WASHINGTON — TERRORISM is less widespread than it was a decade ago - but it remains an insidious threat to world civil society.
While the number of terror incidents has declined since the late 1980s, attacks today tend to be more deadly, as recent Mideast bombings tragically make clear. Terrorists have become more likely to target civilians and are more skilled than ever when it comes to lethal technologies.
Furthermore, the terrorists of the 1990s are far less secular than their old Red Brigade counterparts. They are more likely to engage in ''holy terror'' - violent acts that perpetrators say are their divine duty.
While terrorism can be controlled, it may be impossible to eradicate. Thus the March 13 antiterror summit in Egypt shouldn't send an unrealistic message to Israel's beleaguered public, experts say. Rather than promising the bombs will end, the meeting should say, ''We're starting a mechanism to control this terror. We have reason to believe we'll succeed, because we're all working together on this,'' says Shibley Telhani, Mideast scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Institute.
According to the US Department of State, terrorism is defined as ''premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.''
In other words, terrorism is violence that is intended to frighten civilian populations, rather than destroy military capability.
The heyday of terrorism in the post-cold-war era might have been the late 1970s through the 1980s. Bitter disputes over the deployment of a new generation of US nuclear weapons in Europe, combined with unrest in Latin America and active support from the Soviet Union and other states, combined to push the number of terror acts upward.
The number of worldwide incidents peaked in 1987 at 665, according to State Department figures. Since then, the figure has moved irregularly downward. In 1994, the last full year for which official US statistics are available, there were 321 international terrorism attacks - a 23-year low.
US officials ascribe this general downward trend to more effective law enforcement cooperation around the world. In addition, a number of the political disputes that sparked terrorism have abated - witness the democratic progress in South Africa, El Salvador, and other nations formerly riven with conflict. The demise of the Soviet Union ended the refuge and support given many anti-Western terrorists by old Communist leaders.
But the news about terrorism in recent months has not been altogether positive. Through September 1995, there were 359 international terror incidents, says a State Department official who works on the issue. ''We're definitely running ahead of last year,'' he says.
The problem: Particular terrorist groups are becoming more active. The Kurdistan Workers' Party, for instance, a violent group that wants to establish a breakaway Kurdish state in southeast Turkey, carried out more than 100 terrorist attacks in Europe last year. While many hit Turkish government targets, some targeted Western tourists in Turkey.
Ethnic tensions in South Asia have contributed to a rise in terrorism there. The Sri Lankan separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam carried out the deadliest terror attack so far in 1996 - a January truck bombing that devastated the nation's central bank headquarters. And radical Islamic groups have also been increasing their terrorist activity in recent years. Hamas attacks meant to stop the Mideast peace process began accelerating shortly after Yasser Arafat and the late Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on their 1993 historic agreement.
In general, terrorist attacks are becoming more deadly, according to US officials. Thus Hamas's most recent bombs, more lethal than their past efforts, fit into the overall world terror pattern. Part of the reason for this trend is that terrorists are increasingly seeking mass civilian targets, which are difficult to fully protect. In 1994, the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires killed nearly 100 persons; the overall terror toll for that year was 314, an increase over 1993.
Greater technical sophistication on the part of terrorists is also making their work more lethal. Veterans of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union, for instance, have trained Islamic militants worldwide in better bombmaking techniques.
Fanaticism also may make many of today's terrorists simply more willing to wreak destruction. ''Holy warriors'' such as Islamic militants have different value systems from those of the Red Brigades of the 1970s, points out terror expert Bruce Hoffman in a RAND Corp. report.
''Religious or ethnic fanaticism could more easily allow terrorists to overcome the psychological barriers to mass murder than a radical political agenda has in the past,'' Mr. Hoffman writes.