Why does Western Europe Experience more Terrorism than America?

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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The act of terrorism is defined as “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government” (Cornell, 2001). Acts of terror have always existed but have been gaining popularity within extremist groups in recent history. While every country may experience some type of terrorism, America and Western Europe have historically coincided with major terrorism activity. A high number of these terror attacks have occurred between the two regions.

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A major reason for these can be related to the governments, which constitute two thirds of the definition of terrorism. Many different types of attacks can take place, and in order to attempt to cease all terror activities, governments within each country create their own counter-terrorism policies.

Comparison of Number of Terrorist Attacks

To attain a better understanding of why terrorism occurs within Western Europe and America, the numbers and reasons must be explored to identify connections. Search criteria within the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) were specifically chosen to correlate with current events. The years examined are from 1990 to 2017, and the acts committed must fall under the criteria for terrorism. This criteria stipulates that there must be political, economic, religious, or social goals; evidence for attempting to spread their message to a larger audience; and that wartime activities do not pertain to the actions.

The GTD can produce not only a report on the number of attacks, but also the type of attacks that have taken place. For comparison, America has had 640 terrorist incidents since 1990, whereas Western Europe has had 5466 incidents (START, 2018). Over the course of these 27 years that are analyzed, Western Europe accounts for about 89.5% of all terror attacks (START, 2018). The database results reveal a significant disparity in the frequency of attacks between the two regions, which confirms the theory that Western Europe is more susceptible to terrorism. This substantiates the question being posed within the thesis.

One might hypothesize that the population of a country correlates with the frequency of terrorist events. However, this theory does not hold. According to the website Worldometers, Western Europe has an estimated current population of 194 million people (Worldometers (WE), 2018), while America is estimated to contain about 327 million citizens (Worldometers (US), 2018). This data suggests that the population size of the regions is irrelevant within the discussions of this paper. The graphs produced by the GTD indicate that America has seen a significant increase in terrorism over the past five years, whereas Western Europe has maintained a steady trend of attacks. Despite the uptick in attacks in America, the sheer volume of attacks in Western Europe still challenges the notion of America being the safer country, terrorism-wise. An explanation must be found for why Western Europe is so susceptible to terrorism when compared to America, despite the minor population disparity between the two regions.

Comparison of Governments

Within Western Europe and America, the types of government vary immensely. Since Western Europe is such a large region with many smaller countries that each have their own governments, this study will consider the French and British government systems and compare them to America’s. France and Britain make up approximately 80% of Western Europe’s population.

Between France and Britain, 435 attacks against governmental targets have been recorded (START, 2018). On the other hand, in America, there have only been 66 officially recorded terror attacks targeted at the government since 1990 (START, 2018). The vast difference in attacks may reflect how citizens feel about their nation or the liberties they enjoy. The government is often seen as the most critical factor in these scenarios, as it represents its citizens. A detailed report is necessary to understand the root cause of the terror attacks in the selected Western European countries and America.

Britain’s government is a parliamentary democracy, whereas France is a Republic. The main difference between these two systems is the level of citizen involvement. The British government elects a Prime Minister, while the French elect a President who then appoints a Prime Minister. Although each country also elects local officials, these will not be considered in this study due to the sheer number of them. The motives for terror attacks on the government often align with citizens’ approval of their elected office or the rights they enjoy. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, has a relatively low approval rating of 31% as of September 5 of this year (Walsh, 2018). Close behind, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, has an approval rating of 34% (Public Opinion, 2018). When nearly 70% of a country is displeased with their leaders’ performance, it can lead to citizens wanting to fight against the system. If this sentiment reaches a significant number of people, particularly those who are already unstable, attacks are likely to occur. These individuals believe that by targeting those in power, they can influence others to enact change.

The United States government is a democracy-based federation, which is self-governing. Here, the President, who is elected by the people, has the authority to appoint politicians to manage different sectors. As of November 23 this year, President Donald Trump has an approval rating of 42.5% (FiveThirtyEight, 2018). Comparisons made between all three countries show that there is not much difference in the approval ratings of French President Macron, British Prime Minister May, and President Trump. While attacks may occur based on disapproval of the respective leader, there seems to be more motivation to attack the government based on how citizens are treated.
The main difference between America and these two Western European countries is how their laws are written. When America was founded, a Constitution, as well as a Bill of Rights, was written. This document protects citizens in many ways, such as freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial. Britain and France do not possess a Bill of Rights, but they have a constitution where citizens may be protected, though not to the extent of America’s Bill of Rights. If citizens of these Western European countries are not guaranteed a fair trial, certain ethnicities can be targeted. France recently passed new terrorism laws in May of this year, prompting the United Nations (UN), which states “Muslims in France were the community primarily subject to exceptional measures” (UN News, 2018). The UN released this statement due in part to religious encroachments on individual freedoms resulting from the closure of French mosques.

In Britain, a case study conducted by professors found that “relations between the police and [British Muslims] are strained,” which can lead to injustice towards these citizens, depending on the prejudice of the police officer (Mythen, 2009). While citizens of France and Britain are granted liberties, the government has been observed to possess the power to take these away from minority groups. This further explains why the number of terror attacks against the government is high in not only these two countries but also in Western Europe as a whole.

While there may be prejudice against minorities in America, it has not reached the governmental level that it has in France and Britain. With minority groups in Western Europe being treated differently, there is always at least one person who believes changes should be made to their conditions. Only so many peaceful protests can occur before things turn deadly, and with these events transpiring, more liberties are revoked. This creates a cycle of terrorist activities in Western Europe.

Comparison of Infrastructure

Western Europe contains a densely populated area in relation to its size. Due to smaller distances needing to be traveled, this results in more populous cities with large numbers of public transportation options. Compared to Western Europe, America is very large. To put this into perspective, France’s area is about 674,843 km2, which is smaller compared to the U.S. state Texas with an area of around 696,200 km2 (Lesswrong, 2013). In America, citizens are spread out throughout the country, resulting in less dense cities. Individuals in America have the freedom to travel long distances by vehicle without having to cross borders. However, the downside to America’s vast area is that the primary mode of transportation is airplanes.

The GTD defines a transportation attack as one that is on the infrastructure of the respective country (START, 2018). The infrastructure can be defined as what facilitates everyday life for the citizens of these countries. Examples include transit systems such as buses and railways, bridges, and roads. According to the criteria in the database, Western Europe has experienced 62 incidents, whereas America has experienced only 4 incidents (START, 2018). Although Western Europe has experienced more infrastructure-based attacks, another search criterion related to infrastructure is airports and aircraft. According to the GTD, America has experienced 10 airport and aircraft-related attacks, compared to Western Europe, which has had only 1 since 1990 (START, 2018). The Federal Aviation Administration reports that 2.6 million people use airplane transportation every day in the United States, proving to be a vital transportation option. The significance of each attack type will be examined and discussed to help explain the higher number of attacks in Western Europe.

When a terror attack occurs, the perpetrators aim to ensure that the impact is maximally felt by the citizens of the surrounding area. With Western Europe’s cities being denser than America’s, an attack on a city within Western Europe can produce significant results. An attack on transportation within Western Europe not only helps spread the perpetrators’ ideas but also creates a long-term effect on the infrastructure. Considering the tightly packed cities, the rebuilding of streets, buildings, and rail systems is a necessity after a terror attack. These attacks also affect bystanders, and considering about 30% of Western Europeans commute on foot, the number of casualties is often higher (Pucher, 1988). American cities too, are prone to these types of attacks, but their occurrence is low due to high security. Over the span of 27 years being examined, the September 11, 2001 airplane attacks had the largest impact on the United States. This event continues to influence America’s national security policies and the rest of the world. It created fear among American citizens, particularly around air travel, due to the tight security measures implemented. These types of attacks are highly unlikely to occur again within America. However, the threat remains constant in Western Europe’s densely populated cities. This vast difference in the number of attacks and the probability of them occurring demonstrates why Western European countries are more likely to experience terror-based attacks.

Comparison of Counter-Terrorism Tactics

Each region faces different problems when it comes to terrorism, and these issues are handled differently. To understand the vast difference in terror attacks between regions, it’s essential to examine the policies in place for preventing such acts. According to Tracy Higgins of Indiana University, “A nation’s counterterrorism strategy is highly dependent on the political will of its leaders,” a point that aligns with the public’s perception and views of their governmental agencies (Higgins, 1994). Individuals within the government create these policies to thwart terrorism before attacks reach their respective countries.

Counterterrorism was a policy pillar within the United States before 2001, but the September 11 attacks were the catalyst for counterterrorism becoming George Bush’s Administration’s foremost priority (Jenkins, 2017). This priority involved Bush declaring a “War on Terrorism,” leading to America’s invasion of the Middle East. This war continues to unfold today, with American troops still stationed in the Middle East. Some propose that America’s actions during this period solidified its success in counterterrorism. Yet, according to Daniel Byman of The Brookings Institute, “successful counterterrorism is difficult to measure” (Byman, 2003). This difficulty arises from the vast array of different extremist groups and their capacity to evade American troops.

While America primarily faces international terrorism, Western Europe is in a much different situation. Every nation in Western Europe, except for the United Kingdom, is a part of the UN and adheres to the same strategy for preventing terrorism. The UN outlines these actions under what it calls the “four pillars”: prevent, protect, pursue, and respond (Council, 2017). To clarify, in order of priority, each pillar and its description are as follows:

Prevent: Countering “radicalization and recruitment to extremist groups” with a revision published in 2014 to combat evolving trends such as lone-actor terrorism, foreign fighters, and the use of social media.
Protect: Safeguarding “citizens and infrastructure” by reducing vulnerability to attacks. A “passenger name record” (PNR) is kept for any person traveling within the EU.
Pursue: Obstructing terrorists’ capacity to plan and organize and bringing these terrorists to justice.
Respond: Preparing, managing, and minimizing the consequences of a terrorist attack. (Council, 2017)

These methods have been revised to keep up with the changing times that Western Europe has encountered in recent years. Counterterrorism is gaining more prominence due to the large number of attacks that Western Europe experiences. Conversely, America has shown increasing complacency towards counterterrorism policies in recent years.
Since the “War on Terrorism” was declared, America has found itself internationally involved in preventing terrorism by going straight to the source. While homeland security is still considered, the Middle East receives the most attention. This is a heavily debated topic, with arguments centering around whether America should still be involved. However, the number of terror attacks has decreased significantly, and an attack on the scale of 9/11 has not been repeated. Western Europe, on the other hand, continues to experience many terror attacks, despite the counter-terrorism stance they have adopted. The UN states that their policies have been created and revised based on cooperation with the United States and other “international and regional organizations.”(Council, 2017). Despite the many measures that Western Europe and the overseeing UN have taken, a resolution to the occurrence of attacks may be difficult to create. A large difference in the success of the two regions’ counter-terrorism strategies could be influenced by numerous factors, one of the most significant being location. America’s overseas location, distant from the hotbeds of extremist groups, makes carrying out terror attacks more challenging, especially considering American homeland and airport security processes. Western Europe, despite its relatively large distance from these extremist groups, experiences more attacks due to the ease of traveling to these countries. As they are all landlocked with one another, individuals who carry out terror attacks can walk, drive, or take a train across borders. The ease of transportation within Western European countries often results in a higher number of attacks compared to America. The fewer hurdles someone must overcome to carry out a terror attack, the greater the likelihood it will happen.


Upon inspection of the most important components of a country, several reasons were found as to why Western European countries experience more terrorism than America. This statement is based on facts gathered from the GTD since 1990. Western Europe had 4,826 more terroristic events than America during those 27 years. The government can arguably be considered the most important facet of a country due to its contributions to the creation of laws and regulations. The approval rating of elected leaders in these respective regions can be correlated to the number of terror attacks. If a government and its officials foster prejudice and unfairness due to terroristic events, it can lead to a steady stream of attacks on these countries.

Historically, Western Europe has had less-approved leaders than America. Although the United States has been harsh towards nationalities involved in these attacks, Western European countries have imposed more rules and regulations that interfere considerably with their citizens’ lives. The infrastructure of the respective regions also has a significant influence on the frequency of attacks. Terrorists often believe that the more people severely injured, both physically and mentally, the more successful the attack. Therefore, densely populated cities that rely on public transportation are targeted more frequently. The infrastructure of Western European countries meets these criteria, explaining the higher number of attacks in their cities compared to America.

To halt terrorist attacks, strong counter-terrorism policies must be enacted. Western Europe and America have both successfully accomplished this. However, counter-terrorism in Western Europe is controlled by the higher governing European Union. This makes terrorism more difficult to control because a one-size-fits-all solution is applied to different territories, each with its unique factors for terrorism. Terrorism is also harder to contain within Western Europe due to the proximity of countries. While the United States is bordered only by Mexico and Canada, Western Europe comprises a collection of smaller countries situated next to each other, facilitating easier transit for terrorists. Thus, Western European countries are more prone to terrorism due to public perception of their governments, the regulations enacted, the composition of infrastructure within densely populated cities, and counter-terrorism policies.

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Why Does Western Europe Experience More Terrorism than America?. (2019, Aug 07). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/why-does-western-europe-experience-more-terrorism-than-america/