Paul Pillar

Half of the Story on Terrorism

The State Department released this week the government's legislatively mandated annual report on international terrorism. There is no doubt what headline the administration hopes will be taken away from the release of the report, which covers the calendar year 2012. In a background conference call for reporters on Friday, Senior Administration Official One got immediately to the main message being pushed: that “one of the most noteworthy conclusions” in compiling the report was a “resurgence of terrorist activity by Iran and Hezbollah.” In fact, activity by Iran and Hezbollah was the only subject of the press backgrounder, and Iran and Hezbollah were treated as two peas in a pod that jointly account for this “alarming trend.” The other briefer, Senior Administration Official Two, joined in the messaging with gusto, warning anyone who might look at Hezbollah as a political actor that it is “a terrorist organization, and not just a terrorist organization, but a broad organization that is morally bankrupt to its very core.”

Most of the incidents involving Iran that were cited as part of the “resurgence” were a set of largely unsuccessful attacks against Israeli personnel early in the year in places such as New Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok. Nothing was said, in either the report or the backgrounder, about why Iran would perpetrate such attacks at that particular time against those particular targets. The failure to address that question is all the more glaring because the answer to the question is clear. The attacks were tit-for-tat terrorism in response to (possibly in addition to other attacks on Iran) the serial assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists—five to date, through early last year. The Iranians made the retaliatory nature of their own operations all the more obvious by even mimicking the method of attack used against the most recent scientist to die: an explosive attached to the victim's vehicle.

The killings of the scientists were just as much acts of international terrorism as were the retaliatory Iranian attacks. The legal definition that defines terrorism for purposes of the State Department's report is “premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” But don't expect to find any mention of the assassinations in the report. They are not noted anywhere, including in the section on Iran or the section on Israel (which begins with the statement, “Israel continued to be a stalwart counterterrorism partner in 2012.”) The absence of any mention of the assassinations is certainly not due to any lack of awareness among U.S. officials about the international nature of the assassinations and who was behind them.

Terrorism is a condemnable, immoral activity, no matter where and when it occurs and no matter who perpetrates it. It should not be excused or overlooked no matter what stimulated or motivated it, what causes or objectives it was intended to advance, or what relationship one may have with the perpetrator.

Last week President Obama made a refreshingly sensible and honest speech about terrorism and the policies needed to cope with it. If any such policies are to have credibility, remaining terrorism must be called to account with honesty and consistency. This week the administration failed to do that.