Myth of the Islamist threat to US

The American government and media is once again promoting anti–Muslim and anti-Arab hysteria under the guise of vigilance against terroris

Are recent warnings by the US government about the threat of terrorism a reasonable precaution to a real and present danger, or are the media and government once again promoting anti–Muslim and anti-Arab hysteria under the guise of vigilance against terrorism? Whatever the case, the arrest of an Algerian man last December, allegedly for trying to enter the United States from Canada with bomb–making materials, has set off yet another free–for–all of media speculation about vicious Muslim plots to blow up the United States on the eve of the millennium. (The article was posted on the Internet on December 22).

To many people this hysteria appears to be nothing more than a reasonable response to a frightening possibility. But if we examine the US government’s own data about terrorism, it is a completely unjustified overreaction which puts at risk civil liberties and freedoms of all Americans, but especially those of Arab and Muslim Americans who are, despite all the lessons of Oklahoma City, TWA 800 and other incidents, still the first to fall under suspicion and to be victimised by repressive measures such as the use of secret evidence and passenger profiling.

So, is all the focus on the threat of "Islamic" terrorism justified and based in fact?

To put the issue in perspective, I examined the State Department’s own annual report, "Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1998."

Below I have summarised some facts from the report about events that the State Department defines as international terrorist incidents (in other words, excluding domestic terrorism by purely US–based groups, such as anti–abortion groups). The report uses the following definitions: "The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non–combatant targets by sub–national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. The term "international terrorism" means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country. The term "terrorist group" means any group practising, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism."

1) Terrorism worldwide is decreasing significantly and consistently:

There has been a significant and consistent downward trend in international terrorist incidents in the period 1979–1998. In 1998, the number of international terrorist incidents, at 273, was the lowest ever in the period, and the annual number has shown a consistent downward trend since it reached a peak of 666 in 1987.

2) The vast majority of international terrorist incidents are not related to the Middle East, Muslim ‘extremists’ or Arabs:

Since 1995, Latin America has consistently had the highest annual number of international terrorist incidents of any region, followed by Western Europe. In 1998 there were 110 attacks in Latin America, 48 in Western Europe and 31 in the Middle East. There were 21 in Africa and zero in North America.

The incidents in Latin America are primarily connected to conflicts in Colombia and Peru, while the vast majority of incidents in Europe are, according to the State Department, attributable to Basque separatists in Spain, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Kurdish movement in Turkey and various anarchist groups in Greece. Middle East or "Islamic" terrorism was not a significant factor in either region.

In terms of casualties (deaths + injuries), the highest number has consistently been in Asia since 1993. In 1998 there were over 5,000 in Africa, 635 in Asia, 405 in Western Europe, 68 in the Middle East and zero in North America.

3) Eighty percent of attacks against US targets are in Latin America:

Consistently, the vast majority of events defined by the State Department as "anti–US attacks" occur in Latin America. In 1998, there were a total of 111 anti–US attacks. Eighty–seven were in Latin America, 13 in Western Europe, 5 in the Middle East and 3 each in Africa and Eurasia.

By far the most common target of terrorists are businesses. Attacks on diplomats, military or government installations are relatively rare. The total number of US fatalities from these attacks in 1998 was 12, all related to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

4) Very few Americans are killed by terrorists:

Here are the numbers for the total U.S. citizen casualties caused by international attacks, 1993–98. Note that the figures show no upward trend:

1993 – 7 ; 1994 – 6 ; 1995 10 ;

1996– 25 ; 1997– 6 ; 1998 12

(The 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania caused a large number of non–US casualties in addition to the US victims).

These numbers suggest that terrorism is a relatively insignificant cause of death and injury to Americans compared with other forms of violence. For example, according to the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, 14 children are killed every day in the United States by handguns. In the state of Illinois alone, 320 are killed each year (National Centre for Health Statistics, 1997).

5) Middle East violence is related to local political conflicts, not ‘hatred of the West:’

Although the level of international terrorist events in the Middle East has been lower than in other parts of the world, such violence as occurs is principally related to local political conflicts, not to generalised "hatred of the West" as often portrayed in the media. The numbers and descriptions of patterns of violence in the Middle East suggest that as in other regions, like Northern Ireland, violence diminishes when broad–based political processes or solutions are set in motion. The State Department report acknowledges that the downward trend in terrorism "reflects the improved political climate that has diminished terrorist activity in recent years in various parts of the world."


There is a complete disparity between the facts about international terrorism as presented by the government on the one hand, and the media, official and popular response to the issue on the other. There is no objective connection between the frequency of terrorist attacks originating from and occurring in the Middle East, and the amount of attention that such attacks receive. President Clinton and other government officials have repeatedly defined terrorism as one of the greatest threats facing the world.

There is little or no media attention to the facts about terrorism, as reported by the government, and a generalised willingness to continue to blame and speculate about the Middle East as a principal purveyor of violence. This situation continues to hurt and marginalise Arab and Muslim citizens of the US, and to distort public perceptions about the Middle East, a region in which US taxpayers are being asked to invest a lot of money, often in the name of "security."

Each and every life lost due to terrorism is one too many and of course there must be vigilance against terrorism, and support for genuine efforts to prevent it. But clearly other policy agendas, totally unrelated to public security, are being served by the obsessive focus on Middle East terrorism, when the facts suggest a more balanced approach would be appropriate.


Archived from Communalism Combat, February 2000. Year 7  No. 56, Opinion



Related Articles