President Obama’s big May 23 policy speech on terrorism was one for the history books, but not for the reason you think. It was one of those rare moments in the life of a nation when people rise to debate their future and we discover that everyone — but everyone — is full of baloney.
I say this in all seriousness.
The president’s essential argument is that the war on terror must be rethought because it’s wreaking havoc on the Constitution. At some point the urgency of defending ourselves against terrorists must be weighed against the urgency of defending our freedoms in an open society. We’ve done a pretty good job so far, but every war must end at some point, even if victory isn’t total. “Neither I nor any president can promise the total defeat of terror.”
Critics have followed two lines of thought. Liberals say he hasn’t gone far enough. Preserving our freedoms is more important than another battlefield coup. Republicans say he’s giving in to the terrorists. We need to fight on to victory.
The question is, how far along are we in this war? How much safer are we now than we were before we started? The answer: We are much, much worse off than we were when we started. Whatever it may have done to the Constitution, the war on terror has been great for terror.
In plain terms, the number of terrorist incidents per year around the world has more than quadrupled in the decade since we declared war on terror. Fatalities have doubled. To be specific, there were 982 terrorist incidents worldwide in 2002, resulting in 3,823 deaths. In 2011, the latest year for which numbers are available, there were 4,564 incidents resulting in 7,493 deaths. Simply put, the war on terror has made terror worse.
The good news is that deaths have been declining since 2007, when they peaked at 10,000.
The numbers come courtesy of an Australian-based think tank, the Institute for Economics and Peace, which published its first-ever Global Terrorism Index in December 2012. It works with a terrorism database maintained by the University of Maryland.
I found them by sheer accident. After listening to Obama’s speech, I went looking for some real numbers on how the war has succceeded since 9/11. I quickly discovered that numbers on global terrorism aren’t easy to come by.
The main source used to be an annual report, Patterns of Global Terrorism, compiled for Congress by the State Department starting in 1985. It stopped in 2004, however, after congressional Democrats charged that the numbers were being cooked. The 2002 report had shown a worldwide total of 198 incidents and 725 deaths. The 2003 total dropped to 190 incidents and 307 deaths. Democrats cited independent sources showing figures in the thousands, not hundreds, and that 2003 marked an all-time high, not a decline.
Beginning in 2004 the State Department replaced Patterns with a new publication, Country Reports in Terrorism. It gave data for dozens of countries but no worldwide totals. The Obama administration resumed publishing worldwide totals in 2009. Incidents now topped 10,000. There was no way to compare current figures with earlier ones.
The Australian institute stepped in last year with its own study, the Global Terrorism Index. It examined trends in 158 countries over the course of a decade, starting with 2002, immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
The Index uses a University of Maryland definition for terrorism, casting a somewhat narrower net than the Obama State Department. Terrorism is defined as “threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through coercion and intimidation.”
Actions by governments are not included. Neither are individual acts of passion that could be defined as hate crimes, even when seemingly motivated by religious or political fervor.
The report lists 15 groups responsible for the most incidents or deaths. The Afghan Taliban is far in the lead in both categories, followed by other Islamic groups including Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Somali Al Shabaab. Other highly prolific groups include the Colombian Marxist group FARC, the Communist Party of India-Maoist and the Sri Lankan nationalist Tamil Tigers.
The report doesn’t mention right-wing Christian and anti-abortion groups that are responsible for roughly half of all terrorists deaths in the United States in the past decade. However, given that U.S. fatalities total fewer than 60 over the decade, the number is statistically insignificant in the global pattern.
Examining the statistics by country, the vast majority of incidents and deaths prove to involve Islamic insurgencies in a handful of countries. Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are responsible for fully half of all the world’s 64,000 terrorist deaths over the decade. Iraq alone accounts for more than one-third.
Next in line, in order, are India, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Thailand, Russia and Philippines. Together, the top 10 hot spots account for 87% of all terrorist fatalities since 2002. Of those, only India and Philippines have significant insurgencies that aren’t Islamic-related.
Of the 158 countries surveyed, only 31 had no terrorist incidents at all. Terrorism in North America was virtually negligible. Europe had 19 times as many deaths as the United States.
Perhaps the report’s most striking bit of news is the timing. Most non-Islamic terrorism has declined precipitously over the decade. But each of the most troubled countries, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, saw its numbers rise explosively after the United States military moved in. Also striking, the numbers plateaued in 2007 and began to decline as American involvement began to scale down.
We tend to search for a great many reasons to explain the rise of Islamic terrorism, but the message most often recited by the terrorists themselves is the simplest: We want you out of our countries. Even Osama bin Laden began his anti-American war after America set up a permanent military presence in his native Saudi Arabia.
The conclusion is sobering: It could be that the most important single cause of terrorism is — the war on terror.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com or visit his blog at www.forward.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).