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Terror by the numbers

By Henry Schuster
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the star of his video message.


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Acts of terror
Osama Bin Laden
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

(CNN) -- The troika of terror is saturating the airwaves and Internet, each ostensibly delivering his take on three years of war and insurgency in Iraq.

For all their propaganda, the real message may lie elsewhere.

When you break down terror by the numbers, rather than by the video and audio tapes appearing in the same recent week from Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a very different picture emerges -- that there is much more terrorism and political violence than we had realized.

The images first. Bin Laden tried to cast himself as the statesman of the bunch. His full audio message, almost 52 minutes long, appeared on the Internet just days after excerpts aired on the Al-Jazeera television channel.

You couldn't miss his message; it came with English subtitles.

One terror analyst told me it was bin Laden's version of the State of the Union address. But in contrast to American presidents, who always say the state of the union is good, bin Laden was downbeat.

Islam was under attack worldwide, he said, striking his most familiar theme. This was bin Laden the politician and propagandist, using the controversy over those Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed as his starting point to justify terrorism.

All about me

No such tone came from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. The man who wouldn't show his face previously, spent 34 minutes on video posing with his face in full view.

This was supposed to be a message about how he was just part of a union of insurgents, but the video belied that.

It was an ego trip, pure and simple, with al-Zarqawi striking one pose after another. There was al-Zarqawi firing the machine gun; al-Zarqawi getting the briefing on the situation in Anbar province; even al-Zarqawi watching video of a crude missile labeled Qaeda 1.

The contrast with bin Laden couldn't have been greater.

Al-Zarqawi did include brief clips from bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but the message was all about al-Zarqawi. (The U.S. military said it found an unedited version and was quick to release what it said were outtakes showing al-Zarqawi having trouble firing his weapon in an attempt to bring him down a couple of notches.)

By the time we got to the end of the week and al-Zawahiri, there was a certain level of fatigue.

Al-Zawahiri has been the most ubiquitous of the three, popping up on videos every few weeks. This time he started off by talking about the three years of insurgency in Iraq, but he quickly shifted to Pakistan and called for the overthrow of President Pervez Musharraf.

Adding it up

The same day that the al-Zawahiri video hit the Web, the National Counterterrorism Center, a department in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was putting out some eye-popping figures about terrorism in 2005.

start quoteAnytime the number of terrorist incidents is higher than the Dow, that should be pause for introspection.end quote
-- Chris Ellis, the Terrorism Knowledge Base

There were, by the center's count, 11,111 incidents of terrorism worldwide in 2005 resulting in 14,602 deaths and 24,705 injuries. There were 34,780 kidnappings related to terrorism. (Most of them, according to the center, took place in Nepal.)

In Iraq there were 3,474 terrorism incidents and a total of 20,711 deaths, injuries and kidnappings, while Afghanistan accounted for 489 incidents and 1,533 deaths, injuries and kidnappings. The center calculates that Iraq accounted for just over 30 percent of the worldwide attacks and 55 percent of the fatalities.

"The State Department reported that 56 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks in 2005; 47 of these fatalities occurred in Iraq," according to an annex to the NCTC report.(Read the reportexternal link)

The center does not count attacks on military patrols as terrorism. However, it has changed the way it compiles statistics, looking at a broader definition of terrorism in each country to include "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

That leads to a lot of judgment calls, according to the center.

For example, there were as many as 450 small bombs detonated around Bangladesh on the morning of August 17, 2005. However, the report says, "Because they were coordinated, NCTC counted them as a single incident; an argument could be made that the attacks represented 450 separate attacks."

Similarly, a stampede two weeks later in Iraq triggered by rumors of a suicide bomb attack wasn't counted even though some 1,000 people were killed.

The implications

The center's new accounting method is one reason the numbers are way up. The State Department used to report terrorist incidents in the hundreds. However, its controversial system of collecting data focused on international terrorism and ignored attacks by local groups on local targets.

start quoteWe know there is a lot of terrorism ... What matters is the resonance of the enemy's message.end quote
-- Bruce Hoffman, Rand Institute

Chip Ellis, who runs the Terrorism Knowledge Base ( link) a database of terrorists and terrorism, says the higher numbers are not just a matter of better accounting and a broader definition. "Anytime the number of terrorist incidents is higher than the Dow, that should be pause for introspection," Ellis said. "The rest of the world is dealing with a lot more than we think."

"If we are saying there are 25 to 35 attacks a day, what does that mean for the war on terrorism?" he asked.

Ellis points out that while the NCTC numbers are up by 200 percent from its numbers of 2004, another database run by the Rand Institute shows an 86 percent jump in attacks from 2004 to 2005, and it hasn't changed the way it defines terrorism, although it uses more restrictive terms than the NCTC.

He says the increase is due in large part to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bruce Hoffman, who runs the Rand Institute's Washington office, agreed the numbers are up largely because of Iraq. He said no set of numbers is going to be perfect, that at best they define broad trends.

Hoffman said that the messages from bin Laden and company actually might be more important.

"At the end of the day, out there in the world we know there is a lot of terrorism, and a lot of it is in Iraq. What matters is the resonance of the enemy's message," Hoffman said. "When they have the ability to become Page One news, they have an impact."

What's still not clear from either set of numbers is just how many of these attacks by local groups are inspired by messages on audio and video from the leaders of the global jihadi movement. "I would like to see more discussion of this. It warrants more attention," Ellis said.

What do you think? Do the leaders' messages inspire the attacks, or do the attacks inspire the leaders? E-mail

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