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July 2005

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With the citation of official figures on the number of terrorist incidents, the author, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, seeks to explain the primary causes of international terrorism. The reader may not agree with his conclusions, but the analysis warrants close study. – Ed.

Terrorism War is the Main Terrorism Generator

by Terrell E. Arnold

“In effect, the invasion of Iraq has become the world’s principal terrorism generator.”

Last week’s bombings in London [July 7] stoked a fire storm of commentary about the state of the War on Terrorism, U.S. and Coalition military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the definition of terrorism. The pit was reached with Tony Blair’s assertion that they — the terrorists — “will never destroy what we hold dear,” because, as several commentators have noted, the bombers are not really interested in what we hold dear. They want the Americans and the British out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and an end to the Israeli persecution of the Palestinian people. The high point of this furor was reached, again by Tony Blair, who mused, quite rightly but almost as an afterthought, that something must be done about the causes of terrorism.

If it takes a bombing to focus the minds of leadership on the correct path out of this situation, then maybe the London bombers did the world a favor, while actually getting across what they wanted: They want the west to do something about their grievances, to start with, to end the War on Terrorism that can now be seen by at least a billion people as against Islam.

The bombings coincided with a rumble in Washington about what is terrorism. It seems awfully late in a shooting war to need to define what the war is about, but better late than never. This war of definitions is on two fronts.
First, what is terrorism? That seems to be moving toward accepting that, outside legitimate warfare and justified law enforcement, a politically motivated violent attack by anyone against anyone, anywhere, on any scale is terrorism, and that gets close to a universal definition. It rapidly escalates the numbers globally by including domestic terrorism — attacks within one country against only that country’s people or property — but it bundles into the global problem all of the internal disturbances of the fifty or so failed and failing states, and it still does not include the actions — however terroristic they may be — of military forces.
Second, what is international terrorism? That number does not appear to have changed, although the definition of what is a “significant” attack may be under review.

On the eve of the publication of its annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" in April 2005, the State Department Office of Counterterrorism indicated the report would not be published for 2004 or in the future. 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 United States 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 now 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. The data speak for themselves, and their implications are a problem for the Bush administration because they call the whole idea of the War into question.

The report's main finding is that there were 651 significant international 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 80’s included a sizeable number of incidents that were not defined as significant: Of the 208 incidents reported in 2003, 161, or 77 per cent of all reported incidents -- the highest proportion in some time -- were classed as significant. They occurred in 40 countries, roughly 6 per cent of them in five countries: India, Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, and Israel, in that order, with India alone accounting for 48, or about 3 per cent.

On its new Internet site, the Terrorism Knowledge Base that is a joint venture with the Department of Homeland Security, the Counterterrorism Center has included international as well as domestic terrorism in a data series that begins in 1998. Thus, compared with earlier State Department reports, the 2004 numbers show radically increased global results: About 2,575 incidents, about a quarter of them “international”, occurred in 2004. Over half of the newly tabulated incidents (1,309) occurred in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Israel. In the first half of 2005, the concentration of incidents increased: Worldwide incidents numbered 1,650, of which 1,120 occurred in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Israel.

The increase in incidents in Iraq is dramatic. In 2002 there were 14 incidents in Iraq. In 2004, the first full year of occupation, there were 790 incidents, and in the first half of 2005, incidents in Iraq numbered 883. Iraq appeared to be on a path to more than double the 2004 incident rate. In effect, the invasion of Iraq has become the world’s principal terrorism generator.

There has been a brutal rise in incidents associated with the War on Terrorism. In 2002, somewhat more than 20 per cent of worldwide incidents occurred in Iraq (14), Palestine (432), Israel (109), and Afghanistan (65). In the first half of 2005, roughly 70 per cent of the 1,650 worldwide incidents occurred in those four areas, with Iraq (883) accounting for more than half of worldwide incidents.

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. If the outsiders are westerners, they are, as seen by insurgents, more than likely involved in the occupation, therefore, a perceivable part of the enemy. 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, it is probably smart not to class them as terrorism, and the same applies to incidents in Afghanistan. An occupation/war related/insurgent violence pattern applies better.

Data on incidents in and around the Indian subcontinent make up a big part of the remaining global terrorism statistics. In 2002, incidents in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Kashmir numbered 743. That was a quarter of worldwide incidents. In 2004, things had quieted down somewhat, mainly in and around Kashmir, but the region still accounted for 8-9% of worldwide incidents. Moreover, the State Department of use of the “significant incident” category may have been dropped, but it should not be forgotten. Incidents in India and surroundings typically counted for the largest single block of such incidents before the data base changeover, and the incidents themselves probably continue to be as violent as ever.

The other significant groups of attacks in the Center report were in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 2004 there were 373 attacks, mainly in Palestine. In the first half of 2005, there were 191, again mainly in Palestine. The attacks in Palestine, as well as those in Israel, are part of the continuing evidence of the Israeli repression of the Palestinian people. There were12 attacks in Saudi Arabia during 2004, said variously to be associated/promoted by al Qai’da, but they were more likely evidence of growing local discontent with the Saudi royals’ monopoly of power.

The majority of 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 have every right to object to it, and possibly Colombia and the Philippines, where, long before the War on Terrorism, the United States was 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 disputes between governments and out-groups that existed long before al Qai’da, 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 .and keeping them aflame The United States relationship to Israel is a significant driver of Middle East attacks that may harm Americans and others. Thus the United States, along with Britain and other Coalition members, is the visible provocation, proximate cause or closely associated with the causes respecting over 1,300 of the 2,575 terrorist incidents reported by the National Counterterrorism Center for 2004. The situation is worse so far in 2005, because the United States is associated in the same manner with more than 1,100, close to 70 per cent, of the 1,650 worldwide attacks recorded for the year as of June 30.

There is an ironic twist to this situation. President Bush has said repeatedly, and so have his neo-con advisers, such as Paul Wolfowitz, that it is important to fight the terrorists offshore, so they will not attack us in the United States. The London, Madrid, and Bali bombers, and of course the 9-11 hijackers, clearly have gotten the same idea: It is quieter at home if you take the struggle to the other side, but that philosophy, on its face, encourages the export of political violence by anyone who thinks exporting violence will serve the cause.

The President himself has declared Iraq to be the "central front" in the War on Terrorism, but if that is true, it is more provocative than productive. The Counterterrorism Center data show that the War is irrelevant to patterns of terrorism in most societies, while the War looks like the heart of the problem in Iraq and Afghanistan. Withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, a Middle East peace that is fair to the Palestinian people, and, as Blair said, dealing with the causes of terrorism are the central choices for reducing terrorist violence.


Terrell Arnold is a retired senior U. S. Foreign Service officer, a former deputy director of the State Department Office of Counterterrorism, and formerly chaired International Studies at the National War College. He is a regular Internet columnist (www.rense.com/general67/terr.htm) and welcomes comments at wecanstopit@charter.net .

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