- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org