ISIS Made Us Forget All About the Taliban

Dec 12, 2014 at 1:31 PM ET

ISIS is on a roll. Ask people on the street to name the deadliest terror group in the world today and they’ll cite the flag-wavers from Iraq and Syria. Months of deadly attacks and a string of brutal beheading videos mean that in terms of highly visible terror, ISIS is far ahead of any other group, most notably its predecessors in Al Qaeda. On the ground, however, it has been a different story.

The Taliban has, for nearly a decade, released detailed monthly data cataloging its attacks. The data is published in the group’s official magazine, Al-Somood, which is intended primarily for an Arabic-speaking audience. ISIS released a similar set of data logs in August that catalog all its attacks to date. The data is incomplete in parts, and while there are always obvious caveats with using self-reported data from terrorist organisations, certain numbers within it suggest that it’s unlikely the Taliban have inflated their impact on the ground in any significant way. Vocativ decided to compare both sets of numbers to see which terrorist organization is the deadliest. The results contradict the hype.

We took ISIS data starting in October 2013, when Al Qaeda strongman Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered ISIS to be disbanded and charged the Nusra Front with jihadi efforts in Syria, marking an official split. Our ISIS data ends in May 2014, when ISIS stopped publishing detailed statistics on its attacks (which is, frustratingly, when the group began to make significant advances in Iraq and Syria). Our Taliban data starts in 2011—around the time that international coalition forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan.

We worked out what an “average” month looks like for each group and compared the results. Bear in mind that during the time for which we have data, ISIS was effectively in terrorism “startup mode,” while the Taliban had years of momentum, and ISIS seemed to step up its campaign dramatically this summer.

The numbers indicate that on average the Taliban has only a slight edge over ISIS in terms of attacks per month, at 1,111 versus 1,077. However, the Taliban’s attacks have been significantly more powerful and more deadly. The average number of people killed per month by Taliban attacks was 1,999 people, compared with 208 killed by ISIS.

On average, the Taliban kills two people per attack, whereas ISIS kills on average one person for every five attacks. What constitutes an “attack”  is not defined by either side. We do know that ISIS carries out more suicide attacks than the Taliban, but the success rate of these attacks is unclear.

Similarly, the rate at which the Taliban destroys “enemy” vehicles is 60 times higher than that of ISIS (485 vehicles per month, versus just eight for ISIS). The Taliban destroys one vehicle for every two attacks perpetrated, whereas ISIS destroys a vehicle in every 100th attack. There are many possible explanations for the divergence. ISIS might not see enemy vehicles as its main target, whereas car-destroying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the Taliban’s trademark mode of attack. ISIS is also known for commandeering military vehicles for its own military purposes, rather than simply destroying them. It could simply be a matter of accounting. Do you count a car used as a suicide bomb as a destroyed vehicle or not?

Unlike ISIS, which reports everything in a very granular fashion, the Taliban report divides its victims into two categories: agents (Muslims cooperating with the Western enemy) and Crusaders (Christians and Westerners, like the coalition military forces). Both groups view agents and Crusaders as infidels to be eliminated during jihad. The Taliban claims to kill 420 foreigners in an average month, which seems high until the group adds up the locals it has killed: a whopping 1,579 per month, on average.

While the data cannot be verified, the numbers provide interesting insights into two of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world and two wars that have been at the forefront of American foreign policy for the last decade.

ISIS, though it may not be empirically more murderous, has bested the Taliban in capturing the world’s attention. The Taliban has two spokesmen, and one out of its 10 committees deals with propaganda and media. ISIS, on the other hand, has four media wings and around 15 media officers for each “province” set up as part of its Islamic State. ISIS has shown how social media and propaganda have proved to be much more effective weapons in stirring terror than IEDs.