Perception and Reality: Why do some countries worry about terrorism more than others?

Fig.1 Which countries are most worried about terrorism?

In a global study, Ipsos asked citizens in 27 countries to provide their top three societal issues that caused them worry. Among all global respondents, 17% perceive terrorism as a top three issue of concern, four points ahead of the closely related issue of immigration control. Israeli respondents (48%) worry the most about terrorism with Turkish respondents (47%) coming in a close second. France rounds out the top three at 38%. Brazil and South Africa, meanwhile, had the least amount of terrorism concern with just 1% of respondents perceiving terrorism as a top three concern.

Perception and reality, however, are not always equivalent. In combination with data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, Ipsos dives deeper into how global perception differs from the reality of terrorism impact across different countries and searches for common societal ties among countries with similar breaks from reality. 

In 2017, the Institute for Economics and Peace released their Global Terrorism Index (GTI). After studying terrorism trends across 163 countries between 2000 and 2016, each of those countries was given an index score where a higher number represented a higher impact of terrorism. This is how we have defined the reality of the impact of terrorism.

Using these variables, Ipsos created an aggregate of the 27 countries for which there was coexisting data to represent the expected percentage of citizens who perceive terrorism as a top three concern given the reality of their country’s GTI. This is represented as the red regression line. Each country was then plotted around the average line to examine if they appear over-concerned or under-concerned with the threat of terrorism (Fig.1). As expected, countries with higher GTI values tended to have a higher portion of respondents who consider terrorism in their top three social concerns. As a country sees greater impact from terrorism in reality, general concern over the threat of terrorism enters into more people’s day to day thoughts.

The three countries who most perceive terrorism as a threat, Israel, Turkey, and France, all rate above the expected rate of concern for their given GTI value. India, with the highest GTI value in our data set of 7.534, has just a 26% concern rate and comes in with a decidedly below average level of concern.

For social scientists, this chart begs the question: What common social issues differentiate countries above and below the average line of expectation? In some countries, like the US, the UK, Germany, and France, the increased politicization of immigration issues has swelled into movements centered on nationalism. Perhaps this has pushed citizens to equate increased immigration with an increased risk of terrorism.

Indeed, when adding UN data about the foreign-born population in each of these countries as of 2015, a clear trend can be seen. The bold data points in Fig.2 represent countries for whom more than 10% of the population is foreign born.

Fig.2 Does population heterogeneity affect perception of terrorism?

Out of the 11 countries in our data set with a foreign born population greater than 10%, nine rank above the average concern rate. Additionally, of the countries that rate above average, 75% have a high foreign-born population rate. Poland and Serbia are exceptions and are very lowly ranked in their GTI. But what about Turkey? Turkey stands out as an over worried country with a very high GTI and a very high rate of terrorism concern, despite their low foreign-born population. The likely explanation for their trend departure lies in the increased activity of the separatist PKK, a group of Kurdish people calling for an independent state within Turkey.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia warrants mention as another country outside of this common trend. The likely explanation for their trend departure lies in the nature of their immigrants. Many Saudi Arabian immigrants, instead of assimilating into society, migrate to the country due to the high demand for domestic workers and personal assistants. In Saudi Arabia, 99.6% and 94.8% of those filling these jobs are foreign born, likely causing Saudi Arabians to view immigrants in a different light.

These findings illustrate an interesting movement across the global social climate. As countries become less homogeneous, they seem to begin worrying more about terrorism than their terrorism impact value predicts. These findings are even starker when considering the trendlines for countries with foreign born populations above and below 10% (Fig. 3). For the trendlines representing each group, there is a noticeably grouped distribution of data points around each corresponding regression line.

Fig.3 Examining the categorized trendlines

If societies are categorized by native and foreign homogeneity, there seem to be two entirely different perceptions of terrorism as a threat. Are these results due to an increased fear of people who look different, because terrorism tends to stem from foreign pockets, or perhaps a mixture of the two? Furthermore, has one of these social effects caused the rise of the other? There are also common pull factors for immigrants and terrorism to consider. Migrants are more likely to immigrate to higher income countries in the same way terrorists are more likely to target higher income countries. As our data has answered questions on social trends, it seems to have raised quite a few, as well.