A Real Intelligence Estimate, By Numbers: Terrorism and Conflict Not Up Worldwide

October 3, 2006 Topic: Security

A Real Intelligence Estimate, By Numbers: Terrorism and Conflict Not Up Worldwide

Sources and methods revealed.


With most of the "opposition" still in the throes of post-NIE euphoria, few have bothered to give a politically uncompromised analysis of the report's unsupportable and dissonant claims on a global, empowered jihad. Indeed, Democrats and proxy pundits have found the rather obvious conclusions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to be so politically convenient that they have utterly forfeited the opportunity to question its remaining flaws, which are of far-reaching consequence to the country.

To put it simply, the numbers do not back up the report's assertions on jihad. A rigorous, empirical analysis proves that both terrorist attacks (excluding Iraq) and casualties from armed conflict-all part of the public record-have not significantly increased in recent years. If, for example, the number of terrorist incidents, injuries, and fatalities from the Iraq War are deducted from worldwide totals, domestic terrorist incidents have been only marginally higher than they were during the three years prior to September 11, 2001.


Even without conducting a rigorous scrutiny of publicly available data as described and plotted on graphs below, there are some assertions in the report that any person with an ounce of commonsense would question. The NIE maintains, for example, that America's combined intelligence assets cannot measure the extent to which "self-identified" jihadists have increased or spread geographically, but it categorically affirms that such increases and expansion has occurred. The secrecy associated with such assessments must be justified on the grounds that we do not want our enemies to know how poorly informed we remain. (See supporting graphs provided in appendix.)

Terrorist attacks not up worldwide-just in Iraq

According to calculations derived from the "Terrorism Knowledge Base" (www.tkb.org/AnalyticalTools.jsp), the actual number of international terrorist incidents worldwide between 1970 and 2005 ranged from a high of 452 during 1985 to a low of 104 during 2000, while only 112 incidents have been recorded during the first nine months of 2006. The total number of injuries and deaths resulting from international terrorist incidents between 1996 and 2005 ranged from highs of 5,350 during 1998 and 3,188 during 2001 and lows of 85 and 43 during 2000.

"Domestic" terrorist incidents worldwide remained essentially flat at plus or minus 1,300 a year from 1998 through 2001, rose to 2,362 during 2002, and dropped again to 1,625 during 2003. But in 2004 the number of incidents increased again to almost 2002 levels and then more than doubled during 2005-a doubling accounted for almost entirely by Iraq.

Almost half of all domestic terrorist incidents worldwide during 2005 occurred in Iraq. Further, that country alone accounted for 49 percent of injuries and a full 60 percent of fatalities worldwide from January 2003 through December 2005. And that trend appears to be worsening-Iraq accounts for 63 percent of terrorist incidents worldwide recorded through September 27, 2006, as well as 73 percent and 78 percent of injuries and fatalities. Similar data no doubt contributed to the NIE's conclusion that Al-Qaeda "is exploiting the situation in Iraq to attract new recruits and donors and to maintain its leadership role….[while] other affiliated Sunni extremist organizations…are likely to expand their reach and become more capable of multiple and/or mass-casualty attacks outside their traditional areas of operation."

The NIE is also, no doubt, correct that "fighters with experience in Iraq are a potential source of leadership for jihadists … [that deploy] "improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks." But the report's conclusion that those groups will work together to target the United States-to the exclusion of more local goals-appears to be no more than unsubstantiated conjecture.

The world is not more dangerous

Despite the headlines and eruptions of violence in Lebanon, Darfur, and the subways in London and Madrid, the world as a whole is becoming safer. According to a database on "Major Episodes of Political Violence 1946-2005" (members.aol.com/cspmgm/warlist.htm), the number of "major armed conflicts" has been declining steadily since the peak year of 1991-to essentially the same level as during the height of the Cold War.  And that decline does not have anything to do with anti-terror measures undertaken by the United States either before or after 9/11. It is true that life remains dangerous in several countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. However, even within most of those countries, threats to life and limb are localized, sporadic, and arise from long-standing domestic civil and ethnic conflicts. Thus, a full 83 percent of major armed conflicts between 1946 and 2005 were intra-state rather than inter-state.

Muslims not the primary threat

However the data is sliced, diced, and recombined, the fact remains that sovereign-states with majority Muslim populations-or organized non-state groups with majority Muslim members-have been involved in less than half of major armed conflicts worldwide between 1946 and 2005. And although the percentage of all conflicts involving Muslims has increased since 2003, the actual number has remained essentially constant during the last ten years. Most importantly, there were only two major inter-state armed conflicts-Afghanistan and Iraq-during 2004 and 2005. Although both involved the United States and Muslim majority states, that compares with twenty-five other major civil or ethnic armed conflicts within states-only thirteen of which involved Muslims.

Islamic jihadists not a single worldwide movement

The preponderance of "domestic" over "international" armed conflicts and terrorist incidents involving Muslims and non-Muslims alike suggests the greatest threat to global security is driven by conflicting sectarian interests among Muslims, rather than beliefs and objectives rooted in Islam. Almost half of total "armed conflict years" involving Muslim-majority states or groups between 1946 and 2005 were between Muslims themselves. Although Hamas, Hizballah, and Al-Qaeda share the ignominious distinction of being terrorist groups, they are not natural allies. Indeed, both Hamas and Hizballah have criticized Al-Qaeda's internationalist pretensions-Hamas declaring that its ideology "is totally different from the ideology of Sheik bin Laden." Most conflicts among Muslim groups do not differ fundamentally from insurgencies, separatist movements, and civil wars conducted by non-Muslim nationalists in such diverse countries as Angola, Burma, Peru, or Sri Lanka.

The NIE correctly implies that differences between Muslim fundamentalists, moderates, and political secularists will be played out within the borders of Muslim-majority states. It also acknowledges that the jihadist threat is "decentralized," "lacks a coherent global strategy," and is "diffuse." Yet it does not follow that logic to its most reasonable conclusion: terrorist groups with Muslim members are not all part of a common "jihadist movement"-except, perhaps, in ways that do not matter much.

Democracy not likely to reduce terrorist incidents, casualties

The NIE assertion that "greater pluralism and more responsive political systems in Muslim majority nations would alleviate some of the grievances jihadists exploit" is the most platitudinous part of the declassified portion. It is as if the negative American responses to the recent elections of Hamas in West Bank/Gaza and Evo Morales in Bolivia, as well as electoral advances of Hizballah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, had not occurred just months prior to the completion of the NIE itself. But more importantly, it ignores the unfortunate fact that the Sarin Gas attack in the Tokyo subway (1995) and the bombings in Kansas City (1995) and the London subway system (2005) were all perpetrated by citizens of and within democratic countries. Nor have jihadist appeals subsided in Gaza or Lebanon, despite the demonstrated ability of Hamas and Hizballah to succeed through the democratic process. And the fact that Thailand was a constitutional democracy-at least until a few weeks ago-did not save it from ranking third after only Iraq and West Bank/Gaza with respect to the number of terrorist incidents during 2005.

Facing Reality

The authors of the NIE appear to have succumbed to the anti-jihad hysteria that is substantially distorting assessments of the real security threats facing the United States. Washington must recognize that conflicts involving Muslims and non-Muslims alike are more conventionally "realistic" than ideological. Distinctions should be made between aggressive internationalist jihadists (Al-Qaeda and affiliates); nationalist jihadists (Hizballah); and non-jihadist nationalists that happen to be Muslims (Malays in southern Thailand). The nationalists present the greater threat to peace and security for most people worldwide. Any movement that has only an abstract philosophy in common, but lacks integrated planning and execution, is of little consequence for our own counter-programming; the focus must be on differentiated understanding of such diffuse threats.

And many Muslim nationalists will ultimately find that they need the support or intermediation of the United States vis-à-vis other Muslim nationalists or internationalists. But for that to occur, American decision-makers and the intelligence analysts that support them will need to alter their current assumptions about the sources and nature of the threats we face. We wrongly accepted Chinese Defense Minister Lin Biao's 1965 prediction that defeat of U.S. forces in Vietnam would mean the triumph of "peoples' war" throughout Asia. We are likely to be equally misled if we allow Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to determine our own view of what kind and how strong a strategic-rather than tactical-threat they actually represent. 

Jerry Mark Silverman is the author of "Shadow Boxing with Shadow Governments" published in National Interest online September 21, 2006. He is currently researching the distribution of Muslim political actors and the intensity of their behaviors in inter- and intra-state armed conflict and terrorism. Following a career that included service with USAID in Vietnam and Iraq, the Ford Foundation in Southeast Asia, and the World Bank in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, he is currently Visiting Professor of Political Science at Savannah State University. He can be reached at [email protected].