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Tea Leaves and Terrorism Trends

This month marks the three-year anniversary of the Madrid bombings. The calendar is now punctuated by such remembrances. July is the second anniversary of the London bombings; September, the sixth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. And as the U.S. sends more troops to Iraq, the question hangs in the air: How goes the War against Terrorism?

First, the numbers. For 2006, the incident totals were up more than 20 percent, injuries were up 26 percent, and fatalities were up 37 percent, according to Chip Ellis of MIPT, a terrorism think tank that collects and analyzes the data.

The news is not all bad: Incidents were down in Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe. The overall increases were largely attributable to two hotspots: Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is that these two conflicts have become breeding grounds for spreading the violence elsewhere.

There are other troubling signs for 2007. One is the little-noticed revitalization of al Qaeda, says terrorism expert and author Robert Leiken of The Nixon Center. “Their security has been growing over the last two or three years,” he says.

It’s not just al Qaeda, however. “The larger global jihadist movement is as strong as ever,” says Georgetown University Visiting Professor and terrorism expert Paul Pillar.

Iraq is one of the reasons, he notes, but another important factor is that Arabs in the Middle East lack peaceful political channels through which to funnel grievances, and hopes of that changing “have been dashed,” says Pillar. That, coupled with economic hardship, makes it easier for jihadists to win recruits.

Even with regard to Western democracies, experts are pessimistic despite the decline in the numbers. Leiken notes that the leader of the London bombings, once thought to have operated independently, is now known to have met with al Qaeda leaders and trained at their camp. Leiken adds that, according to MI5, what have been called homegrown terrorists in England should more aptly be called al Qaeda foot soldiers.

In Europe as well, so-called homegrown terrorists “don’t appear to be entirely homegrown,” says Pillar. They are being actively recruited and assisted by outside jihadists.

For these reasons, “2007 looks like it’s a recipe for the spread of violence that we have not seen in the previous several years,” says Ellis.

The place that bears watching closely, says Leiken, is the U.K. “England is far and away the most important terrorist hotspot in Europe and in the West,” he says, adding that if there is to be a major attack in 2007, it is likely to be in, or emanate from, there.

What U.S. policy shifts might improve the outlook? Stop oversimplifying, say experts. Counterterrorism policies should be tailored to specific groups. And stop forcing the Brits to disrupt plots prematurely; it guarantees that some plotters escape, and we’re less likely to detect their next attempt.homelandsec0307_0507.pdf