Geography and Terrorism: Are You Likely to be Attacked?

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Location was one of the first variables our team decided to code for within cases. Nationally and internationally, some places appear to attract more terrorist attacks than others. Why is this though? Globally, this may be easier to understand as some countries participate in significantly more violent experiences such as protest and war. The population may be made up of more identified radicals, also increasing the likelihood of violent attacks to occur. But within our own United States of America, where is terrorism more likely to happen, if anywhere?

I argue that instead of one city or state being more likely to experience a terrorist attack, it is more dependent on what is contained in that location. Different attacks are meant to serve different purposes, and the purpose of an attack is a determining factor in the geographic area it will occur. If an attacker is targeting abortionist clinics and clinicians, it is sensical to assume the offense is more likely to happen in states like California, New York, and Florida (states with the most clinics) rather than the Dakota’s, Missouri, or Wyoming (states with the least amount of clinics). Continuing, if an attack is perpetrated by an anti-military group, locations containing larger military bases are more likely to be targeted. We can predict cities who are most vulnerable, are the places containing targets that attract attacks from multiple ideologies.

An extreme example of a place that would be a terrorist attack hotspot would be a city made up of abortion clinics, military bases, government officials, chemical/energy plants, representation of all minorities, major transportation systems, etc. However, while lots of places do offer multiple of these identities, the layout of most cities allows for distribution and dispersion. So even if a town faces several attacks from different groups, they are often spread out enough that it is not always possible to determine that city as a significant hotspot. It is usually not the people or the places that are targeted, but rather conditions of the city’s intelligence that give way to targeting. If this “terrorist hotspot city” existed, we can assume extreme measures would be taken to protecting the people and places within the community.

When developing theories about where might be a more dangerous place to live, it is important to remember that terrorist attacks are only one portion of violence. Your home city being marked as a place more likely to experience an attack, maybe nearly violence-free until an attack occurs. Continuing from my previous point, the subject of your community that would designate it as a place to be targeted would also cause increased efforts toward countering any attacks. Increasing the number of government officials in one geographic location would never occur without a significant increase in security and police forces to protect them.

Our dataset, once complete, will show trends in location of attacks. A geographical breakdown could be compared to any of the other variables coded, but some that might be particularly interesting are ideology, foreign affiliation, group affiliation, lethality, and tactic. When comparing these variables, strong correlations or significant grouping in attack locations would reveal places which on average are experiencing more terrorism. And by knowing the similarities between sites, governments could work on a reorganization of layout or redistribution of counterterrorism forces.

– Tia Turner


Ettlinger, N. and Bosco, F. (2004), Thinking Through Networks and Their Spatiality: A Critique of the US (Public) War on Terrorism and its Geographic Discourse. Antipode, 36: 249-271. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2004.00405.x

Global Terrorism Index 2017. PDF. New York: Institute for Economics and Peace, September 20, 2017.

Harrington, Rebecca. “The Number of Abortion Clinics in the US Has Plunged in the Last Decade – Here’s How Many Are in Each State.” Business Insider. February 10, 2017. Accessed December 05, 2018.

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