck Spain, in similar fashion to automobile attacks in neighboring France, killing 14 on August 17, 2017, in an attack that ISIS has taken credit for.

In short, the evidence suggests that the publics of many countries are rational in their ability to analyze the threat ISIS poses to their home country relative other countries. The more a country was threatened by
terrorism in general, the more likely its public was to fear ISIS, and the more that country was threatened by ISIS specifically, the effect became even stronger. Many publics were also able to differentiate between ISIS and unrelated terrorist groups. This suggest that if a government follows a successful program to decrease the occurrence of terrorist attacks, public opinion towards ISIS will probably respond by
rating the threat less serious.


Mitchell Blatt is a columnist and editor based in Asia. He has been published in outlets like The National Interest, National Review, The Federalist, The Shanghai Daily, and The Korea Times. He is pursuing a
masters degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University.

2020 - Volume 14 Issue 2