May 4, 2005 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Terrorism by the Numbers

No question: The news that the number of terrorist attacks rose significantly last year seems startling. In fact, the number went way up -- from 208 "significant" attacks in America or on Americans worldwide in 2003 to 651 in 2004.

But this piece of information is sorely in need of some context.

Every year since 1995, State Department officials have issued a "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report. In their 2004 report (which covers 2003), they claimed that terror attacks went down slightly, from 198 in 2002 to 190 in 2003. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., sensing a chance to make some political hay, labeled the decrease suspicious. State Department officials blamed it on a clerical error and altered the report to show 205 terror attacks in 2002 and 208 in 2003.

The matter probably would have been forgotten, but in this year's report, which covers incidents in 2004, State initially included no numbers at all. Officials explained that the method for reporting incidents had changed, so year-to-year comparisons were meaningless. This time it was Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who challenged the State Department.

So State belatedly supplied the numbers: 651, which, Rep. Waxman said, "undermine administration claims of success in the war on terror."

Or do they?

Problem is, the numbers don't tell the whole story. Professor Audrey Cronin, a noted terrorism expert with the Congressional Research Service, notes that the number of international incidents during most of the 1990s was half that of the 1980s. Between 1996, when al Qaeda got into the terrorism business, and 9/11, many analysts looked at those declining numbers and concluded that terrorism was waning. Others, inside and outside of government, continued to ignore the numbers and warn of increasing danger from terrorism. The day after 9/11, of course, everyone realized that the second group had been correct.

Measuring success or failure by the number of attacks alone made little sense then and even less now. Consider Iraq. More than 200 of those 651 attacks took place there. Does that mean we're losing the war on terror? No, it means the United States freed 25 million people, and some of the Baathists who kept them terrorized don't appreciate our efforts. They want to be in charge again, and our soldiers -- and, eventually, Iraq's own -- stand in their way.

Let's face it: If you take the fight to the enemy, as we've done in the war on terrorism, you have to expect the enemy to attack you more furiously. He's facing a mortal threat, and he's desperate.

And given that the Iraqi people enjoy being free of the Baathists, and that the latter have yet to come to terms with this, the attacks might continue for some time. What matters is that the Baathists won't regain power and, more importantly, that they won't regain power because the rest of the Iraqi people are united in opposition to them.

States with long histories of suffering through terrorist campaigns, such as Britain, Germany, India, Italy, Spain and Israel, understand how attacks escalate in the face of a tough fight, so they aren't surprised by it. They also understand that countries can survive and even thrive in the face of terror.

If the number of attacks doesn't present an accurate measure of success in the war on terrorism, which numbers do? Consider these:

  • Number of Taliban-style states created since 9/11: 0
  • Number of countries that have recognized al Qaeda: 0
  • Number of nations that have adopted "state-sponsored" terrorism as an official policy: 0
  • Number of states that have voluntarily given-up weapons of mass destruction programs since 9/11: 1
  • Number of transnational nuclear smuggling networks broken-up since 9/11: 1
  • Number of Middle Eastern states that have moved closer to democracy: 5
If, in World War II, our country had used the Waxman-Levin method of measuring success, we'd have capitulated after the opening battles in the Pacific and North Africa. Acolytes of Hitler would rule one side of the world; followers of Hirohito the other.

But we understood the war would be long and progress would be steady but uneven. Sixty years later, that's still the right formula.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and co-author of " Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Liberty."

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire