The Rise of Terrorism

By Leader, Stefan H. | Security Management, April 1997 | Go to article overview

The Rise of Terrorism


Leader, Stefan H., Security Management


In March 1995 - just over one year ago this month - Aum Shinrikyo cult members put the nerve agent satin in the Tokyo subway, injuring thousands in one of the most devastating terrorist attacks to date. Was the incident an anomaly or a sign of terrorism's more apocalyptic approach? Author Stefan Leader explains below why this was a seminal event. just one reason why the terrorist threat is increasing. His view is countered by Larry Johnson. whose article on page 26 contends that as yet, the numbers do not support this conclusion.

Is terrorism on the rise? State Department statistics suggest that, despite a spike in activity for 1995, the number of incidents in recent years is much reduced from the high numbers typical during the 1980s. But the State Department's numbers are very much a function of its narrow definition of international terrorism. Statistics based on a broader definition, such as those compiled by Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services, paint a less sanguine picture that may better reflect the true risk of exposure of American business.

To understand terrorism's most likely future course, one must look first beneath these dueling statistics, then at the trends in terrorist activity and organization, including weapons, tactics, targets, and motives.

Dueling statistics. According to the State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1995, the total number of international terrorist acts rose from 322 in 1994 to 420 in 1995, but the increase was largely due to a rise in nonlethal attacks in Germany. The 1995 total, while higher than the prior year, is close to the average annual number of incidents from 1989 to 1994 (356) - and that five-year average is considerably lower than the annual average from 1980 to 1988 (562).

The 1996 totals were not available as of this writing, but incidents for the first six months of 1996 numbered 122. By comparison, the total for the first six months of 1995 was 246, suggesting that 1995 was an aberration in a predominantly downward trend.

Those numbers would seem to suggest that terrorism is not a rising risk. But the government's numbers present a limited view of the landscape. In the State Department's eyes, an incident is classified as international terrorism only if it involves the citizens or territory of more than one country.

A bombing in Algeria by Algerian terrorists that results in death or injury to an American would be counted in the State Department's statistics, while a similar attack that results only in Algerian casualties would not be counted. Yet U.S. citizens and interests abroad are clearly affected by such attacks, even if they do not fit the State Department's restrictive definition. One unnamed resident of Northern Ireland made the point effectively several years ago when he said, "It's not the bullet with my name on it that worries me. It's the one that says, 'to whom it may concern.'"

Statistics gathered by Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services are based on a different definition of terrorism and, therefore, show many more incidents of terrorism and political violence worldwide during 1995 than do State Department data. Pinkerton's data show 4,063 incidents - up 6.1 percent from 3,830 in 1994, but below the 1992 peak of 5,404 incidents. (In the State Department's data, the peak number of incidents occurred in 1987.)

In its Annual Risk Assessment 1995, Pinkerton notes the growth of ethnic, religious, and tribal violence, much of it not meeting the State Department's definition of international terrorism. Similarly, Pinkerton's data show an annual average of 4,575 incidents from 1989 to 1994, 52 percent higher than the annual average of 3,001 from 1980 to 1988.

In short, Pinkerton's data show more terrorism and political violence in the 1990s, while the State Department's data show more in the 1980s. Stated another way, terrorism involving the citizens or territory of more than one country appears to be declining, while terrorism confined to one country and killing or injuring only its citizens seems to be up. …

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