By our nature, humans look for patterns to help us understand and explain seemingly random and chaotic events and phenomena. Consider, for example, the old superstition that “deaths come in threes.” Faced with horrific and seemingly incomprehensible events like the slaughter of children in a suicide bombing at a pop concert, the impulse to find patterns becomes even stronger.
On 23 May 2017, a number of memes pointing out that a handful of high-profile terrorist attacks had taken place on the 22nd day of certain months gained popularity on social media. The latest of these was the suicide bomb attack in Manchester, England, on 22 May 2017.
This tweet accurately states that:
- The terrorist murder of British soldier Lee Rigby took place in London on 22 May 2013.
- Three bombings at an airport and metro station in Brussels, Belgium, occured on 22 March 2016, killing 32 people.
- A shooting rampage left nine people dead in Munich, Germany, on 22 July 2016.
- A car and knife attack near the British Houses of Parliament in Westminster killed four people on 22 March 2017.
On 23 May 2017, the Daily Mail joined the chorus, publishing an article whose lengthy headline begins “Another jihadist attack on the 22nd.” The article, like many tweets and Facebook posts in the days following the Manchester bombing, outlines some significant recent attacks on the 22nd day of various months.
The story claimed that “Security agencies are understood to be examining the possibility that the date – the 22nd of the month – is significant,” before adding, “Initial indications suggest there is no link.”
The next day, the Men’sXP web site also published an article pointing to a “dark and scary theory” about the timing of terrorist attacks:
For some reason, the number 22 holds a lot of significance and seems to have a rather sinister link to the events of previous attacks…
Others accurately pointed out that the Utoya massacre, in which Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in a bomb attack and shooting rampage in and near Oslo, Norway, took place on 22 July 2011, and that a suicide bomb attack on a Christian church killed more than 120 people in Peshawar, Pakistan on 22 September 2013.
Is there a pattern here? Sure – all these events took place on the 22nd day of a month. But there are patterns everywhere, if you look for them.
For example, here’s a selective list of prominent transport disasters and crashes that took place on the 23rd day of the month:
- 23 January 1909: The RMS Republic ocean liner collides with the SS Florida, and sinks
- 23 March 1994: A mid-air collision at Pope Air Force Base in Fayettefille, North Carolina kills 23 Air Force members
- 23 March 1994: Aeroflot Flight 593 crashed into a mountainside on its way from Moscow to Hong Kong, killing all 75 people on board
- 23 August 1944: A US Air Force Liberator bomber aircraft crashed in the village of Freckleton, in the north of England, killing 61 people in total
- 23 August 2000: Gulf Air Flight 072 from Egypt to Bahrain crashed after a failed attempt to land, killing all 143 people on board
- 23 August 2012: A hot-air balloon crash near Ljubljana, Slovenia kills four passengers.
This is just a small selection of similar events that have taken place on the same day of different months, in different years. Some even took place on the same day of the same month (the final three in our list), and two took place on the same day of the same month in the same year.
Spooky, right? Not really. All this list illustrates is that patterns can be found almost anywhere, if you go looking for them. Whether a pattern has any greater meaning, or a common factor that is anything more than coincidental, is the real question.
Choice vs Coincidence
Plane crashes are not like terrorist attacks, however. They are (generally) accidental, and therefore the date on which they occur is not chosen in advance. Are terrorists choosing their attacks for the 22nd day of various months, because it’s the 22nd day of the month? Not exactly.
We know that some terrorist attacks are timed for specific dates because they mark the anniversary of another attack or significant event.
For example, Timothy McVeigh planned the Oklahoma City bombing for 19 April 1995 because it marked the second anniversary of the violent end of the FBI’s siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas – which McVeigh had witnessed firsthand.
And in December 2015, Mohammed Rehman and Sana Ahmed Khan were convicted of planning a thwarted bomb attack in London on 7 July that year, specifically to mark the 10th anniversary of the 7 July 2005 “7/7” attacks, which killed 52 people.
We don’t often get such clear confirmation of “anniversary” plots, though.
German police suggested Ali David Sonboly‘s 22 July 2016 shooting rampage in Munich may have been inspired by Anders Behring Breivik’s Utoya massacre, exactly five years earlier. The country’s Interior Minister said investigators had discovered that the 18-year-old had been researching Breivik’s attacks.
However, Sonboly killed himself after the attack and so did not face police questioning or a trial, during which the reasoning behind the date might have emerged more definitively.
Similarly, Khalid Masood was shot dead by police after killing four people at Westminster in London on 22 March 2017, a year to the day after three terrorist bombings in Brussels.
Julian King, the European Union’s Security Commissioner, told a European Parliament committee: “I don’t think it was a complete accident that this attack took place on the first anniversary of the Brussels attacks…”
It is also possible that Salman Abedi, the suspected Manchester Arena attacker, timed the bombing to mark the fourth anniversary of the death of British soldier Lee Rigby, who was brutally murdered in an Islamic extremist attack in London on 22 May 2013.
But Abedi was killed in the suicide bombing on 22 May 2017, and so far, such a motive for the date of the attack hasn’t been established, and may not have been present at all.
There are three essential points to bear in mind if you see a meme highlighting terrorist attacks that took place on the 22nd of the month:
- The whole date matters: When a terrorist attack is planned for a symbolically significant date, it’s for a specific day in a specific month. It wasn’t the number “7” that was important to Mohammed Rehman and Sana Ahmed Khan, in their 2015 bomb plot, it was the full date – 7 July, the 10-year-anniversary of the 2005 London bomb attacks. Likewise, Timothy McVeigh didn’t invest huge symbolic weight in the 19th day of every month, just the 19th day of April. It’s possible the Manchester Arena attack was timed to mark the anniversary of Lee Rigby’s death, but even if it was, it wouldn’t have been the number “22” that mattered to the bomber, but rather the specific date – 22 May.So focusing on the day of the month – whether it’s the 22nd or not – entirely misses the point about “anniversary” attacks, which are a real, though far from ubiquitous, part of global terrorism.
- Terrorists consider a variety of factors when planning an attack: Sometimes terrorists target specific events (for example, the Bastille Day truck attack that killed 86 people in Nice, France on 14 July 2016). Sometimes they target days of the week when public places are likely to be busy (for example, the 8 April 2017 truck attack on a shopping street in Stockholm, Sweden, which took place on a Friday afternoon). Sometimes their attacks are brought forward or pushed back for logistical reasons, or because law enforcement investigators are perceived to be “closing in” on them.
- Terrorists are no more likely to attack on the 22nd than any other day: We analyzed the dates of 1,327 confirmed or suspected terrorist incidents in Western Europe and North America between 2010 and 2015, drawn from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database and found that the 22nd does not appear statistically more prone to incidents than any other day.In other words, the attacks listed in the May 2017 memes are blatantly cherry-picked from the hundreds of terrorist incidents that have taken place over the past four years.In the six years between 2010 and 2015, 31 incidents took place on the 22nd day of the month, which was actually the lowest number of any day (not that you should attach any particular significance to that). You can check out the data for yourself by downloading this spreadsheet.
It’s true that terrorists do sometimes choose the date of their attack to commemorate an event that’s important to them — often a previous attack. So as time passes, it could become more likely that certain dates might see an exponential growth in the number of incidents planned or carried out.
Of course, police and security agencies around the world are also very aware of these dates, and so the increased prevention and enforcement that comes on dates like 7 July and 11 September may mean such plots are more likely to be thwarted before being executed.
But where a date has significance, it is the full date that matters – not the day of the month. There is no symbolic significance, mystical power, or terrorist conspiracy surrounding the number 22.