National Security Watch: Terrorism by the (new) numbers
In a rare public release, the U.S. intelligence community's National Counterterrorism Center has assembled a new set of terrorist attack statistics that provides a more completeand disturbingpicture of the global terrorist threat. In all, the NCTC found some 3,192 separate terrorist incidents in 2004, involving 28,433 victims (including 6,060 people who were killed).
Iraq was the site of more than a quarter of all attacks last year, followed by India, Nepal, and the Gaza Strip. Iraqis were also 27 percent of the victims of the attacks. Twenty-two percent were Nepalese, and 9 percent were Russian (most from the bloody school hostage crisis in Beslan by Chechen rebels). Iraq accounted for six of the 10 deadliest terrorist incidents.
The numbers are dramatically higher than any previous terrorism statistics issued by the U.S. government. Just a few months ago, the NCTC released a chronology of international terrorism attacks showing 651 incidents, counting only attacks that involved people or places from more than one country. Officials insist that the new figures should not be compared with historic statistics because the NCTC has adopted a completely new methodology, including a broader definition of worldwide terrorism that covers all deliberate attacks on civilians or noncombatants, even indigenous ones. "It really would be comparing apples and oranges," says John Brennan, the outgoing interim director of NCTC. The revision followed a controversy over the methodology used in assembling the statistics and accusations that the government was undercounting the number of attacks.
The NCTC's new Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS) is an attempt to standardize the statistics and provide a regularly updated database that can be searched over the Internet. "This represents a new standard baseline for worldwide terrorist attacks," says Brennan. "One thing we're trying to do here is show that terrorism is a phenomenon that does not only affect U.S. interests."
The change in the definition of terrorism is sure to provoke some controversy. The statistics include attacks on noncombatants, which the NCTC defines as including military personnel and assets outside of war zones and warlike settings. So attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq are not counted as terrorism, nor are Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers. But attacks on Iraq police or an off-duty U.S. soldier in Saudi Arabia would qualify.
The NCTC has also attempted to classify the attacks by method, level of damage, and type of perpetrator. While many of the attackers remain unknown, the NCTC classifies at least 19 percent of the attacks last year as related to Islamic extremism and some 25 percent as secular or political in motive, while the remaining 56 percent are unknown. Islamic extremists, however, have been quite deadly; they are believed responsible for some 37 percent of the casualties. The database does not yet identify which group is behind each attack, so it is not yet possible to monitor what al Qaeda specifically has done. But Brennan says the NCTC hopes to add that element in the near future. Currently, the data are drawn mostly from press reports and other open sources, but judgments about responsibility are often informed by classified analyses.
The database, which is being hosted by the Terrorism Knowledge Base at the National Memorial for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City, will be updated regularly, as new information about incidents becomes available. Officials say they expect new incidents will be added every two to three months.