Patrick Crewdson - biased liberal, Auckland

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Everything you know about terrorism is wrong

The answer to the question is No. Most people would say it's Yes, but it's No.

The question? It's about terrorism. In the words the Weekend Herald to advertise this recent article: are we living in "a new and grim age, fated to live with the constant threat of violent death"?

And like I said: the answer is No.

Each year, the US State Department releases a report called Patterns of Global Terrorism. If anyone could be expected to overstate the danger of terrorism it's the US State Department. As they say in the intro to the latest report, “The key to maintaining a coalition is underscoring to its members every day that the fight is not over and that sustained effort is clearly in their long-term interests.” [My italics.]

Yet, as the figures in the latest report show, the number of terrorist attacks annually is actually - wait for it - falling. Between 1982 and 2000, there were an average of 459 terrorist attacks worldwide each year. The most deadly year was 1987, with 665. In 2001, the year of the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the number of attacks dropped to 355. Over the following two years incidents dropped to a 20-year low: 205 in 2002, 208 the next year. Admittedly, the 9/11 attacks killed an extraordinary number of people, but 2001 still wasn't the most fatal year in recent memory. There were 5799 victims of terrorism that year - 655 fewer than in 1995 and 895 fewer than in 1998.

Like the Weekend Herald went on to note, provided you don't live in Iraq, the world is actually a little safer today than it was five years ago.

The State Department's figures beg two questions. Firstly, does the decline in the number of terrorist attacks mean the 'War on Terror' is being won? Secondly, if there are actually fewer terrorist attacks, why does it feel like we're living in "a new and grim age"?

To answer the first question as unequivocally as possible: no, not really. In fact, late last month, US President George W. Bush told an NBC interviewer he didn't think the War on Terror could be won. A White House spokesman leapt to 'clarify' the remark, saying Bush was just talking about winning the war "in the conventional sense", but the point was made: not even the Commander in Chief thinks he's ahead.

The US can claim some successes, such as the capture of high-ranking Al Qaeda officials and the freezing of terrorists' financial assets. But with botched military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq they have also planted the seeds of a thousand more Osama bin Ladens.

So if the decline in the number of terror strikes isn't due to the War on Terror, we're onto the second question: why does it feel like we're living in "a new and grim age"?

The headlines tell the story: 'Terror in Beslan' ... 'Al Qaeda Links To Jakarta Bombing' ... 'Britons Warned Terrorists Will Strike' ... 'Massacre in Madrid' ... 'Bali Victims Didn't Stand A Chance'.

Are terrorist attacks worse these days? Are they striking new targets?

September 11 was in a class of its own, but - believe it or not - there have been worse attacks than Beslan or Bali. The 1980s were something of a Golden Age for terrorism. In 1983 in Beirut, Lebanon, simultaneous truck bomb attacks killed 242 Americans and 58 French troops (the second major assault on Americans in Beirut that year, after an attack at the US Embassy killed 63 people). In 1985, a bomb killed 329 people aboard an Air India flight. In the infamous Lockerbie disaster of 1988, a Pan American Airlines plane exploded over Scotland, killing its 259 passengers.

As a Canadian study showed in 1986, terrorist incidents that victimised Western targets and were designed to attract the attention of the Western media significantly increased between 1968 and 1980. Yet, as other studies in the 1980s showed, only a third of international terrorist incidents were reported by the world media. That trend continued: this year, the report of the official US commission investigating September 11 criticised the American media for containing insufficient material that would "heighten anyone's concern about terrorism" prior to 9/11.

From 1998-2000 the New Zealand Herald printed 44,836 articles that contained the word 'terrorism'. That's an average of 14,945 per year. For the following three years - a period of fewer terrorist incidents, remember - that average increased by 110%, to 31,410 per year. Essentially then, what has changed dramatically since 9/11 is not the frequency of terrorist attacks, the target, or even the severity, but the coverage.

Are we living in "a new and grim age"? Are we "fated to live with the constant threat of violent death"?

Like I said: the answer is No.

Postscript: Since this column's original publication in Te Waha Nui, Matt has drawn my attention to the fact that there have been some questions raised over the Patterns of Global Terrorism figures. Originally, the number of terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2003 were given as 198 and 190 respectively. Those figures are still included in the downloadable pdf of the report. On 22 June the figures were revised upwards to the ones I used above - 205 and 208. That's obviously an increase on the previously listed stats, but as I said they still mark a 20-year low.