The U.S. government has just released its annual report on terrorism, and it makes for grim reading. Equally troubling is the report’s omissions: This year it does not give the specific number of terrorist attacks last year. Yet serious terrorist incidents are increasing, a finding that is even more worrisome. The report raises troubling questions about the war against terrorism.
The State Department’s “Country Reports on Global Terrorism,” formerly the “Global Terrorism Report,” notes that global terrorism continues to pose “a significant threat” to the United States and its allies. Al-Qaeda is still the primary threat, even though its ability to operate has been degraded and its ranks depleted. Senior leaders remain at large and the organization has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to a hostile international environment. Its philosophy still wins adherents around the world and it is still capable of launching deadly attacks.
The report applauds “significant progress” in East Asia in countering the terrorist threat. Governments have worked alone and together through such organizations as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to fight terrorist organizations. Japan is applauded for its efforts, including financial assistance, to help other governments build the capacity to combat this scourge. Nevertheless, East Asia remains a breeding ground for such groups, and vigilance and cooperation remain a top security priority.
The report is sobering, as it should be. The State Department has said last year’s figure for the number of serious terrorist incidents was left out of the report because of a reorganization that has put a new body, the National Counterterrorism Center, in charge of those statistics. Moreover, State Department officials have claimed that such numbers are not relevant anyway, a logic that defies common sense.
The State Department is still smarting from last year’s report, which received considerable attention for significantly underreporting the number of terrorist attacks: It first said 307 people had been killed worldwide in 2003, but later more than doubled that figure when analysts looked closely at the numbers.
There is another explanation for the reluctance to include figures in the latest report: The numbers continue to increase. After being questioned about the omission, intelligence officials provided U.S. congressional representatives with a private briefing. According to one participant, those numbers show a striking increase in terrorist incidents.
Overall, the number of “significant” international terrorist attacks — those that either kill or seriously injure someone or cause more than $100,000 in damage — increased from 175 in 2003 to about 655 in 2004, a more than threefold increase. Those figures include the savage attack in Beslan, Russia, that left more than 300 people dead, and the Madrid train bombings. The statistics neither provide a count of those killed — by one tally more than 1,000 victims — nor include many of the attacks in Iraq, since they are not “international” in nature.
Some blame the rise on “technical” factors. A redefinition of “significant” makes year-to-year comparisons difficult, but the new baseline could be used to look at earlier analyses. Alternatively, U.S. officials claim that they are paying more attention to data collection, which implies that the issue was not such a high priority before. That too is troubling.
The obvious conclusion is that there is something wrong with the way the U.S. is fighting terrorism. There are no easy answers to this problem. Experts have long criticized over-reliance on military tools and have emphasized instead the need to work harder at winning “the hearts and minds” of communities that provide fodder for terrorist attacks. That is partly the result of thinking that the struggle against terrorism is “a war.” That language may not be helpful, given the indeterminacy of the fight, the fact that it is not likely to produce a winner, and the nature of the battle itself.
In addition, U.S. policymakers must be more ready to acknowledge links between their policies and unintended consequences. The invasion of Iraq and U.S. policies in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute have given disaffected Muslim communities excuses to take up arms against the U.S. and its allies and provided rationalizations for extremist groups like al-Qaeda.
None of this is to say that the terrorists are justified, or to excuse their acts. Rather, it is a plea to understand the complexities of terrorism, and to address the problem in all its dimensions. Only then will order and reason prevail over savagery and brutality.
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