Terror attacks and kidnappings worldwide exceeded 10,000 for the first time last year, propelled in part by a surge in Iraq, according to government figures to be released soon.
Officials cautioned against reading too much into the overall total. The government last year adopted a new definition of terrorism and changed its system of counting global attacks, devoting more energy to finding reports of violence against civilians.
Yet the numbers are a striking reminder that violence around the globe has dramatically increased in the more than four years of the war on terror.
In 2004, the National Counterterrorism Center, the government’s new hub for monitoring terrorism, counted 3,192 terror attacks — including more than 28,000 people wounded, killed or kidnapped.
The 2005 tally will exceed 10,000 attacks and kidnappings, according to a federal official familiar with the center’s work on the subject. The official spoke Friday on condition of anonymity because the numbers had not yet been officially released.
Terrorist violence in Iraq is up in every category in 2005, including armed attacks and kidnappings. The official said Iraq will represent more than 50 percent of the total increase in terrorist incidents. The year before, the center said there were 866 terror attacks against civilians and other noncombatants there.
When asked about the reported increase in attacks generally, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that the methodology had changed so there was no common baseline. “Technically, you could say that there might be a larger number of incidents from one year to another, but it’s comparing apples and oranges,” he said.
The 2005 numbers were first reported by Knight-Ridder. They are expected to be formally released within the next two weeks in a broader report from the State Department, called the Country Reports on Terrorism.
Reasons for increase in tally
Federal officials attributed the increase in the tally to three factors:
—The increase in terror incidents in Iraq as the insurgency tried to disrupt elections and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other Sunni Muslim fighters attacked Iraqi Shiites.
—More resources devoted to finding attacks documented by non-governmental organizations, the news media, Web sites and other sources.
In 2004, about 10 people at the counterterrorism center spent two months tallying the attacks. Last year, about 15 people spent roughly nine months on the work. That meant the center’s analysts were able to do a more robust job of counting thousands of people kidnapped in Nepal, for instance.
—A new, broader definition of terrorism adopted last year, before the release of the 2004 numbers, included all “premeditated violence directed against noncombatants for political purposes.”
The previous definition focused on international terrorism and required that the terrorists victimize at least one citizen of another country. This definition would exclude from the count much of the sectarian violence in Iraq. Also, only attacks resulting in more than $10,000 damage or serious injuries were counted.
More art than science
The counterterrorism center’s Web site and various government officials have stressed that counting attacks is more art than science. For instance, on the morning of Aug. 17, 2005, there were 350 small bomb attacks in Bangladesh. The counterterrorism center considers that one attack.
Tallying Iraq alone is complicated. Attacks against U.S. military personnel there are not included because U.S. forces are considered combatants. Those assaults, instead, are monitored by the Defense Department.
Last year, terrorism statistics became an issue when critics accused the Bush administration of understating the increase in global terrorism. Counterterrorism officials blamed human error and a definition of terrorism that had not been updated since the 1980s.
Following the dispute, the counterterrorism center sought to establish a public, searchable database of attacks, starting with attacks from 2004, to allow private researchers access to the unclassified information.
Last year, the center’s interim director, John Brennan, called the new counting system and the public database “the most comprehensive U.S. effort to date to track terrorist incidents worldwide.”