Thursday 31 March 2005    


The Week



The defence establishment has convinced us to live in fear, says Paul Robinson, but in fact there are fewer wars and fewer terrorists than ever before

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Other articles by this author





Issue: 2 April 2005
The good news about terrorism
Paul Robinson

‘We are facing the gravest threat that this nation has ever faced.’ Elizabeth I, speaking of the Spanish Armada? Winston Churchill, in the aftermath of Dunkirk? No. Home Office minister Baroness Scotland on Newsnight, justifying the new Prevention of Terrorism Act by reference to the threat from al-Qa’eda.

‘Hang on,’ I said to myself on hearing the Baroness, ‘that can’t be right.’ My mum can remember lying in bed hearing bombs drop, and she once saw a V1 go over and heard the engine cut out as she watched. As an army officer a decade ago I used to have to check under my car for IRA bombs every time I went out. Army officers don’t have to do that any more. The gravest threat ever? Surely not.

But as an academic, I am loath to scoff without investigating the facts. Since my speciality is international security, I attend many conferences with and about the military-industrial establishment. With a few exceptions, I hear the same view with monotonous regularity — the world is more dangerous than ever before, the threat from Islamist terrorism is unlike anything we have ever known, our way of life and our very existence are menaced. Challenge this accepted wisdom and everybody looks at you as if you are an idiot. What is it they know that I don’t?

Not a lot, as it turns out. Vested interests are involved. Ever since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact eliminated the need for 90 per cent of our armed forces, the defence establishment has been working overtime to justify its continued existence. Similarly, ever since the disintegration of the USSR ended the threats from Soviet subversion and KGB espionage and put most of MI5 out of a job, the security service has brilliantly re-invented itself as an anti-terrorist agency. Over the past 15 years military planners, the intelligence and security services and security experts in academia have pulled off a brilliant confidence trick, convincing the public that, despite the visible signs of peace breaking out, the world is actually growing ever more dangerous.

Their basic thesis is that during the Cold War there was a degree of stability which kept a lid on conflicts, and provided some certainty in the sphere of international relations. After 1991 these Good Old Days came to an end. Now we face not one stolid and predictable enemy, but numerous insane and suicidal ones. We can only wish to be as safe as my mother wondering where that V1 was going to land. If we haven’t evacuated our children, it is because there is no safe place on the planet to send them.

Alas for the experts, but luckily for us, the facts do not back this up. Far from being more dangerous, the world is safer now than ever before; and far from being an ever-growing problem, terrorism has been in sharp decline for over a decade. This is not a matter of opinion. It is provable.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) and Canada’s Project Ploughshares both annually track the number of armed conflicts taking place worldwide. Sipri counts only those which result in 1,000 deaths or more in a given year, so its figures are slightly lower. Even so, it agrees with Project Ploughshares that the amount of fighting on the planet is declining. According to Sipri, there were only 19 conflicts in 2003, down from 33 in 1991. With its broader definition, Project Ploughshares reports a decline to 36 in 2003 from a peak of 44 in 1995.

More good news follows, I’m afraid. Battle-related deaths rose slightly from 15,000 in 2002 to 20,000 in 2003 because of the Iraq war, but even these figures are substantially down from the annual tolls of 40,000 to 100,000 during the Cold War. Global military expenditure also fell by 11 per cent in real terms between 1992 and 2000, and the Congressional Research Service in Washington notes that international arms sales fell from £22.8 billion in 2000 to £14.3 billion in 2003. In short, there are fewer wars, fewer arms sales and fewer people dying, each year, than at any time since the second world war.

So much for the idea that the world is becoming more unstable. What of the second thesis — that global terrorism poses a new and unprecedented threat to our security? Again, the concept turns out to be unsound. I recommend that the fearful visit the excellent website of the Rand Corporation’s MIPT (Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism) database and try out its ‘Incident Analysis Wizard’ ( However you fiddle MIPT’s figures, the chart always ends up looking roughly the same — a big peak in terrorism in the late 1970s and early ’80s, followed by a steady reduction ever since. During the 1980s, the number of international terrorist incidents worldwide averaged about 360 a year. By the year 2000, it was down to just 100. In Western Europe, the number has declined from about 200 in the mid-1980s to under 30 in 2004. Even more strikingly, in North America the number of attacks has fallen from over 40 a year in the mid-1970s to under five every year for the past ten years, with the sole exception of 2001.

Doubters can also turn to the US State Department’s yearly analyses of international terrorism. These display exactly the same picture. It is sometimes argued that terrorist attacks nowadays cause more deaths than in the past, but even that does not add up — except in the case of 2001. The statistics for worldwide fatalities from terrorism show the same decline as the number of attacks. For every Bali or Madrid bombing now, there was a Beirut, an Air India or a Lockerbie in the past. We seem to have very short memories. Remember the FLQ, the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhof group, and all the rest of them? All defunct. Even Eta haven’t killed anybody for a couple of years. Bluntly, terrorism is a declining problem, despite our best efforts to provoke it.

The reason for all this is simple. The Cold War was not the mythologised happy time of stable co-existence at all. At one point during the Cuban Missile Crisis, only one political officer stood between a Soviet submarine commander and his desire to launch a nuclear torpedo. The Cold War was a period of dangerous instability, with endless proxy wars, coups, insurgencies, revolutions, counter-revolutions, and state-sponsored terrorism. When communism fell, most of these activities came to an end. True, some new wars erupted as the old order crumbled away, and some new terror groups came to the fore, but nothing on the scale of the past.

At this point in the argument, people often interrupt me and say, ‘Yes, but what if...?!’ What if rogue states develop weapons of mass destruction, and what if they give them to terrorists, and what if the terrorists find some means to disseminate them, and what if the moon were made of green cheese? And this, it seems, is what the whole of British defence and security policy now comes down to. We didn’t invade Iraq because we knew it had weapons of mass destruction and links with terrorists, but because we didn’t know that it didn’t, and ‘what if...?’ And we are clamping control orders on those now released from Belmarsh not because we know that they are terrorists (if we had enough evidence to know, we’d be able to arrest them properly) but because we don’t know that they aren’t and, again, ‘what if...?’

But what if we are wrong? We imagine that it can’t hurt to assume the worst, and that only inaction has a cost. But that is not true. Our leaders were wrong about Iraq and the cost so far is tens of thousands dead (including 80 British soldiers), and an entire city the size of Cardiff (Fallujah) depopulated and in ruins. Every mistake we make ruins lives.

In October 1955 General Douglas MacArthur told the cadets of West Point: ‘The next war will be an interplanetary war. The nations of the earth must someday make a common front against attack by people from other planets.’ The cadets must have wondered which planet MacArthur himself was from, but his fears were no more far-fetched than the current government-fed paranoia that millions of us are about to be murdered in our beds by Islamofascist superbiotoxins kept at 45 minutes’ readiness in a bedsit in Tipton and activated by psychotic double-amputees.

In fact, considering the news last autumn of possible alien communications reaching us from somewhere between the constellations of Pisces and Aries, there appears to be more scientific evidence for bug-eyed space monsters than for the famous Iraqi WMD. ‘If’ the Little Green Men attack with their weapons of alien mass destruction, the carnage would be terrible. Why are we not doing something? What if MacArthur was right? What if indeed.