Terrorism in Asia

Remarks presented by TRC Director Caleb Temple in Arlington, Virginia, at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies “Counterterrorism Strategies for the 21st Century: Asian and Pacific Basin Perspectives” conference, August 26, 1999.

Begin remarks:

First, let me please state that the views expressed in my comments are my own, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Moving on, let me also state that statistical analysis is both good and bad, and everyone knows you can make numbers do what you want. However, I’ve compiled some fairly interesting numbers that I’ll put on the table to give us some ideas to think about. For my research I went back five years to find the number of terrorist attacks and the total number of casualties in the region. I researched numbers associated with the region for each year beginning in 1993 through 1998. I also compiled available 1999 data.

Let’s start with a discussion of terrorist attacks. When you look at the overall number of terrorist attacks in the region, some interesting trends appear, especially in the last five years. From 1993 to 1998, my research revealed 158 acts of terrorism that occurred in Asia. Unfortunately this number in and of itself is meaningless. Without context or a baseline, we don’t know whether that is a lot or a little. I needed a benchmark so, fairly or unfairly, I selected the Middle East region as an artificial benchmark of terrorist activity. I went back through 1993 to 1998, drilled down to the number of terrorist attacks in the Middle East region, and came up with a total of 374 during our time frame. By having comparable data, I was able to hold these two numbers next to each other and engage in analysis. Of course, a review of the numbers indicates Asia experienced approximately half the number of attacks that the Middle East region did during the same timeframe.

So Asia experienced only half the number of terrorist attacks in the Middle East. That appears to tell us something. It seems Asia is a relatively safe place compared to our randomly selected benchmark, the Middle East. But let’s continue with our analysis. After deriving the attack numbers, I continued searching for data and began compile casualty figures for Asia and the Middle East. I defined casualties as persons injured and killed. Again, going back to the data from 1993 through 1998, and looking at the region as Afghanistan and points East, I compiled a total number of 8,331 dead or wounded from international terrorist attacks in the region. That’s a large number. For my comparison, sticking with my original benchmark, I compiled the number of casualties resulting from acts of terrorism in the past five years for the Middle East, and found a total of 2,524 injured or killed. What’s the conclusion? While Asia experiences only half the number of attacks the Middle East does, people are much more likely to get hurt in Asia. In the past five years, over three times as many people are killed or wounded from half the number of attacks in Asia. In plain language, attacks in Asia conducted by terrorist groups are extremely bloody.

Let me state clearly, I’m not a quantitative person by trade. But as I looked at the data, I thought I should apply some kind of sensitivity check to ensure my conclusions were solid. Being truthful with myself, I also knew that over 5,000 people alone–over half the total number in the region–were injured in a single act of terrorism: the March 1995 Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attack in Tokyo’s subways. That’s a spike, an anomaly. I decided to take that casualty data out to get a better trend analysis. I subtracted 5,000 dead and injured from my casualty number for Asia for the past five years, and I came up with a total of approximately 3,331 persons dead and injured. That’s still more than in the Middle East. In the final analysis, even excluding the Tokyo subway Sarin attack in March 1995, Asia still suffered more casualties from terrorism cause by half the number of attacks, as compared to our artificial benchmark, the Middle East region. Once again, after taking out anomalies and getting down to statistical relevancy, terrorism in Asia is bad. It’s bloody, it’s mean, people get hurt and they die.

At this point, I’ll leave my discussion of relative levels of attacks and casualties, and highlight some other interesting findings. Overall terrorist-related statistics demonstrate that the number of terrorist attacks around the world–the lump sum final number of worldwide terrorist attacks–has decreased over the past several years. Casualty figures, however, have risen. This is a dangerous trend. It basically means terrorists are increasingly seeking to punish or kill their enemies, in addition to making a political threat, demand or statement. In terms of Asia, while I was conducting my research I noticed an ominous trend. Beginning in 1996, Asia bucked the worldwide tendency. As the overall number of terrorist attacks from year to year continued to decline around the world in general, the number of attacks in Asia–beginning in 1996–began to rise. Attacks in Asia rose from 11 in 1996 to 21 in 1997, and 49 in 1998. This trend continues to support my assessment that terrorism in Asia is particularly dangerous. Based on apparent trends, I can’t help but see more terrorist violence in Asia in the near to mid term.

At this point, hopefully I’ve provided a complement to our earlier overview, a kind of a quantitative “flip-side” to the previous survey of terrorist groups in Asia. If I may take a bit more time, I’d like to indulge in a couple closing comments. We’ve seen kind of a shift in focus among terrorist groups, especially from the U.S. perspective. The days of viable secular, Marxist terrorist groups are behind us. The Khemer Rouge and New People’s Army are still around, and there’s still some violence going on. Further, in terms of special interest terrorist groups or terrorist cults, I think the Aum Shinrikyo is still a big question mark and may reconstitute itself sometime in the future. But I think the real focus–the challenge for the future–is going to be some of the transnational Islamic terrorist groups out there. Transnational Islamic terrorist groups like Usama Bin Ladin and other, like-minded organizations in the region pose a grave threat to the United States, and threaten the stability of countries in Asia, especially South Asia. Events in South Asia, especially the extremist rhetoric coming out of the smaller, religious militant political groups is frightening. Everybody’s entitled to his or her perspective, but when you’ve got extreme rhetoric coming from a couple of small, fringe groups in Pakistan, combined with what we’ve seen in the past in terms of violence directed against Americans and others in Pakistan–like the March 1995 shooting of three diplomats or the 1997 murder of four oil executives–you’ve got a potentially dangerous situation and the potential for tragedy.

I’m concerned about Asia, and am hoping for dialogue and good faith among groups and governments. These developments could ease tensions and marginalize terrorists in the region. Regretfully, I’m not optimistic in the near term about terrorist violence, especially in South Asia. At this point, I’ll close my remarks.

Copyright 2000, held by Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, International Center for Counter Terrorism Studies, 1600 Wilson Blvd,. Suite 1200, Arlington, VA, USA, 22209. Reprinted with permission.

The views presented in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Terrorism Research Center or any other organization.

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