Washington, 3 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Despite the striking headlines, the State Department says 2003 had the fewest number of terrorist attacks in 34 years.
The department's annual report on international terrorism says there were 190 acts of international terrorism worldwide last year, compared with 198 the year before. The report, issued on 29 April, says 307 people were killed and 1,593 were wounded in the 2003 attacks. That compared with 725 killed and 2,013 wounded in 2002.
The report applies to the entire world -- with the notable exception of Iraq. The study did not include attacks by Iraqi insurgents as terrorism because they were, for the most part, directed at war combatants. Iraq was omitted even though U.S. President George W. Bush and his senior cabinet officers still refer to the insurgents as terrorists.
One key area showed an increase: attacks against U.S. interests. The report says these attacks rose from 77 in 2002 to 82 in 2003. But even so, last year's number was down significantly from the 219 attacks of 2001.
At a news conference, the State Department's senior counterterrorism official, Cofer Black, recognized improvements in fighting terrorism by Saudi Arabia, which has previously been accused of not doing enough. He said two attacks in that country last year may have helped to make the Saudi government more determined.
It is well known in Washington that being removed from the list is far more difficult that being put on it.
And Black cited other countries -- particularly countries in the Middle East and Asia -- whose records have improved. "In 2003, we saw less state sponsorship of terrorism," he said. "Libya has renounced terrorism. Sudan has taken significant steps to be a cooperative partner in the global war on terrorism. And Afghanistan is no longer a breeding ground for terrorism."
But Libya remains on the list of nations that the State Department says sponsor terrorism. Black said it is up to Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi, to demonstrate that he no longer has links with terrorists. The same, he said, is true for Sudan.
And Iraq will remain on the list until it has a sovereign government in place. He said Iraq probably will be removed after its interim government takes office in two months.
Black said Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria have not done enough to break their relationships with international terrorists and therefore remain on the list.
Black said that thanks to an increasingly coordinated war against terrorism, Al-Qaeda is not the threat it once was. He said that more than 3,400 Al-Qaeda members -- from its leaders to its foot soldiers -- are in custody in countries around the world.
As for North Korea, there is no known evidence that the Pyongyang government has had any links with terrorists since 1987. Yet it, too, remains on the list. Black was asked about the Korean case. "The United States has a long memory, and we will not expunge a terrorist sponsor's record simply because time has passed," he said.
In fact, it is well known in Washington that being removed from the list is far more difficult that being put on it. Much of the reason for that is politics, according to Marina Ottaway, an international affairs specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy-research center in Washington.
Ottaway told RFE/RL that it is common in diplomatic affairs to let politics outweigh good judgment. She noted that in 2002, Libya was given the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Commission, even though it was widely viewed as having a poor human rights record.
According to Ottaway, it appears that the same logic, or lack of it, is being used to keep North Korea on the list of nations whose governments support terrorism. "I think it's a political statement, essentially," she said. "Part of the justification could be if [North] Korea is suspected of supplying weapons to terrorist organizations. But it's not simply a question of evidence, it's also a question of political decisions."
Ottaway recalled that in early 2002, Bush grouped North Korea together with Iran and Iraq in what he called the "axis of evil" because of what he said was those countries' support for weapons proliferation and support of terrorism.
For Bush to remove North Korea from the list of states supporting terrorism, she said, would be tantamount to removing it from the "axis of evil" -- something that would contradict one of the basic tenets of his foreign policy. "How could the Bush administration, having denounced Korea as being part of the 'axis of evil,' give it brownie points by taking it off the terrorist list? They are not simply decisions that are made on the basis [of evidence] -- there is some evidence and then the rest, it's politics," she said.