Widen focus on terror

February 17, 2002|By Shibley Telhami

WASHINGTON - As the war on terrorism moves beyond al-Qaida, it is clear that the American focus remains almost entirely on the Middle East.

Every group mentioned by President Bush in his State of the Union address was from the Arab and Muslim world. Understandably, the horror committed by al-Qaida and the threat that it still poses have focused our attention on the Middle East. But it is a mistake to imagine that the global terrorism problem beyond al-Qaida is primarily Middle Eastern.

Is the Middle East the center of world terror? Consider our own government's reports on global terrorism.

In the five years preceding the tragedy of Sept. 11, 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 2000, the Middle East had the fewest incidents of terrorism of any region around the globe, except for North America.

In terms of images, it is helpful to remember that much of the most tragic and ruthless bloodshed took place in the heart of Europe, in the former Yugoslavia, not in the Middle East.

In terms of the number of incidents of terror, think Latin America, especially Colombia.

As for terrorism against American targets, as defined by the State Department, the Middle East consistently accounted for less than 7 percent of all global attacks aimed at American targets, reaching a low of less than 2 percent in 2000.

The world at large, including most of the Middle East, understands that our war with al-Qaida is just; this is a group that has inflicted such horror on America, displayed such skill and global reach, and declared a war on the United States, giving the United States a right to respond that no one can deny. But beyond al-Qaida, we must not give justification to concerns in the Middle East that the United States targets only that region.

The above data also point to another likely relationship: The decline of Middle East terror in the late 1990s was highly correlated with a hopeful Arab-Israeli peace process that many believed was likely to end in agreements between Israel and the Arab states. Since the collapse of these negotiations, there has been a dramatic upsurge in terrorist incidents.

That there is a statistical relationship between hopelessness and violence, broadly, and between Middle Eastern terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, more specifically, is recognized by almost everyone around the world.

In a global survey conducted by the Pew Foundation, majorities in each corner of the world, especially Europeans, believed that a resolution of that conflict would reduce terrorism.

And yet our strategy for now seems to be entirely focused on the "supply side" of terrorism.

The administration is justified in confronting the merchants of death, who exploit hopelessness for their own ends and who hijack causes in which they may not even believe.

But that does not change the existence of a "demand side" to terrorism, which enables terror groups to recruit more members, raise more funds and appeal to public opinion.

As the Israelis have found in the West Bank and Gaza, destroying one supplier of terror will not work if in the process one increases the despair and humiliation and, thus, the demand side, which could quickly be exploited by other aspiring suppliers.

The danger in appearing to focus our broader war on terrorism primarily on the Middle East and only on the "supply side" is three-fold:

First, it will not work unless we have a simultaneous strategy to address the demand side by alleviating hardship and projecting hope.

Second, in our appearance to be targeting primarily Arabs and Muslims despite the cited global trends, we reinforce their deep fears about us.

Third, it transforms what is a complex and deep-rooted regional conflict into one involving the United States, and turns more of the anger toward us.

In the face of Sept. 11, President Bush moved prudently to prevent the crisis from turning into a clash of civilization with Arab and Muslim countries. Now comes the hard part: avoiding the slippery slope that can lead to such a clash despite the best intentions.

Shibley Telhami is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He is co-editor with Michael Barnett of Identity and Foreign Policy in The Middle East.

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