The twenty-first century, at least up until this point, might well be described as the age of the terrorist. Even though most Americans and Europeans rank terrorism as low among their concerns, the repercussions when a terrorist attack does take place are greatly magnified by the sheer horror associated with the mass killing of innocent people going about their daily lives.
There are a couple of annual reports that look at terrorism as a global phenomenon. The best known is the U.S. State Department’s Annual Country Reports on Terrorism that comes out in the Summer and covers the previous year. It is mandated by Congress and is largely based on Embassy and intelligence community sources.
The Country Reports purports to be an objective review of the year’s terrorist incidents as well as an overview of some of the players to include a discussion of “violent extremism” issues region by region and country by country. It is a valuable resource which provides considerable information on the various militant groups and the crimes attributed to them as well as their involvement globally. But it is nevertheless a government document. The Obama Administration definitely has had a point of view on what constitutes terrorism and how to deal with it based on how the White House would like to frame things from a political perspective. The section on Afghanistan, for example, implicitly makes a case for a more robust American role in the conflict engulfing that country.
I often find that how something is described or even ignored just as important as what is revealed. There is, for example, a section of the report identifying State Sponsors of Terrorism, a status that brings with it various sanctions. It would be difficult to find a section that is by definition more hypocritical as many would certainly consider Washington the leading practitioner of state sponsored terror with its claimed authority to go after militant targets anywhere at any time. The 2015 report names only Iran, Syria and Sudan as state sponsors even though Damascus and Tehran are more often than not on Washington’s side, heavily engaged in fighting ISIS, which the U.S. government in its own reporting clearly identifies as international enemy #1. Regarding Sudan, the report states that it is no longer in the supporting radicalism business while earlier annual reports actually commended it for helping international efforts against terrorists yet it remains on the list, apparently because several individuals close to the White House do not like its government very much and have written scholarly articles attacking its president.
The numbers in the Country Reports tell us something about the impact of terrorism. Deaths attributed to people who might be regarded as terrorists is certainly a huge global problem with the State Department report recording nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks producing 28,000 deaths worldwide in 2015. But the mayhem is very much concentrated in countries that are gripped by what might reasonably be termed civil war, to include Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. Several other countries with high levels of “terror” deaths, to include Nigeria and Pakistan, are engaged in bloody regional conflicts over economic issues fueled by anti-central government sentiment, not exactly civil war but something close to it.
American victims are a lot harder to find. The State Department report, which is only about acts of terrorism overseas, identifies 19 American citizens as victims of terror for the year 2015. Eight of the deaths were in Afghanistan, one in Syria and one in Somalia, all of which can be regarded as war zones. Three were in Jerusalem and on the Israeli occupied West Bank, a region also suffering from endemic violence, killing two American visitors plus a settler who held dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship.
Twenty-two more Americans were injured in terrorist incidents worldwide in 2015 and there were no reported kidnappings during the year. Though I in no way wish to minimize the killing of anyone in a criminal act, which terrorism is, the death and injury toll hardly constitutes a major international threat and I am sure that many more Americans are killed every year “overseas” in traffic accidents while vacationing. The report clearly suggests that international terrorism is an enemy that is largely ineffective at least in terms of being able to do direct damage to the United States, its citizens or its other interests.
A second terrorism report is prepared by the highly reputable Institute for Economics and Peace, which is based in Australia. It’s Global Terrorism Index, currently in its fourth edition, has just come out and it differs from the State Department report in that while it covers 2015 in some detail it is also progressive, meaning that it incorporates new information on terrorist activity into observations derived from reporting that covers 16 years, since 2000. Its overview information itself derives from a large terrorism data base, consisting currently of records relating to 150,000 incidents, maintained at the University of Maryland. As a result, the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) is sometimes more useful than the State Department if one is seeking to identify long term trends.
One might conclude that what we call terrorism is quite simply warfare by other means and it might not even be useful to try to define it in a distinctive fashion. The GTI report basically confirms the State Department Country Reports on numbers and places where terrorist attacks take place, adding that more than 93% of all reported incidents occur in countries that are already internally extremely repressive or unstable while more than 90% take place in countries engaged in external violent conflicts. Fewer than .5% of terror attacks are in countries that have neither internal or external issues. The most afflicted countries are Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. Three out of the five have experienced direct U.S. military interventions while Pakistan has been under intense pressure from Washington to “do something.” In other words, terrorism deaths occur most often in places where a state of acute internal repression or even civil or external war exist and the role of the U.S. military as an accelerant for instability should be regarded as a given.
And then there is the global U.S. led war on terror, which costs upwards of hundreds of billions of dollars a year and has not actually eliminated any terrorist group while serving as a recruiting poster for assorted radical wannabes. It has also killed, by a very conservative estimate, 1.3 million people. Relying on overwhelming conventional military force and air power, the U.S. can always prevail either on the battlefield or against a radical group that seeks to hold on to territory that it is occupying, but unless Washington is prepared to remain indefinitely it cannot change the dynamic in a country or region that is unstable. Indeed, armed intervention itself followed by staying in place to nation build might actually be counterproductive if one looks at the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq as a U.S. presence frequently inhibits a possible political settlement. When the foreign security presence departs, sooner or later a dissident group will inevitably appear to fill the void. Based on the State Department and GTI reports one has to question a counter-terrorism strategy that has cost cumulatively trillions of dollars to combat an enemy that only rarely can project its power and that normally is only dangerous in the short term and in the immediate area in which it operates.
I have been reading various reports on terrorism for many years now and my firm impression is that the international terrorist threat, as poorly defined as it is, has actually been receding as more and more governments actively seek to eliminate militants in their midst even as fewer states are willing and able to provide them with either assistance or a safe haven. ISIS, the du jour terrorist threat, sought to establish a new territorial state, a Caliphate, but is currently facing complete defeat in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Terrorism is a “dying” industry in every sense of the word and while the U.S. government should take every reasonable step to protect American citizens the key word must be “reasonable.” A global anti-terror Crusade led by the United States is not a reasonable response, nor is it necessary as terrorist groups always eventually fade away due to their own internal contradictions and the intense hostility of the host country and neighbors. It is time to declare the war on terror finished, move on, and bring the troops home.