February 5, 2008 -- THE Conference of Arab Interior Ministers held its 25th annual session in Tunis last week - and singled out terrorism as "the principal threat" to the national security of the 22 countries of the Arab League.
What took the ministers so long to understand what terrorism is doing to their nations?
In fact, their predecessors discussed terrorism at the inaugural session a quarter-century ago; it has been a key item on every year's agenda. The problem was, the Arab states couldn't agree on what constituted terrorism. They shied away from a clear definition for fear that it might apply to the various groups that they financed and armed against Israel, India - or, at times, against each other.
Nor were they willing to take a tough line on textbooks, media products and mosque sermons that incited xenophobia, hatred and violence against non-Muslims - and even, in some cases, against Muslims from different "schools." They failed to realize that words have consequences in deeds, that individuals brainwashed into hating "the other" might end up trying to kill.
From the mid 1980s onward, almost all Arab states set up special anti-terrorism units - for Arab countries have been among the worst victims of global terrorism.
One landmark incident came at the end of 1979: Terrorists seized control of the Ka'aba precinct in Mecca, in the heart of Islam, provoking carnage.
From 1979 to 2001, terrorism-related events killed an estimated 35,000 people in Egypt. In Algeria, the 1992-2003 terror wave claimed at least 180,000 lives.
Libya's war against terrorist groups in the Jabal Akhdhar (Green Mountain) area and on the edge of the Sahara has continued since 1994; Western sources say put the conflict's fatalities at more than 4,000.
Morocco and Tunisia have managed to limit the terrorists to victims in the dozens - but the threat of terrorism has done much damage to each nation's economy. Lebanon, Syria and Jordan have also seen terror victims run into the hundreds for the past 25 years.
Starting in 2001, terrorism has claimed more than 1,400 lives in Saudi Arabia. Some 8,000 men have been arrested over those seven years, often before they could launch terrorist attacks. Over the same period, Yemen's government says more than 6000 people have died in terror-related events. Authorities have sometimes had to engage heavily armed terror groups in weeks-long battles.
Of course, Iraq has been the No. 1 victim of terrorism in the Arab world since 2004. The nonprofit group Iraq Body Count reports at least 40,000 deaths from terrorism-related events in the last five years.
By some estimates, terrorism and measures aimed against it have cost the Arab states 1.2 percent a year in economic growth since 2000. In some Arab countries, the security industry has been the economy's fastest growing sector. The average Arab anti-terror budget has quadrupled since 2001.
And yet these nations often remain ill-prepared to defend themselves against terror.
The European Union has had a central database for terrorists since 1995; the Arab states still lack one. So a terrorist can move from one country to another without being traced.
Last year, the Moroccan authorities identified at least 100 Saudi terrorists who'd fled Saudi Arabia and established themselves as "sleeping warriors" in Morocco. Often, they had taken Moroccan wives and blended into society, awaiting orders to strike.
There is also little coordination among the various Arab anti-terrorism units, and a great deal of jealousy. Often, vital information that could save lives is withheld or offered only in exchange for money or favors from the governments concerned.
Most Arab states lack extradition treaties to cover terrorism cases. So dozens of known and wanted terrorists continue to live, and in some cases plot operations, in various Arab capitals outside their original homelands.
The meeting in Tunis has come up with a number of good ideas. It proposes a pan-Arab designation of all pro-terror propaganda as a distinct crime of incitement.
Although it is up to every individual state to choose the wording of the legislation required, it is clear that most Arab states wish to clamp down on sermons, radio and TV programs and other media products that encourage terrorism and violence in general.
More importantly, perhaps, the ministers agreed to combat fund-raising for terrorist operations. But this is easier said than done. No Arab state has a proper legislation regarding the private religious charities that are often used for money-laundering. A charity banned in one country can appear in another, or even resume life "at home" under a new name.
The ministers realized that the War on Terror is global and that the Arab states can't win without coordinating with other affected nations. This is why they approved a Saudi proposal to set up an international center to combat terrorism.
That, however, would require a definition of terrorism acceptable to a majority of the members of the United Nations, something that has eluded the Arabs for almost a decade.
Eventually, nothing may come out of all these good intentions. Nevertheless, the good news is that the Arab states are no longer in denial.
They now admit that they are threatened by a terrorism they had believed concerned only "the infidel."