By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
July 13, 2005
But how many know that militants seeking independence for tiny Chechnya last year made Russia the world's second-worst hotspot for terrorism, accounting for 750 deaths?
Or that Maoist rebels in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal last year took 5,428 hostages, accounting for 86 percent of all terrorist-related kidnappings?
Terrorism is far more pervasive in the world than most Americans realize. But that could change. Records created by the National Counter Terrorism Center are giving unprecedented public access to federal files on militant extremists. The Worldwide Incidents Tracking System, or WITS, reported 3,192 separate acts of terrorism in 71 nations last year.
"The hot spots of the world have been getting hotter," concluded James Ellis, research coordinator for the federally funded Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. His group operates an Internet portal to the WITS site allowing the public to search files of terrorist attacks.
The national center called the database the "most comprehensive compilation of worldwide terrorism incidents ever released by the U.S. government." But officials concede it's a work in progress and promise to "refine the counting rules" in the future.
The Bush administration came under fierce criticism last year when, based on the center's records, it said terrorist acts were on the decline. Since then, the center has changed its definition of terrorism to be more inclusive, prompting a surge in reported terrorist acts.
But security experts still have plenty of criticisms.
"They are still trying to define what they want to call a terrorist act. So they are trying to find a one-piece-fits-all definition," said John Currie, former Air Force anti-terrorism expert and executive director of an international anti-terror consulting firm based in Oklahoma City.
Currie said the database has some unusual rules. It does not count military or police casualties in Israel, for example.
"They wanted to avoid the political suggestion that these people were killed fighting Palestinians. Unfortunately, politics works itself into even the policy of terrorism," he said.
Currie lauded the U.S. policy to increase public awareness of terrorism threats. "There certainly are a lot of acts that we never hear much about," he said.
The single bloodiest incident of 2004 was the Sept. 1 armed takeover of a school in Beslan, Russia, by 32 militants associated with the Chechen Affiliated Foreign Mujahidin. A two-day standoff ended in explosions and a firefight with police. Some 331 people, including 172 children, were killed and 646 people were injured.
Second worst was the well-publicized bombings in Madrid, Spain, that killed 191 riders on the city's commuter transit system - attacks that Spanish police suspect were carried out by al Qaeda affiliated terrorist networks.
Much less well known is the world's third worst incident - a bombing aboard Superferry No. 14 in the Philippines' Manila Bay by members of the Abu Sayyaf Group of radical Islamists that killed 132 people.
The database includes some bizarre incidents of political kidnappings, including the United People's Front abduction of an estimated 1,000 villagers in the Panchthar District of Nepal last year. The bewildered people were forced to attend Maoist-run re-education programs by the Nepalese Communist Party, which seeks to overthrow the nation's monarchy.
The National Counter Terrorism Center estimates that Islamic extremists were responsible for 2,623 deaths last year, followed by 1,030 people killed for "secular political" reasons such as the Chechnyan liberation movement in Russia. Police are uncertain of the motive for more than 2,400 terrorist-related deaths.
Currie praised the decision by the federal agency to label so much of the violence as religious extremism.
"This is a religious war," he said. "I've interviewed suicide bombers caught before they were able to carry out their terrorist deeds. They are totally indoctrinated. There is no question in their minds that martyrdom will mean they will go to heaven and that they can pick 40 of their relatives to also be guaranteed to go to heaven."
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