Critical Review of the US Annual Terrorism Report

Dr. Abdel Aziz Shady: Critical Review of the US Annual Terrorism Report

  • 25 May 2008

When critically assessing the US State Department's annual terrorism report 2007, issued in early April 2008, we must consider two crucial factors. The first is the fact that the producer of this report aims to dictate the prism through which this phenomenon is viewed, not only by the US public and media, but also international public opinion and organizations. More precisely, the US administration has attempted to tailor the world's view of terrorism to fit its own, and to establish its achievements in the field of fighting terror as an international benchmark for approaching the phenomenon's related challenges. In other words, the US administration seeks to control international approaches and policies with regard to fighting terror based on its position as the world's dominant superpower.

The second factor is that this report is the last of its kind during President Bush's term of office. The Bush administration has been characterized by measures with which to fight terror that are unprecedented in American history; therefore, it has become most important for this administration to document its accomplishments and strategies in this field over its final year. Consequently, it is important to review this report in order to assess this administration's maturity in its approach to fighting terror.

This report assesses the state of terrorist organizations around the world, and most of the report focuses on the Al-Qaeda organization and its affiliates, branches and alliances worldwide. The report considers this organization and its allies to be the "greatest terrorist threat for United States and its coalition." The report concentrates on the activities of Al-Qaeda's affiliated organizations that are active in the countries in North Africa; the activities and attacks of the "Al-Qaeda Organization in Countries of the Muslim Western Region" and more precisely in Algeria.

The report also covers the activities of Islamic groups in Libya, and these groups' loyalty to Al-Qaeda, but also highlights deterioration in Al-Qaeda's resources and communication networks in Iraq, Somalia and Mauritania, although it claims that this deterioration has not curtailed Al-Qaeda's media capabilities which also developed through the use of the Internet. However, the report totally ignores the fact that the success of these groups was a result of their exploitation of the state of frustration and disappointment in the Islamic world stemming from Baghdad's occupation, the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Sudan, the Ethiopian incursion in Somalia and the developments in occupied Palestine.

The report highlighted an important sea change in these groups' methods and approaches from overt major strikes to "bushwhacking" operations carried out through sleeper cells in target societies, and highlights the view that the danger of these sleeper cells lies in their quest to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

The report considers the events taking place on the Pakistani-Afghan borders as indicative of a new style of warfare whereby the Taliban Movement was able to regroup and gather human and financial resources to be utilized against the Pakistani and Afghanistan governments.

The report also identifies new terrorist movements such as the Al-Sham Soldiers, Al-Ansar Group and Fatah Al-Islam inside the Palestinian camps of Lebanon, and describes these camps as safe refuges for extremist and terrorist movements to emerge and grow under the weak Lebanese government. However, the report does not explain the reasons behind the extraordinary growth of these movements, and totally ignores the role of the Israeli occupation in their materialization, despite the fact that these movements consider this the prime justification for their existence.

The report does not offer any new definition for terrorism, despite US officials' assertions to the contrary. According to the report's definition, terrorism is a deliberate act that has political motives and targets civilians not engaged in any form of military operations. Moreover, the report views terrorism as a tactic employed by various movements, some of which are of an Islamic nature (such as Al-Qaeda), and some not (like the FARC movement in Colombia). As always in this regard, differentiation between terrorist groups, liberation movements, separatist movements, revolutionary movements and organized criminal gangs is blurred; for example, the report cites Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist movements, which clearly contradicts the views of the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples.

Similarly, the administration's definition of state sponsors of terrorism has remained unchanged. At the top of that list are Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan and Cuba, all of which specifically oppose the US world view. This reiterates the political rather than the technical nature of this report. Most significantly, the report focused on Iran, describing it as the number one sponsor of terrorism and the greatest threat to US national security.

The report justified this accusation by Iran's strategy of supporting regional and international terrorist activities in keeping with the claim that Iranian national security thinking is based on deterring any possible attacks from Israel or the United States, and aims to weaken and ultimately expel the United States from the Middle East. According to the report, Iran is using Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shiite militias in Iraq to frustrate US ambitions in the region. However, the report completely neglects the true reasons behind Iran's growing regional influence: the disruption of the regional balance of power as a consequence of the collapse of Iraq at the hands of the US-British coalition. Iran would never have been in a position to wield such regional influence had the Iraqi government not collapsed, and sectarianism not replaced the unified Iraqi identity.

One of the most critical challenges highlighted in this year's report is the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism in Europe. In this regard one must acknowledge the positive development in the report's approach to this phenomenon. For instance, the report rejected the idea of linking Islamic radicalism in Europe to the very nature of Islam. In addition, the report acknowledges the state of depression which exists among European youth, which terrorist groups and radical activists are able to cleverly exploit. The report refuses to consider these youth as the source of the threat, but rather classifies them as prospective targets for recruitment by terrorist movements, who must be rescued by the leaders of the civil communities surrounding them in order to frustrate the recruitment efforts of terrorist groups. To combat this phenomenon, the report suggests the adoption of a comprehensive protection program.

The issue of areas which afford terrorists safe refuge is one of the important concepts dealt with by the report. Great care was taken in the report's approach to this issue, describing accurate and successful methods with which to eliminate such refuges. The report defined a safe refuge as an area without control, controlled by a weak and unstable government, or outside the bounds of such controls (such as the Internet), that provides sanctuary to groups which pose a threat to US interests, via their ability to organize, recruit, train or finance hostile activity, owing to weakness of government capabilities, government involvement and acceptance of such groups, or both. The report listed many regions and areas in Asia and Africa as safe refuges and indicated the success of the war on terror in shrinking these refuges and converting the sympathy enjoyed by these terrorist movements to social hostility towards them. Successful actions of this kind have been facilitated by support and supplies offered by the United States to its associates and allies, in addition to coordination and cooperation in the field of information exchange.

The report also highlighted the successes and achievements of some countries in the field of combating terror through rehabilitation programs provided by governments such as that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which succeeded in converting a number of extremists into normal, peaceful citizens. In this regard, however, the report declined to mention the Egyptian government's model, which led to announcements by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group that it was prepared to review its previous ideological opposition to the Egyptian government.

The report does not, however, ignore the international dimension in confronting terror. It indicates the importance of fostering global willingness and harnessing resources to confront terrorists, and emphasizes the effectiveness of international alliances for this purpose- whether in the Middle East or Europe. The report also provides examples of the abilities of this coalition to prevent acts of terrorism and to help integrate security, political, strategic and institutional tools to fight terror both inside and outside the United States.

In conclusion, we must admit that despite the high level of maturity evident in the concepts of this year's report and the suggested approaches to combat the phenomenon of terrorism, the report remains a reflection of the visions, views and opportunism of the United States, and not only the Republican administration. Yasser Arafat was once labeled as a terrorist, then Bill Clinton welcomed him to the White House as if he were a hero, and finally he became a barrier that blocked the road to peace; consequently, opportunism and pragmatism have always been, and will remain the prime characteristics of American politics.

This pragmatism reflects American national interests formed by US institutions, not administrations, whether republican or democrat. The core US national security theory is defined by these institutions- they specify the threats and provide maneuvering space for politicians and decision-makers to act upon them. In US politics there is no such thing as a permanent friendship or an enduring animosity; Al-Qaeda was once an American tool used to fend off the advance of the Soviet Union, and today it has become the biggest enemy of US national security.

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