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The Declining Terrorist Threat

By LARRY C. JOHNSON The New York Times July 10, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.

None of these beliefs are based in fact. While many crimes are committed against Americans abroad (as at home), politically inspired terrorism, as opposed to more ordinary criminality motivated by simple greed, is not as common as most people may think.

At first glance, things do seem to be getting worse. International terrorist incidents, as reported by the State Department, increased to 423 in 2000 from 392 in 1999. Recently, Americans were shaken by Filipino rebels' kidnapping of Americans and the possible beheading of one hostage. But the overall terrorist trend is down. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, deaths from international terrorism fell to 2,527 in the decade of the 1990's, from 4,833 in the 80's.

Nor are the United States and its policies the primary target. Terrorist activity in 2000 was heavily concentrated in just two countries - Colombia, which had 186 incidents, and India, with 63. The cause was these countries' own political conflicts.

While 82 percent of the attacks in Colombia were on oil pipelines managed by American and British companies, these attacks were less about terrorism than about guerrillas' goal of disrupting oil production to undermine the Colombian economy. Generally, the guerrillas shy away from causing casualties in these attacks. No American oil workers in Colombia were killed or injured last year.

Other terrorism against American interests is rare. There were three attacks on American diplomatic buildings in 2000, compared with 42 in 1988. No Americans were killed in these incidents, nor have there been any deaths in this sort of attack this year.

Of the 423 international terrorist incidents documented in the State Department's report "Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000," released in April, only 153 were judged by the department and the C.I.A. to be "significant." And only 17 of these involved American citizens or businesses.

Eleven incidents involved kidnappings of one or more American citizens, all of whom were eventually released. Seven of those kidnapped worked for American companies in the energy business or providing services to it - Halliburton, Shell, Chevron, Mobil, Noble Drilling and Erickson Air-Crane.

Five bombings were on the list. The best known killed 17 American sailors on the destroyer Cole, as it was anchored in a Yemeni port, and wounded 39. A bomb at a McDonald's in France killed a local citizen there. The other explosions - outside the United States embassy in the Philippines, at a Citibank office in Greece, and in the offices of Newmont Mining in Indonesia - caused mostly property damage and no loss of life. In the 17th incident, vandals trashed a McDonald's in South Africa.

The greatest risk is clear: if you are drilling for oil in Colombia - or in nations like Ecuador, Nigeria or Indonesia - you should take appropriate precautions; otherwise Americans have little to fear.

Although high-profile incidents have fostered the perception that terrorism is becoming more lethal, the numbers say otherwise, and early signs suggest that the decade beginning in 2000 will continue the downward trend. A major reason for the decline is the current reluctance of countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya, which once eagerly backed terrorist groups, to provide safe havens, funding and training.

The most violent and least reported source of international terrorism is the undeclared war between Islamists and Hindus over the disputed Kashmir region of India, bordering Pakistan. Although India came in second in terms of the number of terrorist incidents in 2000, with 63, it accounted for almost 50 percent of all resulting deaths, with 187 killed, and injuries, with 337 hurt. Most of the blame lies with radical groups trained in Afghanistan and operating from Pakistan.

I am not soft on terrorism; I believe strongly in remaining prepared to confront it. However, when the threat of terrorism is used to justify everything from building a missile defense to violating constitutional rights (as in the case of some Arab-Americans imprisoned without charge), it is time to take a deep breath and reflect on why we are so fearful.

Part of the blame can be assigned to 24-hour broadcast news operations too eager to find a dramatic story line in the events of the day and to pundits who repeat myths while ignoring clear empirical data. Politicians of both parties are also guilty. They warn constituents of dire threats and then appropriate money for redundant military installations and new government investigators and agents.

Finally, there are bureaucracies in the military and in intelligence agencies that are desperate to find an enemy to justify budget growth. In the 1980's, when international terrorism was at its zenith, NATO and the United States European Command pooh-poohed the notion of preparing to fight terrorists. They were too busy preparing to fight the Soviets. With the evil empire gone, they "discovered" terrorism as an important priority.

I hope for a world where facts, not fiction, determine our policy. While terrorism is not vanquished, in a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are still aimed across the continents, terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way.

Larry C. Johnson is a former State Department counterterrorism specialist.

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