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Fighting Terror

June 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: In April, the State Department released its annual report on global terrorism for 2003 and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage said it bolstered the administration’s claim that it was winning the war on terror.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: This report details the steps the United States and some 92 other nations took in 19 — 2003 to fight back and to protect our peoples. Indeed you will find in these pages clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among the findings then was that the number of people killed in terrorist attacks worldwide fell dramatically in 2003 to 307 from 725 a year earlier and that the number of terrorist attacks fell to a 34-year low last year to 190, down from 198 attacks in 2002 and 346 in 2001.

Soon after the April report was released, members of Congress and others began to question the accuracy of its numbers. A leading critic, Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell last month saying, “it appears that the decline in terrorism reported by the State Department results from manipulation of the data, not an actual decline in terrorism incidents. This manipulation may serve the administration’s political interests, but it calls into serious doubt the integrity of the report.”

Early this month, the State Department acknowledged errors in the terrorism report and said it would be changed. The revised report, issued today, shows higher numbers of terror attacks, injuries and deaths than originally reported in April. Cofer Black, the State Department’s counter-terrorism chief, acknowledged the errors in the original report, called Patterns of Global Terrorism.

COFER BLACK: I want to be very clear: We here in the counter-terrorism office, and I personally, should have caught any errors that marred the patterns draft before we published it. I assure you and the American people that the errors in the patterns report were honest mistakes and certainly not deliberate deceptions as some have speculated.

KWAME HOLMAN: The revised report concluded that 625 people were killed in terror attacks in 2003, more than double the deaths cited in April. The number of terror incidents last year was revised upward to 208, a slight increase from the 190 first reported. And the number of incidents in 2002 also was revised upward to 205, from 198 originally reported in April.

MARGARET WARNER: Now to the State Department’s anti-terrorism point man, Cofer Black. I talked with him earlier this evening from the State Department. Ambassador Black, welcome.

COFER BLACK: Thank you very much, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: The last time you all released this report in April, Secretary Armitage introduced you by saying, “in these pages, you’ll find clear evidence that we’re prevailing in this fight.” Based on these new numbers, would you say that today?

COFER BLACK: I think the global war on terrorism is one that has witnessed a considerable amount of success, and we certainly should do a lot better job cataloging our successes. We have been able to catalog the significant loss of life and the injuries. In this report, Margaret, we just put out there. We list 625 dead and 3,646 injured.

I think to me the most significant statistic is that Islamic extremist terrorism is a prime factor in this. More than almost 50 percent of these casualties have taken place in 11 instances during the year. So we have both a few number of attacks with tremendous amounts of casualties, and at the same time we have an all-time high in the number of significant terrorist events, 175. The last time we had that was 1999 where there were 168. At the same time, we have 208 total instances.

So we have basically a mixed story in this — the numbers of instances, the numbers of casualties. But I think the bottom line for your audience to consider is that of all these casualties and this considerable loss of life and injury, it’s been mainly among non-Americans. Only approximately 1.5 percent of all these casualties are Americans. And so that means that 98.5 percent are foreigners. So the brunt of this global war on terrorism in terms of casualties so far in the year 2003 has been with non-Americans abroad.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you, you mentioned that you needed to do a better job cataloging them. There was an editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that said the old report — and I’m going to quote — “suggested sloppiness and wishful thinking at the highest levels of the U.S. counterterrorism effort.” Now, you’ve been involved for a long time, at the CIA before you were at State. Didn’t the rosy numbers just strike you as off?

COFER BLACK: Well, let me just say, that editorial, which I have not read, but if I take your sense, is incorrect. I want to make — as I stated in the conference, this is very important, the secretary stated that the people that are involved in this effort, both in the intelligence area and here at the State Department that look at this report in terms of proofreading, are hardworking men and women. What you have here essentially is antiquated technology, and the way these instances were reviewed can be improved. And frankly, I and my people should have done a lot better job proofreading. These are numbers. There’s no intervention or as some people allege, politics, as well. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I can guarantee you that we are here to defend our people and do the best job of it. What you’ve got here is a really unfortunate mistake.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you talked about how the number of casualties is so much greater. Is this a shift in what’s shown evolution in the tactics of the terrorists, in other words, going for mass casualties, attacking soft targets, is that the underlying trend here?

COFER BLACK: I think the underlying trend, if we look at this as a snapshot, Margaret, is that what — the point that I raised at the beginning is significant: 625 dead; 3,646 injured; and only 1.5 percent, approximately 1.5 percent of these, are Americans. So you see global basis from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia to Ankara, Turkey, you see the victims of the extremist Islamic attacks of terrorism tend to be non-Americans.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain that the number of attacks and the number killed have not significantly improved since 2002, given that governments are, as you yourself said, cooperating so much more? Shouldn’t — if, if we were winning the war on terror, shouldn’t it be getting better?

COFER BLACK: I’m sorry. From a counterterrorism standpoint it may seem a little counterintuitive, but if you look at what Congress requires of us and how we count terrorist incidents, it has a certain criteria. It’s got to meet a specific legal criteria. As an example, a sort of low level significant terrorist event that would count as one event was an attack in Spain in September against an ATM machine. It qualified because it was international; it qualified because the equivalent of 10,000 U.S. dollars in damage was conducted. So, you know, perhaps counting incidents isn’t the best way to do it, particularly when you match it up against horrific attacks in Ankara, where hundreds are killed, so you have that sort of dichotomy.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let me ask this another way — critics say that actually the war in Iraq is one of the factors that has led to this continuing an intensified terror with more horrific attacks because in a sense by going into Iraq the U.S. has sort of proven al-Qaida’s point, that the U.S. is out to take over Muslim lands, or whatever. I mean, what do you say to that? Do you think there’s something to that?

COFER BLACK: You hear this a lot, and nothing could really be farther from the truth. At one point the al-Qaida organization alleged that the reason for their activities is because the previous significant U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. military pulls out and they continue. I think that is incorrect. I will tell you, Margaret, in my professional life I have looked at Afghanistan and the al-Qaida organization build and there were elements within the United States government did all they could to counter it.

I do not believe it’s a good strategy to rely upon the goodwill of your enemies for your own protection. These guys have sworn to kill as many innocent people as they possibly can. It is the obligation of a government and it is the determination of this administration to do everything possible to protect the American people and those innocent men and women and children around the world. And that’s not done by wishful thinking and sitting back and waiting to be struck.

MARGARET WARNER: And just briefly, do you think by, with the war in Afghanistan, which essentially fragmented the top of the al-Qaida leadership, has it made terrorists harder to fight on some level?

COFER BLACK: Well, Afghanistan used to be a terrorist sanctuary. Something like — you to ask intelligence people — but I recall something like 60,000 to 80,000 terrorist went through al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and proliferated to other countries.

When the coalition projected into Afghanistan, approximately 70 percent of the al-Qaida leadership has been arrested, detained or killed. Their mid-management essentially no longer exists. It’s an organization under catastrophic stress. More than 3,500 of their operators and supporters are out of business.

You need to think, Margaret, what would this world look like and what would those casualty figures look like if those people were free to operate around the world and project attacks? The bottom line is the way to defend yourself is to link up with like-minded countries, which is virtually every country in the world, have a coalition of nations whose cause is defending innocent men, women and children, and to stop terrorists whose objective is to kill as many innocent people as possible. To me the issue is very simple. It is very clear-cut. We defend the weak and the defenseless.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Cofer Black, thank you for joining us.

COFER BLACK: Thank you very much for having me, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, for another look at the State Department’s revised report, we’re joined by Daniel Benjamin, a former director for transnational threats on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. He recently co-authored “The Age of Sacred Terror,” which traces the rise of al-Qaida. Dan Benjamin, welcome.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, do you accept what Secretary Powell and Ambassador Black said, that there was no attempt to manipulate the figures in the April report?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I think that’s right. I worked with Cofer Black, and he’s a man of integrity. I don’t think he would be involved in that sort of thing. Frankly, when you have an error of more than 100 percent, that’s the whopper you can’t really slip through. I think it’s more a reflection of the fact that this task had been given to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which is this new creation and that they just weren’t up to the job. I do think that the senior officials at the State Department probably should have done a better scrub of the report when it came through.

MARGARET WARNER: As he himself said. All right. Now, you look at these numbers. We have these graphs in front of us. Why — let’s jump to the question I asked him: Why, with more countries cooperating in the war on terror and much more aggressively, are the number of incidents and the number of people killed essentially not any better than last year, and, in fact, the number of wounded much greater?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, first of all, the terrorists are extremely motivated. Since 9/11, we’ve seen more and more groups, more and more individual terrorists getting into the act. Remember, 9/11 we think of as just an attack on us, but for al-Qaida and for the jihadist movement, it was a huge PR event. It was a declaration that they were the true champions of Muslim interests, and because they were the first to truly damage the United States, this was very popular with like-minded individuals.

Groups that were affiliated with al-Qaida saw that they had to step up their activity and increase their attacks, and others who had not had a big connection with al-Qaida in the past decided that this was the way to go, that the tactics were right, the ideology was right. We face a global insurgency now, and 9/11 was really the day it began. It’s growing in strength.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Iraq is a factor one way or another? You heard Ambassador Black put it in the same category really with Afghanistan. You have to go out aggressively and go to where these terrorists are.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, Iraq is definitely a factor in the sense that Iraq has functioned as another propaganda coup for the terrorists. It really does speak to the jihadist argument. They said, you know, the United States wants to occupy Muslim lands and destroy Islam, and now they can portray our action in Iraq as precisely that.

Many intelligence services, many governments have said that they see recruitment is way up and fundraising continues to be strong, and we see from the polling data that America is incredibly unpopular around the world because of our action in Iraq. You know, there was not a big al-Qaida presence in Iraq before the war, but it has become a magnet for terrorists now. There’s no question this is the front now, but it was not before. This is because of our action there.

MARGARET WARNER: Also when we look at these numbers, what we see, as he was just discussing, the number of attacks is actually quite a bit less than ’99 and 2000, but the number of people for instance killed and wounded are higher. What does that tell you, same question I asked him, about the evolution of the methodology of these terrorists?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, terrorism has been changing for a number of years, and this predates 9/11. As we’ve seen a change to increasingly religious motivation, we’ve seen that there is a higher and higher premium on mass casualty attacks. In the old days of the Palestinian Liberation Organization or the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, terrorists just wanted to just kill a few people and get a lot of attention.

This is an entirely different kind of terrorism. These terrorists don’t want to become part of a negotiating process, they don’t want to be accepted by their enemies. They want to kill as many people as possible. They believe the violence itself is sanctified, is divinely mandated and therefore the more the better.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think that this report shows that the United States is prevailing in this fight?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I don’t think that any one report is going to show that. That. In fact, I think it’s a very mixed picture. We are doing, as Ambassador Black said, we’re doing quite well at the tactical level, but we are disrupting a lot of plots. We’ve arrested a lot of terrorists. In fact, one of the interesting things would be to see how many more plots there are now, not just how many went off, because I think we’re seeing an awful lot of very big endeavors, huge plans, as we saw in Jordan, as we saw in Britain. But at the same time, the wave seems to be growing, the amount of Jihadist activity globally is increasing, so we may be winning in the short term, but we face another bigger problem in the long-term.

MARGARET WARNER: One point that Ambassador Black made was that the number of Americans killed and wounded in these attacks, at least the ones they documented, is fairly small.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, that’s true, although there is something squirrelly about if report in that it excludes almost all the Americans killed in Iraq, especially those in uniform. If the administration is referring to this as the war on terror and it’s terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi killing American soldiers, then it seems like they should be counted, as well. So that’s an oddity. It’s also…

MARGARET WARNER: To be clear, they exclude them because they say they’re combatants.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: That is correct. Soldiers who are killed in Khobar Towers or who were killed in the Cole are considered terrorist victims. So it’s not a very consistent or intelligible approach. The other thing is everything changes with every report. If you look at the report in 2001, it was 95 percent Americans who were killed. I do think terrorists are having a harder time attacking in America now, and that may be reflected in this report, but there is a lot of terrorism going on against the U.S. and its allies around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Daniel Benjamin, thank you.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Thank you.