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Analysis: U.N. study: terror attacks down

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Adelia Saunders
United Nations, N.Y. (UPI) May 22, 2008
Global deaths from terrorism have declined significantly in recent months, due in part to dwindling popular support in the Muslim world for Islamist terrorist groups, according to the United Nations' Human Security Brief 2007, published Wednesday.

The shift is a product of "the Islamists shooting themselves in their feet. They've become their own worst enemy," said Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project, the research group at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, that produced the study. All over the world there has been "a huge reaction against the indiscriminate violence of (Islamist terrorist) organizations, violence which is mostly perpetrated against fellow Muslims," he said.

The brief, which was funded by the governments of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, analyzed the data produced by three American terrorism research organizations. It concluded that, in contrast to widely held opinions of American and European experts, there was a net decline in terrorist violence around the world last year.

"The expert consensus is probably misleading," Mack told reporters, noting that the brief is the first comprehensive critical analysis of these databases. "The reduction in Islamist violence has attracted virtually no notice because the media don't report attacks that don't take place."

"The level of violence perpetrated by groups who employ attacks against civilians, and therefore the number of casualties to civilians that can be attributed (to them), is clearly down, regardless of what metric you use," Chris Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, said in an interview.

Fatalities in Iraq have driven terror statistics since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, effectively distorting global figures. When data from Iraq were excluded, researchers found no significant increase in deaths from terrorism since 2001. And even Iraq has recently seen progress -- by mid-2007 the number of attacks by terrorists was two-thirds lower than it had been during the peak in violence in 2004. According to official U.S. data, by the end of 2007 there was an "extraordinary decline in Islamist terrorist fatalities, both in Iraq and worldwide," Mack said. Non-governmental research organizations have reported similar declines.

A survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project reported that between 2002 and 2007 Muslim support for attacks on civilians fell by 50 percent in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Lebanon and Pakistan. Only 1 percent of Afghans expressed "strong support" for the Taliban and local jihadist groups, according to a 2006 ABC News/BBC survey, although some experts believe that may be growing.

In Iraq a 2007 joint poll by ABC News, the BBC and the Japan Broadcasting Corp. recorded similar exasperation with internal violence. While nearly half of Iraqis, primarily Sunnis, said attacks on U.S. and coalition forces were acceptable, those surveyed on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide unanimously opposed al-Qaida attacks on Iraqi civilians.

"Support for al-Qaida in particular is declining -- it was never very strong in the first place," Preble noted. But these numbers primarily reflect an increasingly disillusioned terrorist support base, rather than Western triumphs in the war on terror. "The tendency of a lot of terrorist incidents to harm the people they're ostensibly trying to help really undermines their mission," Preble said.

The brief also had good news for Africa, where the total number of conflicts has declined considerably since the 1990s, when sub-Saharan Africa was the most war-torn region in the world. Politically motivated violence against civilians also has dropped, decreasing by two-thirds between 2002 and 2006.

This era of relative stability is thanks in part to international efforts to broker peace agreements and aid in the post-conflict reconstruction that keeps countries from returning to war, Mack said. "We don't think it's because of conflict prevention, which the U.N. thinks is very important," he said. "But we do think it has a lot to do with what the U.N. calls 'peace-making' -- mediated efforts to stop ongoing conflicts. There's been a huge increase in the number of negotiated settlements over the last 10 years."

But while Africa is statistically more peaceful than it was 10 years ago, poverty rates, social inequality and overwhelmingly youthful populations -- underlying factors in violence -- remain largely unchanged and could cause simmering regional conflicts to devolve into widespread violence.

"I think it's undeniable that the trend is downwards in terms of deaths and number of conflicts," Chris Blattman, post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Global Development, said in an interview. But "it may be too soon to say if this is permanent or not -- this could be a lull, especially with the trouble we see breeding around the Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan and Northern Uganda right now."

Tensions are running high between the governments of central Africa, with states commanding the allegiances of various well-established rebel groups. "You may see proxy wars fought between Darfur rebel groups and the Lord's Resistance Army (a Ugandan rebel group), and rebels in Chad and government forces -- and they'll be using terror as a weapon, much as they have been in Darfur," Blattman said.

While the findings of the Human Security Brief are encouraging, they make no promises for the future. A decrease in terrorist activity worldwide doesn't necessarily mean the world is safe from another Sept. 11-scale attack. "It's a possibility. We think it's a shrinking possibility, but it remains a possibility," Mack said.

Global terrorism policies should reflect these downward trends, while acknowledging the continued threat of violence, Preble said. Curbing terror itself is an important part of fighting those who spread it.

"It's not so much what the terrorists can do, but what they can get others to do to themselves. I think there's an emerging consensus that if we see the object of terrorism in that light, that it should inform policy," he said. "One of the key criteria is to not overreact."

(This report was first carried by the MediaGlobal News Agency.)

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