Habib Ullah chugged along a dusty road in rural Pakistan on his battered motorcycle, his wife, infant son and 7-year-old daughter hanging on — a family of farm laborers on their way to work the fields.
A 60-year-old father of seven, Ullah was steering through the barren, mountainous district of Khuzdar, in Pakistan’s poorest province.
The family never reached the fields. One of the motorcycle’s wheels struck a mine on Loop Leak Road.
Only the little girl, Aliya survived.
The Baluchistan Liberation Army, which has been waging a campaign of terror in western Pakistan in a bid for independence, claimed responsibility.
It was April 12, 2016. That day, 590 miles to the northeast, the deputy police superintendent in the city of Mingora was shot to death as he stopped to buy fruit, an attack for which the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.
Nearly 1,900 miles away, in Sidon, Lebanon, a car bomb killed a senior Palestinian official and four others. In the Kidal region of Mali, three French soldiers died when their car hit a mine planted by militants. In Yemen, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt in a crowd of young army recruits, killing four. Suspected Islamic State militants beheaded two sawmill workers in the Philippines. A soldier was killed and four others wounded when a bomb went off near Turkey’s border with Iran.
How we reported this story
One day, six countries, 19 deaths. And it wasn’t the deadliest day in April. That was a week later, on April 19, when terrorist attacks in five countries killed 71 people and wounded 391 others.
To assess the scope and nature of terrorism in 2016, the Los Angeles Times sought to chart the worldwide toll of deaths and injuries in a single month. From government and police reports, terrorism databases, news accounts and their own independent reporting, Times journalists in the U.S. and around the globe compiled a record of every fatal act of terrorism during the 30 days of April.
They confirmed 858 deaths in 27 countries. An additional 1,385 were injured.
Recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, San Bernardino and Orlando, Fla., have left Americans and Europeans feeling besieged. But the data show that terrorism strikes everywhere — from Armenia to Peru, India to Thailand, Bangladesh to the Philippines. The deadliest places were chronic trouble spots — Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — and most of the dead were Muslims, slain by other Muslims.
The number of terrorist attacks around the world actually decreased by 13% last year, according to the U.S. State Department, the biggest decline in more than a decade. But the reality is that terrorist attacks over the last 15 years have become more deadly, more indiscriminate and more wide-ranging.
During April, not one day escaped bloodshed committed by terrorists.
The review provided a grim snapshot of societies living with the ever-present threat of violent death, in restaurants and markets, buses and stadiums, government offices and houses of worship.
Bombs — worn in vests, planted by roads, concealed in cars and motorcycles — were the weapons of choice, though some victims died by the gun, the knife or the machete. The most bizarre means were chosen by Islamic State, known for executions designed to stoke fear: It used a morgue freezer to slowly kill 45 defectors and a cage to drown seven people accused of collaborating.
Five victims in April were known to be Westerners: a Canadian beheaded in the Philippines, the three French soldiers killed in Mali and a taxi driver slain in Northern Ireland.
Far more common were victims like Aliya and her family.
At the hospital she lay unconscious, her face burned around the mouth and eyes, her left arm bandaged.
“He was a poor man and was making both ends meet," Mohammad Baloch, a relative, said of Aliya’s father. “He has left nothing for his kids.”
Pakistani newspapers viewed the event as minor news. Television ignored it.
“The death of a donkey in cities like Karachi and Lahore gets more attention on TV media than death of human beings in Baluchistan,” said Naseem Hameed Yusufzai, a crime reporter in the provincial capital, Quetta.
Whereas incidents inflicting multiple casualties grab headlines, single deaths often accumulate unnoticed.
On April 17, gunmen drew up to a motorcycle rickshaw in Mogadishu, Somalia’s chaotic capital, and shot Fowsiya Hassan Elmi, apparently because she worked as a cleaner at the office of the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees. She left behind five children.
By the time April ended, the worldwide terrorism death toll was about the equivalent of 61 San Bernardino attacks — as if an Orlando massacre had occurred for 17 days running.
Huawa Ummarte, a 21-year-old widow from Nigeria’s arid northeastern borderlands, had tried to escape terror. It found her anyway.
A cattle herder of Shuwa Arab ethnicity, she feared the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram would loot the herd, so she sent her animals with relatives into Cameroon. After her husband died of illness a few years ago, the widow moved to a displaced persons camp with her two young daughters.
Two months later, on April 20, she roused her girls at dawn and they walked with 20 other women, sticking together for safety, to a well just outside the camp. A camp guard kept watch.
”We had just gathered by the well when two young girls joined us,” she said. “One of the people manning the camp saw the girls joining us separately, and he was suspicious. He came up and was telling us to go back into the camp when one of the girls detonated her explosive belt.
68 killings in April
The Nigerian group behind a wave of bombings, assassinations and abductions in Africa’s most populous nation has declared an Islamic caliphate in areas under its control and pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
"She killed eight people, including my two daughters. Two other women died with their babies strapped to their backs,” said Ummarte, who was seriously wounded with four others and now walks with metal crutches.
"I left my village to save myself and my two little daughters,” she said, “but I ended up in this situation.”
The number of bombings, assassinations, hijackings and other terrorist attacks was also high several decades ago, when secular leftist groups such as the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction and the Irish Republican Army were active.
“People don’t recall that in the United States alone, we were dealing with 50 to 60 terrorist bombings every year,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. However, many of their attacks were largely symbolic.
Over time, terrorism has become deadlier, and the rise in violent extremism since 2000 has been staggering: a ninefold increase in deaths from 3,329 to 32,685 in 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Database compiled by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, based at the University of Maryland.
Yet last year, the number of fatalities decreased to 28,000, the largest decline in more than a decade.
The 14% decline reflects the fortunes of three major terror groups — Islamic State, Boko Haram and Somalia’s Shabab, all under intense military pressure. They’ve seen their leaders killed or captured, recruitment shrink and finances dwindle.
But this month CIA Director John Brennan warned that as Islamic State loses ground in Syria and Iraq, it will probably launch more terrorist assaults such as those in Paris, Brussels and Orlando. In April, Islamic State killed 395 people, more than any other group.
“In terms of tactics, we are seeing — particularly in the past couple of years — an increase in highly lethal attacks,” said Erin Miller, manager of the Global Terrorism Database. The trend is especially pronounced in Nigeria. “Even though terrorism has decreased in 2015, those numbers of the particularly lethal attacks that involve hundreds of victims are still quite high,” she said.
April’s terror began when an explosion rocked Egypt, killing two. In Libya, Islamic State executed two brothers by firing squad for fighting against the group. And in a tiny village in Cameroon, gunmen came hunting for Blama Madi.
He belonged to a civilian protection group set up to defend the population against Boko Haram. The Islamic militants invaded his house, shone a flashlight in his face and shot him in front of his children, one of whom they abducted as they left.
That day, April 1, recorded five deaths. But the killing soon escalated.
The first of four attacks at a place of worship occurred in Somalia on April 2, when the Shabab gunned down a government official, Abdullahi Abdi Adan, after evening prayers. A day later, the Shabab shot three people for cutting trees for charcoal (an act the group has forbidden); in Nigeria, Boko Haram beheaded five.
On April 4 a suicide bomber hit a popular restaurant in Nasiriya, Iraq, killing 14 — one of 12 attacks in six countries that bloody Monday. The next day in Niger, three suicide bombers blew up on a commuter bus, apparently before reaching their target of a market. Three civilians died, including an infant.
It was only April 5 and terrorists had killed 126 people.
For every civilian felled by explicit acts of terrorism — a Molotov cocktail hurled into a building, bullets sprayed into a crowd — untold others die in clashes triggered by terrorist insurgencies.
In mid-April, four children from a Syrian refugee family played on the roof of an orphanage and women’s shelter in Kilis in southern Turkey, the youngest named Moatasem, age 6. His father, Bassem Kheyro, had been seized by the Syrian government in 2012, disappeared into its notorious prisons and was never heard from again.
As violence roiled their hometown of Azaz, his wife, Um Khayr, fled to Kilis with Moatasem, another son, Mohammed, and daughters Yasmin and Tesnim.
A story for every death
They were playing as they waited for their lunch that Monday, April 18. Then a Katyusha rocket fired by Islamic State militants traced a metallic arc through the sky, speeding above the farmlands of northern Syria, across the border, until it smashed into the orphanage roof, killing all four children.
“There was nothing the doctors could do for them,” said Khaled Mostafa, a volunteer at a nongovernmental organization providing support programs for refugees.
Their mother crossed back into Syria with four small bodies to bury in her hometown.
On Wednesday, April 13, two kidnapped Philippine sawmill guards, Salvador Hanobas and Jemark Hanobas, wearing orange prison suits, were beheaded by the Philippine extremist group Dawlah Islamiya.
Less than two weeks later, Canadian mining consultant John Ridsdel was beheaded by another Philippine Islamist group, Abu Sayyaf, after a deadline to pay a ransom expired.
Terrorist groups jostle for media attention and support by wiping out scores of lives in a single event. Or by killing a single Westerner, perhaps in a swank hotel or resort.
“The increasing violence we’re seeing is because these groups have to compete with each other,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
23 killings in April
The array of armed groups fighting Syria’s government includes Islamist extremists such as Islamic State and Al Nusra Front.
The Taliban began as a group of religious students fed up with corruption and lawlessness in Afghanistan. The Shabab grew out of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia, which in 2006 chased out clan warlords who had been tearing the country apart for decades. Islamic State germinated in a U.S.-run prison in Iraq in the 2000s. Boko Haram started in 2003 as a tiny group of ethnic Kanuri fighters opposed to Nigeria’s corrupt elite and set up on a base the group called Afghanistan.
“There's no one factor that has led to such a rise in violent extremism in the Middle East and the spread of the violent ideology across the world, but there is one characteristic: failed or failing states and persistent conflict and terrible governance,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer and director of special projects at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security and risk analysis company.
The majority of killings in April were carried out by groups aiming to impose fundamentalist Islamic law. Some of their foot soldiers, however, are unemployed, poorly educated and lured by promises of cash, phones and a wife.
In the Philippines, some are drawn by money. Hakim Eljano, 28, fled his home three years ago when the town where he lived, Zamboanga, was attacked by an Islamist separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front. Now he lives in squalor in a government-run shelter called an “evacuation center,” sharing a cramped room with seven people. He said one of his friends, in the same situation, accepted the overtures of Islamist rebels who promised a salary, a gun and training.
“There is a very good reason why [people] will succumb to the offer, because they have nothing at the time,” Eljano said. “They have no one to cling to, no one to depend on…. And there’s no way out.”
Terror emerged in some unexpected places in April. On April 9, in a throwback to the 1980s, the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas fired upon Peruvian soldiers on their way to guard polling booths on election day. Ten died, including two civilians.
A bus explosion rocked the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on April 20, the day after the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, killing two. A series of bombings rocked Thailand. Gunmen believed to be from the rebel group Renamo opened fire on a bus in Mozambique, killing four.
And in Bangladesh, where secular tolerance had long been valued, four horrifying killings sent a message of fear. The victims: a university professor, a student who declared he had “no religion,” the editor of an LGBT magazine and his friend, and a Hindu tailor accused of insulting Islam. They were stabbed and hacked to death with machetes — a method of execution duplicated in the months since.
The month’s worst attack came April 19, in Kabul, Afghanistan: 64 people died when a Taliban extremist detonated a truck filled with explosives near a military unit. Many victims were women and children. A day later, Taliban gunmen shot seven policemen guarding medical workers giving polio vaccinations.
On April 29, Ambreen Bibi, the 17-year-old daughter of a laborer in Pakistan, was drugged, strangled, tied up in a Suzuki van and burned. She was condemned to death by a tribal council for helping a friend elope.
More attacks are likely in the West, as Orlando demonstrated. But such violence probably will still be dwarfed by the grinding casualties that wipe out thousands of lives a year in far-off places such as Baluchistan, where Habib Ullah, his wife and son met their deaths.
That was clear on the last day of the month, April 30. As customers milled through a crowded market in Baghdad, a man barreled in driving a truck a laden with explosives. He pushed the button on his detonator. Twenty-one people died.
Dixon reported from Johannesburg, South Africa, and Sahi from Islamabad, Pakistan.
Contributing to this report were special correspondents Aminu Abubakar in Kano, Nigeria; Nabih Bulos in Beirut; Sunshine de Leon in Manila; Amro Hassan in Cairo; Glen Johnson in Istanbul, Turkey; Ali M. Latifi in Kabul, Afghanistan; and Josh Mitnick in Jerusalem. Also contributing were Times staff writers Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India; Jonathan Kaiman in Manila; and Alexandra Zavis and Braden Goyette in Los Angeles and Times researchers Cary Schneider and Maloy Moore in Los Angeles.
Credits: Graphics by Priya Krishnakumar. Illustrations by Lorena Iñiguez Elebee. Production by Lily Mihalik and Sean Greene.