CHICAGO -- Global terrorism has a new face: its practitioners are less
the well-organized, state-sponsored groups of old and increasingly part
of "far-flung and loosely structured webs of terror." So said Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright last week as she released a report on global
The report also had two other major conclusions: that there has been
shift from politically motivated terrorism to a brand driven by religion
and ideology, and that the primary terrorist threats to the United
States emanate from the Middle East and South Asia.
All of this may seem like conventional wisdom, but a closer look at
government's own data reveals a reality at odds with it. And policies
built on flawed conclusions could do more harm than good.
Contrary to popular perceptions, most terrorist attacks against American
targets do not emanate from the Middle East or South Asia. Of the 169
specifically anti-American attacks on foreign soil in 1999, 96 were in
Latin America, 30 were in Western Europe (many of these committed by
groups opposed to the war in Kosovo), nine in the countries of the
former Soviet Union and 16 in Africa. Only 11 were in the Middle East,
and just 6 in Asia. The proportions have been similar since at least
Much of the terrorism in Latin America, which includes bombings and
kidnappings, is committed in Colombia and Peru by leftist rebels and
right-wing paramilitary groups. American citizens and commercial
interests have been attacked partly for ransom money to help finance
insurgencies and partly to undermine national economies.
But these groups, which commit most of the attacks against Americans
their property abroad, get less attention than groups with Arab or
In the Middle East and South Asia, the terrorist attacks against
Americans that do take place usually arise from a perception that the
United States has taken sides in local political conflicts, like those
between Turkey's government and the Kurds or between Israel and the
Palestinians. Most terrorism in South Asia is linked to conflicts in
Kashmir and Sri Lanka. The United States continues to list some
countries in these regions -- most notably Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria
-- as "state sponsors" of terrorism, but acknowledges that they are
generally far less active today than in the past.
We must not be complacent about terrorism and should continue trying
identify dangerous groups. But we must also be conscious of overreacting
to a phenomenon that typically claims fewer American lives in a year
than domestic handgun violence claims in a single day.
Arab-Americans and Muslims living in the United States have too often
borne the brunt of government suspicion and media stereotyping. After
many in the media rushed to blame Middle Eastern terror groups for the
Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 -- erroneously, as they soon learned --
several Arab-American groups reported an increase in hate crimes and
harassment. Last December, there were reports of increased and sometimes
abusive scrutiny of Arab-American travelers after the State Department
linked a threat of terrorism around New Year's Day with the Muslim holy
month of Ramadan, without giving any specific grounds for such a
Arabs and Muslims, almost exclusively among immigrant groups, have also
been subjected to the use of secret evidence in deportation proceedings
-- which, in opposition to American traditions of open justice, has been
legal since 1996.
The cruelest paradox is that many of the people suspected of having
connections to terrorism actually came to America to escape conflict and
injustice in their homelands and could be important allies in the most
effective long-term antiterrorist strategy of all: improving relations
with their home countries and bringing just solutions to conflicts
there. The worst thing the United States could do on the home front is
to make them, and the American public, feel that these people are
strangers who bring danger to this country, rather than would-be
citizens who strengthen it.
Ali Abunimah is vice president of the Arab American Action Network.