WASHINGTON—The number of terrorist attacks documented by U.S. intelligence agencies jumped sharply in 2005, crossing the 10,000 mark for the first time, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials and documents obtained by Knight Ridder Newspapers.
Officials caution that much of the increase, due to be reported publicly next week, stems from a change last year in how terror attacks are counted, coupled with a more aggressive effort to tally such violence worldwide.
But the documents say, and officials confirm, that some of the rise is traceable to the war in Iraq, where foreign terrorists, a homegrown insurgency and sectarian strife have all contributed to political bloodshed.
More than half the fatalities from terrorism worldwide last year occurred in Iraq, said a counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the data haven't been made public. Roughly 85 percent of the U.S. citizens who died from terrorism during the year died in Iraq.
The figures cover only noncombatants and thus don't include combat deaths of U.S., Iraqi and other coalition soldiers.
"There's no question that the level of terrorist attacks in Iraq was up substantially," said the official, who's familiar with the methods used by the National Counterterrorism Center to track terrorist trends. The center is part of the U.S. intelligence community.
There were 3,192 terrorist attacks in 2004, the center reported last July.
Last year, while compiling the 2004 numbers, analysts switched to a dramatically broadened definition of what constitutes terrorism. The same definition was in use for the 2005 data, but analysts had more time to use the new method.
In the past, intelligence analysts had counted only "international terrorism," defined as attacks involving citizens or territory of more than one country. But officials concluded that the definition was outdated and undercounted terrorism. The 2004 sinking of a ferry in the Philippines by Filipino guerrillas that left 132 people dead was omitted, for example.
The terrorism statistics have been the subject of intense controversy in recent years.
The latest figures will be released in conjunction with the State Department's annual report on terrorism, which covers broader trends.
U.S. government officials and many private analysts say that while the data are useful in analyzing trends, numbers alone provide only a limited portrait of how the struggle against terrorism is going.
"The numbers are a very small part of the picture" and "can't be used as a metric," the counterterrorism official said.
State Department counterterrorism coordinator Henry Crumpton told Congress earlier this month that the leadership of al Qaida, responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "may be isolated and under pressure, unable to communicate effectively."
But, Crumpton told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, regional terrorist groups have established their own independent networks, a development that in some ways "poses even more daunting intelligence collection and strategic policy challenges."
Crumpton, a former CIA operations officer, has spoken publicly about the difficulty of penetrating what he calls "micro targets," such as the cell of four suicide bombers who carried out attacks last July on London's transportation system, killing 52.
In a speech Thursday to a Washington counterterrorism conference, Crumpton said the upcoming State Department report would include a "net assessment" of progress in the war on terrorism, along with a chapter on "enemy safe haven."
The United States and its allies have mounted an intense military and diplomatic assault on terrorist havens, which include Somalia, the trans-Sahara in North Africa, and the Sulu Sea in Southeast Asia.
While that effort has had some success, officials say they're alarmed about a new haven: cyberspace, which terrorists are using for recruitment, propaganda and even training.
The annual tally of terrorist attacks has drawn intense scrutiny in recent years, in part because of a series of embarrassing and controversial incidents.
In April 2004, the State Department issued a report for calendar year 2003 that incorrectly stated that significant terrorist attacks had declined from the year before. In fact, the number of attacks had risen, but the report failed to include major attacks at the end of 2003.
Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered the replacement of the State Department's 19-year-old "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report with a new report that didn't include overall statistics. Those statistics were released separately.
The counterterrorism official said that one reason for the larger number of attacks documented in 2005 is that more analysts have been assigned to count and track terrorist incidents.
A particular focus has been Nepal, where a spreading rebellion by Maoist guerrillas has been met with brutal retaliation from government security forces.
The official said that worldwide last year, there wasn't a large change in the number of high-fatality attacks, in which 10 or more people were killed, compared with 2004.
Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism official and frequent administration critic, said counting terrorism incidents is tricky because "it's always required a judgment about motive and intent."
But Johnson criticized the new definition of terrorism now in use.
"There are some things they're lumping in there as terrorism that in my view make absolutely no sense," he said. "They've made it almost impossible for the average person to understand what's happening in international terrorism."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060420 TERROR REPORT
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