Future historians of the Iraq war will have a hard time working out the statistics of terrorist attacks from official records. They will run into the same difficulty as newsmen covering the current conflict in which the enemy consists of a rough alliance between insurgent guerrillas and foreign terrorists.
The statistics are indistinct because the US and British military commands and intelligence agencies in Iraq are caught up in a major dispute over an index for gauging terror. They cannot agree on such basics as: When is an attack an act of terrorism? and according to what method should its victims be counted?
The Australians recently jumped into the argument – on the British side.
They claim the Americans are under-counting and so lightening the score. This leads them into wrong operational and intelligence decisions on how to go about the coming stage of the war. Because the Americans are seen to miscalculate the impact of the terrorist onslaught on the conflict at large, US responses are wide of the mark and allow the Sunni guerrillas and al Qaeda to capitalize on their errors – so runs their argument.
The Americans only count terrorist attacks that come off, such as suicide bombings – single or multiple, roadside bombs that explode and cause damage or casualties, attacks and ambushes by large gangs of gunmen and shooting attacks, including sniper fire. To these are added attacks foiled by US or Iraqi forces and the apprehension of Iraqi guerrillas and al Qaeda terrorists.
American commanders do not include terrorist failures in their statistics.
For example, a large bomb that fails to explode on an Iraqi or Mosul main thoroughfare is not recorded as a terrorist attack; neither are, say, bombing plots against the Green Zone government and US command center, or a large Baghdad hotel, if thwarted by an intelligence tip-off.
Most recently, the massacre of 1,500 Shiite pilgrims at the Kathimiya mosque in Baghdad last month was counted as a disaster rather than an act of terror, because many of the casualties were the victims of a stampede. That the stampede was planned and triggered by rocket fire, gunfire and suicide bombers was not enough for the US to classify the episode as a terror attack.
The British and Australians, for their part, say the dry statistics of terror, when shorn of their impact on critical events of the larger conflict, are meaningless.
They take as an example the systematic al Qaeda-insurgent campaign of slaughter against Iraqi police and military recruits lining up at police bases or in training. The numbers, say the British and Australians, are worth little when separated from subsequent mobilization figures.
To evaluate the campaign’s effectiveness, they propose measuring the lines of recruits before and after to find out if recruiting has dropped. If the numbers remain steady, then the Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda have failed; but if there is a failing-off, then the terrorists have won and will be encouraged to persevere.
Failed terrorists also deserve a place in the statistical data, say America’s senior allies in Iraq. Projected terrorist strikes called off at the last minute matter, they maintain – whether cancelled because of unknown internal hitches in the terror groups, because their planners are deterred by efficient preventive security measures at the targeted site or by incoming intelligence data.
The longer the war goes on, the further apart are the allies in their evaluations of insurgent-jihadi terror, its impact and the conclusions they draw from their diverse statistics.