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UMD Report: Conspiracy Theories Fueled More Terror Attacks in 2020

New Data From START Shows Little Pandemic Effect and Concentration of Violence in Afghanistan

By Liam Farrell

Scene of Christmas 2020 RV explosion

The bomber behind the Christmas 2020 RV explosion in Nashville was a conspiracy theorist who acted alone—two trends in terrorist attacks that year, according to UMD’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

Photo by Thaddaeus McAdams/Getty Images

In the early hours of Christmas Day 2020, an RV pulled up outside an AT&T network facility in historic Nashville. It broadcast, via speaker, recorded warnings that ranged from the literal to the confusing: gunshots, a female voice demanding evacuation, portions of Petula Clark’s song “Downtown.” Then the vehicle detonated in a massive blast that tore apart several blocks and injured three people.

Though the only fatality was the bomber himself, the disturbing incident had characteristics of a terrorist attack and illustrated several trends on display in 2020 data released yesterday by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic did not dramatically alter the number of terrorist attacks around the world, said Erin Miller, program manager for START’s Global Terrorism Database, but individual conspiracy theory extremists were involved in an increasing number of incidents, particularly against telecom infrastructure.

“This is an interesting, unique development,” she said.

Worldwide in 2020 there were 8,348 terrorist attacks—defined by START as “acts by non-state actors involving the threatened or actual use of illegal force of violence to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation”—resulting in 22,847 deaths, including those of assailants. Those figures represent a 1% decline and 12% increase, respectively, since 2019, mostly continuing a decline since 2014.

“The global pandemic did not lead to dramatic shifts upward or downward immediately,” Miller said.

In terms of perpetrators, the largest increase was in attacks committed by conspiracy theory extremists: six in 2019, versus at least 116 in 2020, in countries ranging from Australia and New Zealand to the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Germany. Nearly all were non-lethal, and a surprising 96% were aimed at damaging telecom targets, Miller said, showing not only the influence of conspiracy theories concerning 5G and other wireless technologies—which range from causing cancer and killing animals and plants to causing the coronavirus outbreak—but also how perpetrators in the United States and western Europe are largely acting as part of loose ideological movements, not in concert with organizations.

“We are seeing more situations … (where) they are not necessarily organized into a formal entity with a proper name,” she said.

Much of the violence in 2020 was concentrated in Afghanistan, where the U.S. made an agreement with the Taliban in early 2020 to begin withdrawing troops. That war-ravaged country experienced 2,604 terrorist attacks and more than 10,000 deaths—representing not only double-digit increases from 2019, but also 31% and 44% of the annual world total, respectively, a fact that Miller termed “remarkable.”

Miller said START researchers will continue their investigations into whether the pandemic had more subtle impacts on terrorist tactics, as well as further analyze topics such as critical infrastructure and telecom attacks, and trends in how right-wing movements are motivating terrorism.

“This is really just scratching the surface,” she said.



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