Terrorism arrests skyrocket as its definitions proliferate

EDITOR'S NOTE: After the 9/11 attacks, the world launched a war on terror. Here, in the first tally of anti-terror prosecutions ever done, The Associated Press examines how many people have been put behind bars under anti-terror laws, and who they are. AP reporters in more than 100 countries filed requests under freedom of information laws, conducted interviews and gathered data for this story.


At least 35,000 people worldwide have been convicted as terrorists in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. But while some bombed hotels or blew up buses, others were put behind bars for waving a political sign or blogging about a protest.

In the first tally ever done of global anti-terror arrests and convictions, The Associated Press documented a surge in prosecutions under new or toughened anti-terror laws, often passed at the urging and with the funding of the West. Before 9/11, just a few hundred people were convicted of terrorism each year.

The sheer volume of convictions, along with almost 120,000 arrests, shows how a keen global awareness of terrorism has seeped into societies, and how the war against it is shifting to the courts. But it also suggests that dozens of countries are using the fight against terrorism to curb political dissent.

The AP used freedom of information queries, law enforcement data and hundreds of interviews to identify 119,044 anti-terror arrests and 35,117 convictions in 66 countries, accounting for 70 percent of the world's population. The actual numbers undoubtedly run higher because some countries refused to provide information.

That included 2,934 arrests and 2,568 convictions in the United States, which led the war on terror — eight times more than in the decade before. The investigation also showed:

  • More than half the convictions came from two countries accused of using anti-terror laws to crack down on dissent, Turkey and China. Turkey alone accounted for a third of all convictions, with 12,897.
  • The range of people in jail reflects the dozens of ways different countries define a terrorist. China has arrested more than 7,000 people under a definition that counts terrorism as one of three evils, along with separatism and extremism.
  • The effectiveness of anti-terror prosecutions varies widely. Pakistan registered the steepest increase in terror arrests in recent years, yet terror attacks still are on the rise. But in Spain, the armed Basque separatist group ETA has not planted a fatal bomb in two years.
  • Anti-terror laws can backfire. Authoritarian governments in the Middle East used anti-terror laws broadly, only to face a backlash in the Arab Spring.

"There's been a recognition all around the world that terrorism really does pose a greater threat to society," said John Bellinger, former legal adviser to the U.S. State Department. "Also, more authoritarian countries are using the real threat of terrorism as an excuse and a cover to crack down in ways that are abusive of human rights."

Since 9/11, almost every country in the world has passed or revised anti-terror laws, from tiny Tonga to giant China.

Turkey, long at odds with its Kurdish minority, tops all other countries AP could tally for anti-terror convictions and their steep rise. The Kurdistan Workers' Party is responsible for much of the violence in the country of 75 million.

Naciye Tokova, a Kurdish mother of two, held up a sign at a protest last year that said, "Either a free leadership and free identity, or resistance and revenge until the end." She couldn't read the sign, because she cannot read.

She was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison under anti-terror laws. "Of course, I'm not a terrorist," said Tokova, who is free on appeal. She was defiant, replying curtly to questions after long pauses.

Turkey passed new and stricter anti-terror laws in 2006. Convictions shot up from 273 in 2005 to 6,345 in 2009, the latest year available, according to data AP got through Turkey's right to information law. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says the country is fair to its Kurds. "We have never compromised on the balance between security and freedom," Erdogan said.

Turkey clearly reflects the saying that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

What makes a terrorist depends on where you are and whom you ask. In the U.S., the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department don't agree on what terrorism is. "If anything should have revealed to the world the essence of unacceptable terrorism, it was 9/11. Unfortunately, a decade later, we seem no closer to reaching agreement," said law professor Kent Roach at the University of Toronto.

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