Why The War On
Terrorism Will Fail

By Terrell E. Arnold

The Bush administration now has more than eighteen months experience with the War on Terrorism. The principal events of that war, so far, have been deposing the Taliban in Afghanistan, scattering the leadership and membership of Taliban and Al Qaida to unknown locations, capture and confinement of several hundred grunt level "combatants" now confined in Guantanamo, highly publicized capture of several middle to senior grade Al Qaida leaders, and a growing body of complaints that the Bush administration is conducting a systematic assault on civil liberties of both Americans and aliens. The hawks are pursuing the War on Terrorism as if it rivals World War II, but putting the rhetoric aside, just how serious is the global terrorism problem, and how amenable is the problem to warlike solutions? Recent data and analysis suggest the War is too big, too harsh and too military.
Every year, by Congressional mandate, the Department of State publishes Patterns of Global Terrorism. Thematically, the report for 2001 was dominated by 9-11, and the newly released report for 2002 focuses on al Qaida. However, these reports-part of a continuing series going back to 1982--provide the best and most comprehensive global picture available in unclassified form. Taken together with the previous report for the year 2000, it is timely to take a worldwide look at what has happened in international terrorism in a three-year period that brackets 9-11, as well as during the past decade, to judge how well this War faces the problem.
As is common with such numbers, the global data do not actually tell the story. The smallest number of international terrorist attacks since 1982, when the State data series began, was 274 attacks in 1998. In 2000 there were 426 attacks, in 2001, the year of 9-11, there were 346 attacks, and in 2002 there were only199 attacks recorded by State. Taken as given, these numbers seem to say the War on Terrorism is going like a house afire. But taking a decade-long look at State's data before and after 9-11, terrorism is much less a global problem than it was ten years ago.
To get to that judgment, several questions about these data need to be considered. One is where and how are most acts of terrorism carried out. Two is how serious an international threat does that pattern reveal. Three is how much of that threat can be dealt with by US action. Four, of course, is how well does the pattern fit the concept of a War.
The Global Data
The answer to the first question is in three parts. Two countries, Colombia and India, account for virtually half of all international terrorist incidents each year. State data show the following for Colombia:
Year Total Incidents Incidents in Colombia
2000 423 163 2001 346 194 2002 199 47
In the Colombia case, insurgent groups in that country - The Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia, or FARC, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and a third group the AUC or self-defense force - go big time after US business, mainly the oil pipelines. In the three year period we are discussing, one or the other of these groups bombed oil pipelines as shown below.
Year Colombia Pipeline Bombings
2000 152 2001 178 2002 41
The Significant Incident Pattern
The goal of Colombian groups is to disrupt the pipelines--not to kill or harm anyone--in aid of getting government attention to their followers' political, economic, and social justice demands. Over the past decade, these bombings have averaged 90 per year with a fluctuating range from 43 in 1994 to 178 in 2001, and 41 in 2002. State carries these bombings - technically correctly-as international terrorist incidents, but the attacks all occur in Colombia, and to get rid of the data inflation they cause, State created the category of Significant Terrorist Incidents, meaning those that involve deaths, injuries, serious property damage, kidnappings or hostage takings, which the Colombia pipeline bombings seldom if ever do. With the Colombia pipeline bombings and other non-significant incidents removed, the State data list the following:
Year Significant Incidents
2000 144 2001 123 2002 136
India poses a problem for the Significant Terrorist Incident data because so many attacks occur around the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir or the desire of many Kashmiri to be free of either country. This is basically a bilateral issue between two neighboring nation states, and the trans-border nature of the dispute is what qualifies the incidents as international terrorism. During our three-year period, attacks in India were as follows:
Year Significant Attacks in India
2000 45 2001 38 2002 67
The Net Global Problem
While the United States works diplomatically as well as through the United Nations with both Indian and Pakistani governments to relieve tensions and move the two powers toward resolution of the problem, the US-led War on Terrorism is not being conducted in India. Moreover, our operations with national police and military forces in Colombia are conducted in connection with the so-called War on Drugs. In either case these activities would go on without reference to the War on Terrorism. Consequently the attacks that look more or less amenable to treatment through the US led War on Terrorism are shown below.
Year Significant Attacks Less India Net Significant Attacks
2000 144 45 99 2001 123 38 85 2002 138 67 71
In effect, the global pattern of significant terrorist incidents, excluding India, is less than 100 attacks per year and the frequency of attacks was declining before 9-11. Stopping those attacks, and/or dealing with the groups that cause them, is the worst-case current mission of the War on Terrorism.
What of Terrorists Who Do Not Travel?
This picture becomes even clearer when the groups that operate and stay entirely at home in their own countries are taken off the stage. That can be done, since such groups represent no threat to US homeland security. Strictly speaking, the United States is not threatened everywhere by terrorists, even though US businesses and Americans in many countries face some risk any time. Most groups represent varying orders of threat to the stability of governments in their countries, but that is not America's war.
State designates, as required by law, 36 so called Foreign Terrorist Organizations, several of which operate at times outside their own home states or regions, and State reported on 38 other terrorist groups in 2002 for a total of 74 groups. At least seven groups are focused on Kashmir; eight are focused on Palestine; and six are focused on Northern Ireland. Six are al Qaida and suspected affiliates. Upward of a third of the groups operate at least part of the time internationally, but except for the attacks of 9-11 and the earlier (1993) attack on the World Trade Center, direct attacks by any of these groups on the United States are rare.
Casualties in North America
Casualties of international attacks in North America present another clarifying picture of where terrorist harm is done. Over the period 1992-2002, State records 30,825 casualties of which 5, 105 were in North America. The majority of the North America casualties (over 99%) were associated with the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the events of 9-11-2001. That means about one casualty out of every six resulted from international terrorism in North America, but in the other nine years of this period only eight deaths due to terrorism occurred in North America. In the average year virtually all casualties occur in other parts of the world. The highest number of casualties (11,872) in this 11-year period was in Asia. Next were Africa with 6,032 and the Middle East with, 4,160. The Anti-US Threat
The State data through the 1990s to the present make it clear that the War on Terrorism was launched in response to a single day's events. The data do not show that at the time of 9-11 there was a new or broader based threat of terrorism against the United States, nor do the data for 2002, or the recorded pattern of events since 9-11 suggest that there is such an exceptional threat now. Rather, as a summary judgment, most terrorists are national groups who attack targets in their own countries, or less often carry out attacks abroad to get attention to their home problems. In sum, the dominant roots of terrorism thrive in the home countries of the terrorists. As a rule, Americans who become casualties are living, touring, or working in other countries when attacked or caught up in attacks on others.
Why the War is Too Big
A review of anti-US attacks does not indicate an exceptional threat against the United States. In the period 1992 through 2002, State records a total of 1333 attacks against US targets. But 1014 of these attacks were Colombia pipeline bombings, so the real number of terrorist attacks against US citizens or facilities was 321, including all known or suspected anti-US attacks by al Qaida. That is about 30 attacks per year scattered across most regions of the world in as many as 30 countries. Leaving out the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the annual worldwide attacks averaged about 11-12 American deaths and 80 wounded each year.
Those data do not provide a basis for any worldwide War on Terrorism. However, frustration with these facts and the continuing affront of international terrorism probably led Bush advisers in the wake of 9-11 to suggest global unilateral and invasive counterterrorism strategies. Their conclusions, conveyed by actions as well as words, were that the United States would take pre-emptive action worldwide to destroy the terrorists in their home bases, and the United States could win the war on terrorism through military engagement.
The immediate body count appears to favor such military action, until the terrorism casualty lists are published. The President has said that more than 3,000 al Qaida terrorists have been accounted for "one way or another" . Those numbers crudely match the number of casualties suffered in North America on 9-11. But look at the asymmetry of the process. The terrorists, whoever sponsored them, did their deeds with 18 people equipped with hijacked airplanes. The US more or less evened the body count score by fielding tens of thousands of troops, engaging the forces of several allies, spending many millions of dollars to support long logistical tails, and putting our entire national law enforcement and intelligence system into the fray. Satisfying? Perhaps. Effective? Not demonstrated. Were US and allied operations a good illustration of military reach? Depends on how one scores the success rate. The body count frankly shows an awkwardly high price for each kill or capture in the War on Terrorism, but a depressing economy of effort on the other side.
The War is Too Harsh
The Bush administration, especially the Justice Department, has decided that the only way to deal with terrorists is to deny them due process. This appears based on a judgment that a political crime is worse than an ordinary crime. That judgment makes it ok, it seems, to ignore the Geneva Convention and the Law of Land Warfare that is taught rigorously in all US military colleges. So every year the perpetrators of 12,000-15,000 proven homicides receive the most careful due process before being confined or put to death. Meanwhile 600 or so US labeled "combatants" are held without rights to counsel and under conditions that have attracted worldwide opprobrium. Moreover, there is ample evidence that at least low levels of torture are used against prisoners in US confinement, while others, with US knowledge and consent, are exported into more abusive environments. In its most celebrated terrorism trial, the United States convicted Timothy McVeigh of killing over 260 Americans, in his own terms for political reasons, after a long and properly conducted trial.
There could be only one reason for going to the extremes now being demonstrated by the US military and justice systems in dealing with suspected al Qaida members or supporters: That these individuals themselves represent a clear and present danger to the survival of the United States. That has not and probably cannot be proven for any of them. However, these harsh rules are consistent with the introduction of assassination against suspected terrorists. Both strategies indeed may represent gratification of the urge to kill, but in the cases of 12,000-15,000 homicides per year we restrain ourselves and let our normally fair justice system do its work. To preserve our own system and to convince the rest of the world that we have not lost it, it is time to get back to normal.
The Value of Military Force Is Not Proven
The doctrine that seems most appealing to the hawks around President Bush is that direct military action is the most effective available response to terrorism. A quick glance at military experience against terrorists anywhere in the world would show little success. Constant Israel Defense Force occupation in the West Bank and Gaza with thousands of troops, tanks, gunships, and bulldozers, as well as assassination of suspected terrorists have not stopped suicide bombings in Israel. Indonesian use of military force against Jemaah Islamiya did not prevent the deadly Bali bombings of October 2002. Available data suggest that since 9-11 and start of the War on Terrorism al Qaida has lost significant numbers of adherents and some key leaders, but it has been able to reconstitute and remains a viable threat.
On balance, use of military force against terrorists and brutal uses of police power appear only to aggravate tensions that the War does not seek to address. US and coalition operations in Afghanistan are a sad case in point. They may have been successful as military operations go, but they left the terrorism problem largely unsolved, because they did not put in motion any political, economic or social institution building measures to address the enormous weaknesses in Afghan society. As a terrorism generator Afghanistan was left as fertile as a Petri dish loaded with bacteria and nutrients.
Time to Regroup
The bottom line is that raw success with killing individual terrorists does not demonstrate the utility of military intervention. Generation of new terrorists from communities and support groups that often are brutalized in military operations typically undoes any gains from military attacks.
What would be the framework for scaling back this enterprise to something more consistent with the logic of the problem? We could start with a critical look at the actual anti-US terrorism record. America suffered more than 2,500 dead and wounded in the events of 9-11 and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, but the United States had averaged only 80-90 casualties per year throughout the decade. Moreover, more than half of the Americans killed in terrorist incidents during 2002, e.g., during attacks in Bali, the Moscow theater and at Hebrew University in Israel just happened to be in the target zone when the attacks occurred. There was nothing obviously anti-US about these attacks, and that accidental quality is often the case where Americans get caught in terrorist attacks.
In that light, the national preoccupation with terrorism rests awkwardly among the causes of death of US citizens each year. Over the past decade, the United States lost roughly 400,000 people to highway accidents, about 150,000-200,000of those deaths due to drunken driving. The country lost upward of 300,000 people due to suicide and over 200,000 by homicide. More than half of the suicides were teenagers. In that period 1,562 Americans died in terrorist attacks, and 1,790 were wounded in such attacks.
9-11 was a shocking and unexpected attack that appears to have taken us more by surprise than it should have, given the world terrorism environment. It would indeed be a major national victory if we were able to avoid another such attack. The question is what would it take to assure that outcome? That question cannot be answered with certainty. We could erect a perfect barrier against the outside world only to discover that, as demonstrated in Oklahoma City, we may have a badly wired, homegrown fanatic who wants to destroy our society.
The practical reality is that the task of dealing with the current generation of terrorists is a relatively small part of any serious campaign against political violence in society. Iraq was well on its way to becoming three states the moment Saddam Hussein fell, and nothing that has happened so far in the US occupation has changed the prospect that Iraq will come apart. Indonesia is attempting to manage a range of ethnic, cultural and religious stresses that may well force it to disintegrate to find peace. Sub-Sahara Africa is seething with tribal discontents that offer ready prospects of violence on a genocidal scale. Perhaps a third of all nation states face internal pressures that from time to time boil over.
Those are the terrorism generators in our present. They will dominate our future unless we begin to address them now through development and reform of the global political economy and the nation state system.
So we come to an irreducible three part future strategy for dealing with terrorism: Always up front will be the task of dealing with people who hold hostages, carry bombs or threaten other depredations. As State and most federal agencies recognize and practice, this task is a political, diplomatic, law enforcement, health and social services challenge, with some but carefully limited military inputs, but the Bush administration emphasis on a "War on Terrorism" has taken the focus off this campaign in favor of a military charge. Next is the task of attacking the global issues to assure that the present generations have hope and future generations have a better life. Many key US, UN and other officials recognize this need, but they do not have the resources to deal with it. Third is the task of rearranging national boundaries and systems of governance so that the frictions of the present system are abated and the class struggles within failed and failing states are reduced or eliminated. This task addresses a genuine historic can of worms, but there can be no solution to terrorism in many parts of the world unless these problems are resolved state by state in some amicable way.
There is no shortcut through these problems. The present War on Terrorism is a political, partly revenge motivated shortcut. That is why it will fail.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome comments at



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