No terrorists here

From Martin Kramer, “Arabic Panic,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002, pp. 88-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

It’s ironic that Middle Eastern studies have reaped a windfall from September 11. The current project of the professors is to put as much distance as possible between that infamous day and their cherished subject. With one hand, they rattle a begging cup in Washington, promising they will use more subsidies to help us understand terrorism. With the other, they wave off suggestions that terrorism has anything to do with the peoples and places they study.

Consider, for example, an op-ed piece written by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and one of the most media-friendly academics. Telhami, it should be emphasized, is an accomplished political scientist, trained in rigorous methodology – at Berkeley. In his piece, entitled, “Put Middle East Terror in a Global Perspective,” he wrote: “It is a mistake to imagine that the global terrorism problem beyond al Qaeda is primarily Middle Eastern.”26

How so? Telhami read through the State Department’s annual Patterns of Global Terrorism for 2000.27 And this is what he discovered:

In the five years preceding the tragedy of September 11th, the Middle East was not the leading region in the number of terrorist incidents or in the number of casualties from terrorism. Moreover, while the terrorist trend in the Middle East moved downward every single year, it moved upward in other regions, including Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By the year 2000, the Middle East had the fewest incidents of terrorism of any region around the globe, except for North America.

Hence, concludes Telhami, there is justified anger in the Middle East that the “United States targets only that region” in its war on terror.28

If only it were so. But on close examination of the report, it turns out that Telhami’s discovery is bogus. Consider what he does not tell us about the State Department’s methodology.

First, State Department statistics do not include foiled terrorist plots. Because some agencies of government understood the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism even before September 11, some Middle Eastern terrorist plots were foiled – most famously, the millennium bombing conspiracy. It was uncovered in the nick of time; it produced no State Department statistic.

Second, the State Department has an odd way of determining what constitutes a “terrorist attack.” For example, the statistics tell us that Latin America led the world in the number of attacks in 2000. But that’s because every time two rival groups of leftist guerrillas set off a charge under an oil pipeline in Colombia, it’s a “terrorist attack.” In 2000, this happened 152 times. Number of casualties: zero. Obviously, Latin America is not the world’s terrorism epicenter, and it is not why you have to take off your shoes at airport departure gates.

Third, the State Department categorizes attacks by where they take place, not where they originate. Thus, the bombings of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 do not count against the Middle East in State Department methodology. They count against Africa. It is this that allows Telhami to write: “While the terrorist trend in the Middle East moved downward every single year, it moved upward in other regions, including Africa.”

Now the embassy bombings did happen in Africa. But they were not African in origin. This was Middle Eastern terrorism exported to Africa, which killed 224 and injured some five thousand. The 1998 embassy bombings also sit smack in the middle of Telhami’s supposed five-year trend of diminished terror in the Middle East.

In short, the “downward” trend detected by Telhami is an illusion. We now know for certain what was happening in the late 1990s: Arabs from the Middle East were moving their terror apparatus abroad. They were repositioning, in preparation for an operation that would dwarf all others. In this respect, the FBI’s list of “Most Wanted Terrorists” far more accurately pinpoints the sources of terrorism than the State Department’s graphs. All but four of the 22 listed terrorists are Arabs from the Middle East.

This truth is self-evident, but there are still people who would deny it. Telhami seems to be one of them. Given his own competence in method, how could he have failed to detect the flaws in the State Department’s methodology? How could his misrepresentation not be willful? Most alarmingly, his thesis has bounced back to the Arab world. Two months after his op-ed appeared, I heard a well-known Egyptian strategist make precisely the same argument: the State Department’s own statistics prove that the Arab Middle East is relatively free of terrorism, thus it cannot be the source of the global terrorism problem.

This is not as bad as the pervasive belief in Cairo cafés that Arabs had nothing to do with September 11. But it is less of a difference than it might appear. There is a word for the steadfast refusal to acknowledge the truth: that word is denial. Not only is it at work in the “Arab street.” It is in plain evidence on the American campus.

26 Shibley Telhami, “Put Middle East Terror in Global Perspective,” The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 17, 2002.
27 At
28 Telhami, “Put Middle East Terror in Global Perspective.”