WASHINGTON – A quirk in how the U.S. government defined terrorism meant that when Chechen rebels blew up two airliners almost simultaneously over Russia last year, only one was counted in an annual tally of terrorist attacks.
On board one plane were 46 Russians. But the other had 43 Russians and an Israeli citizen — a foreign national that allowed the explosion to meet the U.S. criteria for international terrorism.
A new database assembled by the National Counterterrorism Center that was to go online early Wednesday has broadened the definition of terrorism to include both bombings. In the process, the center has increased by fivefold the number of attacks it considered terrorism in 2004: 3,192 with 28,433 people killed, wounded or kidnapped.
Using a more stringent definition in April, the State Department and the counterterrorism center had tallied 651 significant international terror attacks last year, with more than 9,000 victims.
The effort to redefine what can be called terrorism is part of an ongoing project that the counterterrorism center's interim director, John Brennan, called "the most comprehensive U.S. effort to date to track terrorist incidents worldwide."
But he cautioned that comparing the new tally to previous ones was comparing apples to oranges because the terms changed.
Consider Iraq, which led the world last year with 866 attacks against civilians and other noncombatants, according to the new tally. Under the definition used in April, it had 201 attacks. But the new numbers included attacks on Iraqis by Iraqis, a category previously excluded because it wasn't considered international terrorism.
The database indicated there were only five attacks in the United States in 2004, including an arson in Utah for which the Animal Liberation Front (search) claimed responsibility.
Terrorism statistics have become a hot-button issue with the Bush administration's war on terror. Critics have said previous government reports did not reflect an increase in global terrorism.
But Brennan and other government officials blamed human error and a definition of terrorism that had not been updated since the 1980s.
Following the criticism, the counterterrorism center sought to establish a public, searchable database of attacks, starting with attacks from 2004, in part to allow private researchers access to the unclassified information.
Brennan, who is retiring from government this summer, said the center had no plans to revise the data from earlier years, but said his successor, retired Vice Adm. John Scott, might reverse that decision.
Among other changes, the new definition of terrorism includes attacks that are politically motivated violence carried out by extremist groups within a country, often aimed at changing their own government's policies. The previous definition focused on international terrorism and required that the terrorists victimize at least one citizen of another country.
Previously, only attacks resulting in more than $10,000 damage or serious injuries were counted. The new definition includes all injuries and puts no limit on damages.
Governments have long argued over what constitutes a terrorist attack, and Brennan concedes his center's database is not "black and white and perfect." Gray areas emerged immediately.
For example, attacks against U.S. military personnel in Iraq are not included because U.S. forces there are considered combatants. Brennan said the Defense Department will keep tabs on attacks there conducted by paramilitary organizations.
Larry Johnson, a former State Department deputy chief of counterterrorism, had not seen the database yet but called the tallying of Iraq "foolish."
He did see merit, however, in counting domestic attacks within a country because they can be a precursor to problems that can spill out internationally.
But that opens the door to another problematic tendency: "Anybody who opposes your government is by definition a terrorist," he said.