The bad news about the good news about terrorism.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 30 2008 3:27 PM

What Statistics Don't Tell Us

The bad news about the good news about terrorism.

Fareed Zakaria. Click image to expand
Foreign-policy writer Fareed Zakaria

Terrorism, contrary to what you may think, isn't what it used to be. So says Fareed Zakaria in his column in this week's Newsweek. The proof, he contends, is in the statistics.

Zakaria hangs his argument on a new study from Canada's Simon Fraser University that reviews the main terrorism databases. The report breaks down the data and observes that the annual double-digit increases in the death toll from terrorism that have made headlines in recent years are misleading because they include large numbers of fatalities in Iraq. "This makes no sense," Zakaria writes. "Iraq is a war zone, and as in other war zones around the world, many of those killed are civilians." We don't count deaths in other civil wars, such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sierra Leone, as terrorism fatalities, so why in Iraq? Take away the Iraqi deaths, and the databases indicate either a decline in terrorism-related deaths or a flat line. Ergo, terrorism is not the threat that the great scare machine of the U.S. government, press, and terror experts make it out to be.

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For those who believe, as I do, that there has been a relentless exploitation—read, scaremongering—of the terrorist threat for political advantage and a horrifying distortion of our foreign policy into a reckless global war on terror, this is an attractive argument. Zakaria, one of our smartest foreign-policy analysts, is not the only one making it. The problem is that even if the current administration has misused the issue—and John McCain, with his relentless talk of the "transcendent challenge of our time: the threat of radical Islamic terrorism," is following in Bush's footsteps—the focus on statistics is misplaced.

That's because in order to judge the magnitude of the threat, we need to look at an array of indicators, not just total fatalities. Some of the criteria are not even quantitative. For example, Zakaria and the Simon Fraser researchers want to cordon off Iraq, and their arguments about the flaws in the data have some merit. But the critical role the jihadist movement has played in derailing the U.S. occupation is deeply significant. The insurgency was not even primarily jihadist, but major attacks such as the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 had a catalytic effect. The Sunni Awakening in Anbar Province and the U.S. military's surge have done real damage to al-Qaida in Iraq, but it would be a huge mistake to overlook what the jihadists achieved.

The case is similar in Pakistan, where jihadists assassinated Benazir Bhutto—or so most evidence indicates—rocked the government with the occupation of the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad, and are currently deeply entrenched in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas. From their safe haven in the FATA, Afghan Taliban are harassing U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, and Pakistani Taliban last year launched 56 suicide attacks inside Pakistan, a record number. Yes, Pakistanis are less enamored of Osama Bin Laden than they used to be, and the chances of a radical takeover of the country are slim. But as Pakistan experts point out, it is not just the FATA that is a problem; major terrorists and Taliban leaders are living semi-openly in Quetta, and perhaps one-third of the country is now a permissive zone for jihadists. These facts make the overall threat more worrisome than one might think when looking solely at the declining fatality statistics. To put it another way, looking at terrorism-related deaths alone tells us nothing about the geopolitics of the threat or the enhanced danger that comes with safe havens.

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