With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why We Need a Cool Assessment of Terrorism

The State Department recently released a report on World Terrorism for 2006. More then 14,600 attacks have been recorded, an increase of more than 6% on the previous year: That gives the frightening figure of 40 attacks a day!

The public in the West, and particularly in the US, cannot be but impressed by such figures. Should we be very worried about the future or is maybe the State Department selling anxiety?

There are two possible views on the terrorist phenomenon. One is to stress its tremendous importance as a threat and to prepare ourselves to have to soon face WMDS. The other is a cooler view trying to decide if the given figure of terrorist attacks is not misleading.

The fact is that this total should not include attacks that are part of ongoing insurgencies, such as the ones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Why should they put on equal footing with terrorists attacks like Madrid or London?

Is it relevant to define Iraq as terrorism? A situation which required the presence of 150,000 US soldiers can only be defined as a war.

Does it make sense to label terrorism an insurrection where frontal battles occur, as in Helmand, Afghanistan or when a CH-47 chinook is reportedly shot down by a rocket?

Can we count as part of world terrorism the Israeli July 2006 campaign against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon?

What is going on between the Tamil Tigers and the forces of Sri Lanka should not be reduced to terrorism when the insurgency uses -- along with terrorist attacks -- guerrilla warfare and frontal battles when circumstances are favorable and even, on one occasion, bombed  by air!

International terrorism, these days, is jihadist terrorism. In fact, between September 11, 2001 and the end of September 2006, jihadists have carried out, in 5 years, 37 attacks of some significance.

The countries which have been most targeted are, in order: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Turkey and Jordan. They represent nine tenths of all attacks, while some other countries have been hit once: Kenya, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco.

As far as Western countries are concerned, we have Madrid (2004) and London (2005). The total number of deaths at the world level in those 5 years caused by jihadists is about 1250, not even half of the victims of 9/11.

The apocalypse predicted some years ago by Osama bin Laden has been rather modest.

9/11 was the zenith of classical terrorism and a case in itself. Of course, a number of planned attacks have failed to be delivered due to police action.

As for WMDs, they have been one of the obsessions in the West since 1995, when the Japanese religious sect Aum Shirinko killed, with sarin gas, 12 people and wounded many in Tokyo’s underground.

With Japanese expertise, unlimited finances and no interference from the Japanese police who did not, at that time, watch the religious sects, the WMDs of Tokyo did not fulfill the expectations of its perpetrators.

What is the aim of creating anxiety among the public and particularly in the US, by predicting the imminent use of WMD? Could it be that we are witnessing a political exploitation of fear?

What do we exactly mean by mass destruction? If these weapons are going to be used one day--and that may well happen--they will probably produce more mass panic than mass destruction. But let’s not talk about the future. A cool assessment is first concerned about what has happened from 9/11 until today.

What can be said about the terrorism phenomenon at present is that it is misleading to confuse insurrectional wars and random acts of terrorism in a global count of terrorist attacks.

It is also misleading to speak of a “war against terrorism.” Terrorism is a covert activity which is dealt with, above all, by intelligence and police action.

What makes jihadists so specific is not religion, it’s that there is nothing with which to negotiate. Ideologically jihadists are still on the march. Armed force alone cannot win this struggle. The real battle is ideological. But it seem very improbable that the US will be able to discredit jihadist ideology. Consequently, jihadists terrorism is going to be active for a generation or two. But it will never be able to shake the world’s status quo.

Though, of course, it should be taken very seriously jihadist terrorism will remain a very costly nuisance but a limited threat.

The political aims of the jihadists, some of them utopian, such as restoring the caliphate, are mobilizing young militants who have the conviction of sharing an epic struggle. However, they are not helping solve the crisis of most of the Muslim countries which involves economic growth and social reforms. While China and India are growing economically at a quick pace, the jihadists are with their attacks contributing to the retardation of reform, slowing development in most of the Muslim world, which is already late in adapting to the challenges of the day.