The U.S.'S Befuddled Approach to the War on Terrorism

By Scherer, John L. | USA TODAY, November 2004 | Go to article overview

The U.S.'S Befuddled Approach to the War on Terrorism


Scherer, John L., USA TODAY


BY JUNE, 2004, virtually all government experts on terrorism agreed that Al Qaeda would strike the U.S. in the coming months. The experts were wrong, again, because Al Qaeda has become decentralized, narrowly focusing on regional targets overseas. It has attacked poorly defended. "soft" targets, indicating these regional groups remain weak against security forces. Key terrorist leaders have been eliminated. Only a few "sleepers" planning attacks have been found in this country, and there have been no international terrorist incidents here since 9/11, more than three years ago.

Al Qaeda no longer is able to launch a large-scale attack in the U.S., but it can intimidate Americans merely by increasing its electronic chatter. Officials sound alarms regularly because they do not wish to be caught unawares if a major incident occurs. They do not have specific information about an impending terrorist event, or even assurance one will take place, but it is better to appear vigilant than complacent.

Terrorism did not start with 9/11, Palestinians hijacked five airliners in four days in 1970. The greatest number of international terrorist incidents occurred in 1987 (665), and the Clinton Administration broke up about 20 cells in the U.S.

During the past few years, acts of international terrorism, excluding intra-Palestinian violence, have declined. According to statistics compiled by the Department of State, 426 incidents occurred in 201)0, 355 in 2001, 205 in 2002, and 208 in 2003.

The number of fatalities worldwide, recently revised upward, continues downward. That number reached 3,547 in 2001, 725 in 2002, and 625 in 2003. In 2003, the greatest number of attacks (80) occurred in Asia, but, not surprisingly, the Middle East accounted for the largest death count (331) and number of wounded (1,492). On the other hand, more international terrorist attacks occurred in Latin America in 2000 (122), 2001 (192), and 2002 (201) than anywhere else the world.

Attacks on multinational oil pipelines in Colombia inflated these figures. Pipeline bombings totaled 178 in 2001, accounting for half the worldwide incidents that year. After pipeline security was enhanced, the number of international terrorist events in Latin America dropped to 20 in 2003.

International terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and property around the globe also have fallen dramatically, from 219 in 2001 to 77 in 2002, and 82 in 2003. Americans comprised less than one percent of the fatalities worldwide last year. This is all commendable. but it is difficult to find a pattern. Attacks against Americans have snaked along, from 199 in 1986 to 139 in 1987 to 167 in 1988 to 147 in 1989. Surges have been unpredictable, although the number of terrorist incidents usually rises during the second half era decade.

The threat from "sleepers" in the U.S. was grossly exaggerated. Statisticians at Syracuse University have found that 6,400 persons were arrested for terrorist-related offenses in this country during the two years following 9/11. Of 2,681 cases concluded by the end of September, 2003, Federal attorneys dismissed charges against half of those incarcerated. Out of the 879 defendants convicted of some crime, 373 were sent to prison, and, of these, 250 were sentenced to less than a year. Twenty-three received five or more years, and just three were incarcerated for 20 or more.

Between Sept. 11, 2001 and Dee. 31, 2003, British authorities arrested 537 individuals under the Terrorism Act of 2000. Ninety-four were chinned with terrorism-related crimes, 71 with other offenses, and 263 were released. Another 109 await judicial action.

Earlier this year, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London luridly announced that Al Qaeda had 18,000 "potential" operatives to strike targets in Europe and the U.S., presumably with weapons of mass destruction. The IISS estimated that at least 20,000 fighters had been trained at camps in Afghanistan, and subtracted 2,000 killed or captured to come up with this figure. …

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