Is the War On
Terrorism Irrelevant?

By Terrell E. Arnold
On the eve of the publication of its annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism", the State Department Office of Counterterrorism indicated the report would not be published for 2004. Instead, the legal requirement to report to the Congress would be met by sending the information to the Hill, but it would not be released to the public. That announcement stirred a flurry of accusatives, e.g., the numbers have gone up as high as they were in the 1980s; the US is losing the War on Terrorism; and the White House does not want the public to know. As much as anything, those accusations were a demonstration of the widespread mistrust of Bush team reporting and wariness of its devious information management habits. However, on April 27 the newly established National Counterterrorism Center published its first statistical report: "A chronology of Significant International Terrorism for 2004".
The Counterterrorism Center report, more than 80 pages long and already available on the Center's website, deals with the most important categories of terrorism that were covered in the State annual, but it applies a somewhat broader set of reporting criteria, and it reports only on significant incidents--meaning, as State explained, that they result in hostage takings or in "loss of life or serious injury to persons, major property damage, and/or an act or attempted act" that could result in those outcomes. What the new reporting series eventually will cover remains to be seen, but the responsibility to publish terrorism data for now has been promptly met.
Initial sharp intakes of breath concerned the steep increase in the reported number of international terrorism incidents. First judgment was the War on Terrorism is a failure. Second was the Bush team is again playing mind games with the public by trying to suppress the information. Third was a Counterterrorism Center argument that the new numbers were sufficiently different in their scope so that no time series comparisons are possible.
That was a squeamish but unnecessary caveat. The data, such as they are, speak for themselves, and their implications are indeed a problem for the Bush administration.
The report's main finding is that there were 651 significant terrorist incidents in 2004. The last time there were that many incidents of any kind reported was in the late 1980s, but the numbers really are not comparable because the database for the 80s included a sizeable number of incidents that were not defined as significant: Of the 208 incidents reported in 2003, 161, or 77% of all reported incidents--the highest proportion in some time--were classed as significant. They occurred in 40 countries, roughly 60% of them in five countries: India, Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, and Israel, in that order, with India alone accounting for 48, or about 30%.
While the Counterterrorism Center says that it uses somewhat different criteria, the 2004 numbers show radically increased global results for two countries, India and Iraq. Of the 651 incidents reported in 2004, the total count for the five countries cited above was 528. Almost 500 of them occurred in India (295) and Iraq (201). That leaves about 123 significant incidents in other countries, meaning that the number of incidents doubled in the rest of the world. (Both the 2003 and 2004 reports cover incidents in 40 countries.)
The principal difference between the State and the Counterterrorism Center reports is the latter's exclusive focus on significant incidents. Roughly the same definitions were applied by both in defining an incident as "significant", and in fact the Center's report says that it originally compiled the data for inclusion in the State report. Thus, such comparability as now exists is between State's reported 161 significant incidents in 2003 and the Center's reported 651 significant incidents in 2004. The crude implication is that significant incidents worldwide increased by roughly 300 percent.
What conclusions should be drawn from such a whopping change? Any way you cut it, there was a sizeable rise in incidents in India, from 48 in 2003 to 295 in 2004; that is a 500% increase as well as a rise from 30% to 45% of globally significant incidents in India alone. A tenfold escalation occurred in Iraq, rising from about 21 significant incidents in 2003 to 201 or roughly 30% of incidents in 2004.
As the Center report indicates, it is difficult in the Iraqi case to distinguish between terrorist attacks and acts of insurgency. Moreover, the status of victims (foreign, private, civilian, official, military) is an insecure cut line between the two. Even a cautious judgment indicates that the root cause of the incidents in Iraq is the occupation, along with the uncertainties of governance and the instability associated with it. Therefore, from the point of view of how to deal with such incidents, it is probably smart not to class them as terrorism in the usual sense, and the same probably applies to incidents in Afghanistan. An occupation/war related violence pattern applies better.
The situation in India requires a different reading. Significant incidents occurred across the year, but they were most frequent in the last six months. The incidents occurred in and around Kashmir. Pro-Indian and pro-Pakistani militants may have been involved, but the apparent driver of the increase was the prospect that India and Pakistan might get together on a solution that would decide the future of the territory without any consideration of the desires of the free Kashmir groups. Those groups were responsible for disruption of the briefly re-launched bus service earlier in 2005 between Pakistani and Indian territory, a service that had not run in more than 50 years. The real significance of those incidents is the demonstrated determination and resourcefulness of the free Kashmir groups after half a century of Pakistani and Indian efforts to quell them.
The only other significant groups of attacks in the Center report were the West Bank and Gaza Strip (37 attacks) and Saudi Arabia (12 attacks). The attacks in Palestine, as well as those in Israel, are part of the continuing evidence of the Israeli repression of the Palestinian people. The attacks in Saudi Arabia, said variously to be associated/promoted by al Qaida, are more likely evidence of growing local discontent with the Saudi royals monopoly over power.
Twenty-eight of the 40 countries included in the Center report experienced only one or two attacks during the year. Those attacks largely can be attributed to long standing quarrels between out groups and elites.
Where does this leave the War on Terrorism? Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States leads an occupying force battling people who object to it, and possibly Colombia and the Philippines, where the United States has been helping local authorities deal with long-standing insurgencies, there appears to be little or no connection. Terrorism in the majority of countries covered by the Center report is indigenous, centered on long-standing disputes between governments and out groups, and these cases are affected marginally, if at all, by the War on Terrorism. Nor is it likely that, if the War on Terrorism ended tomorrow, its passing would alter either the status or the prospects of those long-standing disputes.
This poses a draconian set of choices. The United States itself is the primary culprit in lighting the fuses of present volatile situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States relationship to Israel is a significant driver of Middle East attacks that may harm Americans and others. Thus the United States is the visible proximate cause or closely associated with it respecting a quarter of the significant terrorist incidents in 2004. The President himself has declared Iraq to be the "central front" in the War on Terrorism, but if that is true, it clearly is more provocative than productive. However, the War on Terrorism is basically irrelevant to terrorist activities in India and in the majority of countries covered by the Center report. This makes the War look more like the problem than the solution.
The author is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State, a former Deputy Director of the State Department Office of Counterterrorism and former Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He is a regular columnist on He will welcome comments at



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