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    Middle East
     May 5, 2005
When terrorism numbers don't add up
By B Raman

Under Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f, the US State Department is required to submit to Congress when it re-assembles after the Easter recess every year a report on the state of international terrorism during the previous year, with recommendations regarding the role of state sponsors of international terrorism.

The report, as laid down by Congress, has to include, inter alia, information on terrorist groups and umbrella organizations under which falls any terrorist group known to be responsible for the kidnapping or death of any US citizen during the preceding five years; groups known to be financed by state sponsors of terrorism about which Congress has been notified during the past year in accordance with Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act; and any other known international terrorist group that the secretary of state determines should be the subject of the report.

These annual reports, submitted since 1980, came to be known as the "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report and have enjoyed a certain credibility in the eyes of international counterterrorism analysts, who look forward to the publication of these annual statistics. However, some analysts, such as this writer, have been skeptical about the accuracy of the statistics provided in the reports, which are prepared not by the intelligence community, but by the Counterterrorism Division of the State Department.

This writer and others who share this skepticism have felt the State Department is not beyond fudging the statistics and manipulating the analyses in order to serve the policy interests of the current administration. Thus, while the analyses in the reports on the alleged role of Iraq and Iran were often based on fudged statistics and false data, the analysis relating to Pakistan went out of its way to give the benefit of the doubt to Islamabad.

The report for 2003 submitted to Congress in April last year was considerably discredited because of its attempts to portray, through fudged statistics, the number of international terrorist incidents as having registered a decline; whereas, the truth was these incidents had increased considerably. One suspected a conscious attempt in the months preceding the US presidential election to disseminate blatantly fudged statistics in order to project the counterterrorism policy of the George W Bush administration as producing positive results.

Subsequently, when these fudged statistics were found out, the State Department's shame-faced Counterterrorism Division admitted the error and disseminated corrected figures. At the same time, it maintained there was no mala fide intention in the release of a report that turned out to be inaccurate.

In light of this controversy, major changes to the format of the report were introduced by Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state after taking over from Colin Powell. It is no longer called the annual report on the Patterns of Global Terrorism. Instead, it is now called the "Country Reports on Terrorism", with an overview of the state of terrorism in the world during 2004, followed by another overview of the state of international jihadi terrorism and a countrywide narrative of the state of terrorism in different countries, the action taken by each country against terrorism and its cooperation with the United States and the rest of the international community in dealing with terrorism. The report also highlights the role of the US in assisting other countries in the field of counterterrorism.

All these aspects used to be included in previous years' reports too, but what was missing in the latest report submitted to Congress was a statistical analysis of international terrorism during 2004. This gave rise to suspicions and allegations that Rice had dispensed with this type of analysis because she apparently feared that a statistical analysis could show the public that despite the Bush administration's claims to the contrary, the international terrorism situation has worsened since the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The world has seen more suicide attacks since the US occupied Iraq than it had during the previous two decades in which suicide terrorism made its appearance. If the invasion and occupation of Iraq was part of the so-called "war against terrorism" designed to make the world safe from jihadi terrorism, as is often claimed by the Bush administration, victory is not yet in sight. The many tactical successes scored by the US in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region cannot conceal the fact that strategically the overall effect of the war as fought under the US leadership has been to drive many more Muslims into the arms of international jihadi terrorist groups than before 2003.

Rice seemed to have concluded that the best way to avoid admitting this was to dispense with any statistical analysis. In an interview, she tried to defend herself against allegations of intellectual dishonesty by claiming that she merely wanted to leave the statistical analysis to be done by the new National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), set up under the reorganization of the intelligence community as recommended by the 9-11 Commission. According to her, the NCTC would have greater professional competence to undertake such an analysis than the State Department's Counterterrorism Division.

Following concerns reportedly expressed by members of Congress and others regarding the decision not to include a statistical analysis in the State Department's report, the department simultaneously released to the media, at a joint press conference held in Washington on April 27, its own report in the new format as well as a separate statistical analysis prepared by the NCTC. The press conference was jointly addressed by Philip Zelikow, counselor of the State Department, and John Brennan, acting director of the NCTC. (President George W Bush has not yet nominated a permanent incumbent to this post.)

When explaining the new format being followed from this year, Zelikow said the following:
For years statistical data on global terrorism has been published as part of an annual State Department report called "Patterns of Global Terrorism" that was last provided to Congress in April 2004. The law itself requires basically two things: it requires detailed assessments of specified countries, and information about specified terrorist groups. The compilation of data about terrorist attacks is not a required part of the report, but traditionally had been provided by the State Department, going back to the years in which the State Department was basically the public voice of the US government on international terrorism, generally.

That situation has been changing in recent years. In July 2004, the 9-11 Commission recommended creation of a National Counterterrorism Center to provide an authoritative agency for all-source analysis of global terrorism. The president implemented the recommendation by Executive Order in August. And the agency was created by statute in December 2004, in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which is Public Law 108-458.

But what's important for our purposes is what the law said the NCTC should do. It said the NCTC was the primary organization for analysis and integration of "all intelligence possessed or acquired by the United States government pertaining to terrorism or counterterrorism". The law further stated that the NCTC would be the United States government's "shared knowledge bank on known and suspected terrorists and international terror groups, as well as their goals, strategies, capabilities, and networks of contact and support".

Therefore, given that statutory mandate, the State Department has focused its own report to Congress on the issues in its mandate, renamed "Country Reports on Terrorism: Assessing Countries and Providing Information on Terrorist Groups", which we are still statutorily required to do. And it has deferred to the National Counterterrorism Center to assume its prescribed role as the "shared knowledge bank" for data on global terrorism.

We are publicly presenting our required report to Congress and the public today. In conjunction with that presentation, the NCTC will present current 2004 terrorist-incident data that is compiled using the old statutory criteria, the old counting rules and past practices. We're presenting this data today in a period of transition. The NCTC will present its own approach to compiling statistics that need to be and will be significantly revised and improved, including its plans for providing a more comprehensive accounting of global terrorism incidents by June of this year.
Thus, Zelikow indirectly allowed for the possibility of errors in this year's analysis too, though it had been prepared by the NCTC. According to him, this was because the same parameters for compilation and analysis that were followed by the State Department last year had been followed by the NCTC in its analysis this year as it is still in the process of being set up and, hence, would be in a position to formulate its own parameters only by June.

According to the analysis, during 2004 there were 651 attacks that met the criteria for significant international terrorist incidents, resulting in 1,907 fatalities. Of these, 284 attacks (a little more than 40%) took place in the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) in India. However, only 434 fatalities (less than 25%) were reported from J&K. The large level of attacks but low level of fatalities in J&K was due to the fact that there was no mass-casualty incident in India. In other countries, such as Spain and Russia, there was a low level of attacks, but a high level of fatalities due to mass-casualty attacks such as those in Madrid and Beslan (Russia).

There were 64 significant international terrorist attacks directed against US nationals and interests, that is, about 10% of the total, resulting in 68 fatalities. The vast majority of these anti-US attacks - 83% - took place in West Asia.

The NCTC's Brennan himself admitted during the media briefing that continuing ambiguities in definitions as given in US laws relating to terrorism resulted in inaccurate analysis. Thus, terrorism, for the purpose of the analysis, is defined as a premeditated and politically motivated violent act against non-combatants (civilians) in any area and against even combatants in a non-conflict area. International terrorism is defined as terrorism "involving the citizens or territory of more than one country". For being included in the compilation and analysis, a "significant international terrorist attack" has been defined as an act involving killings or severe injuries or property damage of more than $10,000.

Among the anomalies admitted by Brennan, which have crept into the analysis as a result of the ambiguities in definitions, are the following:

  • On February 27, 2004, a member of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines sank Superferry 14, killing more than 100 people. This was an act of terrorism directed against innocent civilians. But because the perpetrator and the victims were all Filipinos, this is not reflected in the analysis.
  • In Iraq, only attacks on Americans and other foreign nationals have been covered in the analysis and not attacks on Iraqi nationals, which were in the vast majority.
  • In Uzbekistan, there were three significant terrorist attacks on July 30, 2004, against the US and Israeli embassies and a building of the local government. The attack against the local government has been excluded.
  • In August 2004, two Chechen suicide bombers blew up two Aeroflot flights. One flight had only Russian citizens and hence was excluded. In the other flight, there was one Israeli citizen and hence it has been included in the analysis. The attack against the school in Beslan has been included because the Chechen terrorists involved were assisted by a Uzbek and a Kazakh.
  • In Turkey, there were attacks against four HSBC banks on the same day by suspected al-Qaeda elements, but all of them have been excluded because there were no human casualties and the property damage in each instance did not exceed $10,000.

    Brennan indicated that the NCTC would be releasing in June another analysis of the significant international terrorist incidents of 2004, which would be more comprehensive and seek to address some of these distortions. In response to a question, he admitted that the total number of all terrorist attacks in Iraq registered an almost 10-fold increase, from 22 in 2003 to 201 in 2004. The number of fatalities increased from 117 in 2003 to 554 in 2004.

    Zelikow said the State Department would have preferred to wait until a more comprehensive and accurate analysis by the NCTC was ready in June, but decided to release the present incomplete and often inaccurate analysis because of media allegations of a cover-up of the statistics by the State Department, which were baseless. Zelikow faced considerable grilling over the state of the so-called US-led "war against international terrorism".

    A journalist pointed out that the number of significant international terrorist incidents has gone up from 175 in 2003 to 651 in 2004, thereby negating the claims of the Bush administration that it was winning the war. Zelikow refused to admit this and said: "The short answer is it [the statistics] doesn't tell us anything about the war on terror. The statistics are simply not valid for any inference about the progress, either good or bad, of American policy. I think that's the honest answer. If you just look at what the statistics are and what kind of inferences can legitimately be drawn from them, I can't come up with a defendable inference."

    If the statistics, as compiled and analyzed by the State Department in the past and by the NCTC, now do not enlighten the public, but only confuse them, of what use are such statistics? On what basis does the Bush administration periodically make claims of winning the "war against terrorism"? One is as confused as ever.

    Zelikow and Brennan tied themselves in knots in their attempts to defend Secretary of State Rice from allegations of a cover-up of statistics in order to conceal from the public the fact that the so-called "war against international jihadi terrorism" is going from bad to worse, despite the fact that there has been no terrorist incident on US home soil since September 11 and the terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan has been destroyed.

    What clearly came out of their often contradictory answers was that the annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" reports released by the State Department for more than 20 years now were highly politicized documents prepared to suit the political agenda of the incumbent administration and did not reflect the correct state of affairs.

    The continuing confusion and misleading statements were apparent in their replies to questions relating to J&K and the role of the state sponsors of international terrorism. Examples:

    Zelikow: "Well, okay, so we've discovered, you know, hundreds of additional incidents in Kashmir, because we actually - people went out and looked at local newspapers from Kashmir and so on and said, 'Okay, now what larger inference should I then draw from that for the conduct of the global war on terror?' Hard argument."

    Zelikow: "There were 52 incidents in Kashmir that were included in the chronology that was issued last year; 284 in 2004. The number of victims in Kashmir in 2003 was 776; in 2004, it was 1,872. The number of killed in Kashmir in 2003 was 111; and in 2004, it was 434. And in the chronology that we are issuing, you will see that is listed under - for each of the individual incidents - listed under India, but it identifies Kashmir as the location for the attack. And just to clarify, of course, all attacks in Kashmir occurred in either India or Pakistan." (Laughter)

    Zelikow could not satisfactorily explain whether the figures relating to J&K in the latest analysis included only incidents that had taken place inside J&K or also included incidents in Indian and Pakistani territory outside Kashmir which, in the NCTC's view, were related to Kashmir.

    Zelikow: "Notably, 2004 was also marked by progress in decreasing the threat from states that sponsor terrorism - state-sponsored terrorism. Iraq's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism was formally rescinded in October 2004. Though they are still on the list, Libya and Sudan took significant steps to cooperate in the global war on terrorism. Unfortunately, Cuba, North Korea, Syria, and in particular, Iran continued to embrace terrorism as an instrument of national policy. Most worrisome is that these countries also have the capabilities to manufacture weapons of mass destruction [WMD] and other destabilizing technologies that could fall into the hands of terrorists. Iran and Syria are of special concern for their direct, open, and prominent role in supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups, for their unhelpful actions in Iraq and in Iran's case, the unwillingness to bring to justice senior al-Qaeda members detained in 2003, including - I will add personally - senior al-Qaeda members who were involved in the planning of the 9-11 attacks."

    Zelikow again tied himself in knots while trying to explain what he meant by referring to Cuba's WMD capabilities. He said: "If you expect me to walk into the minefield of discussing the Cuban biological weapons program, I'm going to disappoint you. The Cuban government has the capability to manufacture some weapons of mass destruction. The US government has discussed what those capabilities are in other settings and I don't want to get into that here. The same is true for Syria and the other countries we named. What we're focusing on here principally is less what is the WMD capability of the states, is simply what is the role of those states in state sponsorship of terrorism. And then please look at that against the background of what we have already said publicly about the capabilities of those states in the WMD world. And then you can draw some inferences about whether that's disturbing or not."

    Beyond al-Qaeda
    In my articles written and speeches made since 1995, I have been drawing attention to the emergence in Pakistan of a new brand of jihadi ideology called international Islamism, which advocates a "jihad world-wide" against perceived enemies of Islam in general and against the US and Israel in particular; the significance of the formation of the International Islamic Front (IIF) in Afghanistan in February 1998, under the leadership of al-Qaeda in the conduct of this global jihad; the attempts of the jihadi elements to take the jihad to US territory; and the projection of this global jihad by its proponents as a new third world war which, according to them, would end in the triumph of Islam.

    I have also been repeatedly pointing out the pernicious role of many Pakistani jihadi organizations of Wahhabi-Deobandi persuasion in the IIF, the secretive role of the Tablighi Jamaat of Pakistan in the spread of this ideology, how many of these organizations had come into existence long before al-Qaeda, how al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were inspired by their ideology and not the other way around, how bin Laden's arguments on the right and the religious obligation of the Muslims to acquire and use, if necessary, weapons of mass destruction against the US and Israel were borrowed from the ideology of the Islamic bomb propagated by the Deobandi-Wahhabi clerics of Pakistan, such as the late Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai of the Binori madrassa (religious school) and Fazlur Rahman Khalil of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), etc.

    It was also my analysis that most of the post-1998 jihadi terrorist incidents were carried out by the Pakistani and other components of the IIF and not by al-Qaeda and that the Americans were distorting the analysis by trying to see the hand of bin Laden and al-Qaeda in every incident. It was my apprehension that by over-focussing on al-Qaeda because of its traumatic experience of September 11 and by not paying adequate attention to the various individual components of the IIF operating from the Pakistani territory, the US was drawing attention away from the jihadi iceberg, while keeping the spotlight only on its al-Qaeda tip.

    Another point which I have been stressing whenever and wherever I could is that the US has been unwise in projecting Islam as a monolithic religion, the global jihadi movement as a monolith, and bin Laden as the undisputed leader of the global jihadi movement and in imparting to him a larger-than-life-size image as a master strategist, a Napoleon of the global jihadi movement.

    In this context, nothing gave me greater satisfaction than to read the third chapter of the latest report by the US State Department. The chapter, "Global Jihad: Evolving and Adapting", says:
    The global jihadist movement - including its most prominent component, al-Qaeda - remains the preeminent terrorist threat to the United States, US interests and US allies. While the core of al-Qaeda has suffered damage to its leadership, organization, and capabilities, the group remains intent on striking US interests in the homeland and overseas. During the past year, concerted anti-terrorist coalition measures have degraded al-Qaeda's central command infrastructure, decreasing its ability to conduct massive attacks. At the same time, however, al-Qaeda has spread its anti-US, anti-Western ideology to other groups and geographical areas.

    It is therefore no longer only al-Qaeda itself but increasingly groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, or independent ones adhering to al-Qaeda's ideology, that present the greatest threat of terrorist attacks against US and allied interests globally. US and coalition successes against al-Qaeda have forced these jihadist groups to compensate by showing a greater willingness to act on their own and exercising greater local control over their strategic and tactical decisions. As a result of this growing dispersion and local decision-making, there is an increasing co-mingling of groups, personnel, resources, and ad hoc operational and logistical coordination. These groups affiliated with al-Qaeda or indoctrinated with al-Qaeda's ideology are now carrying out most of the terrorist attacks against US and allied interests.

    Their decreased power projection and limited resources mean that an increasing percentage of jihadist attacks are more local, less sophisticated, but still lethal. Some groups, however, are seeking to replicate al-Qaeda's global reach and expertise for mass casualty attacks. This trend underscores that America’s partners in the global war on terror require the capabilities to identify and eliminate terrorist threats in their countries for their own security and ultimately to stop terrorists abroad before they can gain the ability to attack the US homeland.
    The report adds:
    The apparent mergers or declarations of allegiance of groups such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's organization with al-Qaeda suggest that al-Qaeda is looking to leverage the capabilities and resources of key regional networks and affiliates - a trend that al-Qaeda could also use to try to support new attacks in the United States and abroad.

    The global jihadist movement predates al-Qaeda's founding and was reinforced and developed by successive conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and elsewhere during the 1990s. As a result, it spawned several groups and operating nodes and developed a resiliency that ensured that destruction of any one group or node did not destroy the larger movement. Since 2001, extremists, including members of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, have sought to exploit perceptions of the US-led global war on terrorism and, in particular, the war in Iraq to attract converts to their movement. Many of these recruits come from a large and growing pool of disaffected youth who are sympathetic to radical, anti-Western militant ideology.

    At the same time, these extremists have branched out to establish jihadist cells in other parts of the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe, from which they seek to prepare operations and facilitate funding and communications. Foreign fighters appear to be working to make the insurgency in Iraq what Afghanistan was to the earlier generation of jihadists - a melting pot for jihadists from around the world, a training ground, and an indoctrination center. In the months and years ahead, a significant number of fighters who have traveled to Iraq could return to their home countries, exacerbating domestic conflicts or augmenting with new skills and experience existing extremist networks in the communities to which they return.

    Al-Qaeda's ideology resonates with other Sunni extremist circles. Some affiliated groups - including Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia - look to their own spiritual leaders, yet historically have shared close ideological and operational ties to al-Qaeda. In recent years, however, the resonance of al-Qaeda's message has contributed to the formation of an assortment of grass-roots networks and cells among persons that previously have had no observable links to bin Laden or al-Qaeda aside from general ideological and religious affinity.

    Examples of this trend include Salafiya Jihadia, a loosely organized Moroccan movement that carried out the bombings in May 2003 in Casablanca, and the terrorists who executed the March 2004 attack in Madrid. Although these cells do not appear to have been acting directly on al-Qaeda orders, their attacks supported al-Qaeda's ideology and reflected al-Qaeda's targeting strategy. Although the jihadist movement remains dangerous, it is not monolithic. Some groups are focused on attacking the United States or its allies, while others view governments and leaders in the Muslim world as their primary targets.
    There is now a growing convergence between the US analysis and mine, but there are still important differences. While throwing the spotlight on local and regional jihadi organizations, the State Department's analysis still fails to see them in the larger context of the role of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People. It projects the ideologies of the local organizations as inspired by that of al-Qaeda and fails to take note of and analyze the impact of the Deobandi ideology of the Pakistani jihadi organizations on the thinking of bin Laden and his organization.

    In my assessment, the birth of the concept of a global jihad against the US and Israel could be traced to the Binori madrassa of Karachi; and the role of Ramzi Yousef of Pakistan and other perpetrators of the explosion at the New York World Trade Center in February 1993 in the spread of this concept has not been adequately analyzed by Western, Israeli and Australian experts. The New York explosion of February 1993 was the first shot in this global jihad and the preparations for it were made in the Binori madrassa and not in any set up of al-Qaeda.

    It is surprising that these experts, who often tend to over-focus on the writings and statements of the late Abdullah Azam, have paid so little attention to the interview given by an unidentified leader of the HUM (then known as the Harkat-ul-Ansar) to Kamran Khan of the News of Islamabad in February 1995, which was carried by the paper under the title Jihad World-Wide. This interview contained a detailed account of the role of the HUM in the jihad in the southern Philippines. Kamran Khan subsequently came out with another investigative report on the efforts of Ramzi Yousef to export jihad to Saudi Arabia.

    The repeated mistakes in analysis of the US could be attributed to the inclination of its experts to make their analyses suit the political agenda of their leaders, thereby failing to read the writing on the wall. Unless and until there is adequate self-correction, one cannot rule out a repeat of the terrorist attacks in the US, Bali, Mombasa, Casablanca, Madrid, etc.

    The latest report by the State Department indicates the beginning of such a process of self-correction. In that sense, it needs to be welcomed.

    B Raman is additional secretary (retired), cabinet secretariat, government of India, New Delhi, and, presently, director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and distinguished fellow and convener, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.
    E-mail:
    itschen36@gmail.com

    (Copyright 2005 B Raman)

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