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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > TERRORISM: THE CHOSEN TOOL OF THE WEAK AGAINST THE MIGHTY


Does `global war on terror’ mask a new imperialism?

Friday 8 June 2007, by Eric Rouleau

Terrorism remains an abstract concept since the international community has never properly defined it. The League of Nations failed to adopt a convention for the prevention and repression of terrorism in 1937 because of a lack of agreement between member states. For the same reason the United Nations, despite many debates during its 60 years, has never manageda satisfactory definition. When the International Criminal Court was established in 1998, it had to exclude international terrorism from its jurisdiction, although it was tasked with prosecuting a wide range of other crimes, including genocide.

The topic has attracted considerable interest in the media: there is a publishing boom in scholarly and other books on the subject. Authoritarian regimes have seized power in many countries claiming that they alone can preserve the state from this serious threat. Most importantly, the 9/11 attacks prompted United States President George Bush to declare unending war on terrorism.

Washington must be pleased. Many more states have signed cooperation agreements with the US than ever before, even in the worst chill of the cold war and the fight against international communism. The European Union and Russia have both rallied to the US cause, increasing cooperation against terrorism, even if their support has more to do with a communion of interests than any real agreement.

Opinion in the US used to avoid analysing the political and social causes of terrorism, in case it was suspected of condoning such violence. Everyone was supposed to agree to the official line - that an irrational force inspired by a hatred of democracy threatened the planet. Political commentators and journalists avoided rocking the boat. But to judge from several recent books, taboos and received thinking have yielded to protests in reaction to scandals that have sapped the Bush administration. None of the books considered here justify terrorism; they analyse its causes and suggest remedies.

Violence with political aims

Matthew Carr, author of several works on international conflicts, contradicts neo-conservatives in his book Unknown Soldiers and shows that terrorism is violence in the service of political aims. He plays down the exceptional side of terrorism, recalling the bomb attacks and assassinations in 19th century Russia by organisations claiming to be inspired by the French Revolution. After the Paris commune was crushed in 1871, anarchists on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in France, adopted similar tactics. In the 20th century there was violence in the Balkans (1900-13), and in Ireland after 1916. All over the world colonies rebelled against their oppressors.

The colonial powers demonised freedom fighters to justify repression. Carr reminds us that the oppressors condemned terrorists as bandits, criminals, monsters and vermin. In the 1950s British officials and settlers in Kenya accused Mau Mau rebels of belonging to a fiendish sect; even The New York Times explained that the Kenyan uprising was due to the frustration of savages unable to adapt to the progress brought by civilisation. Official figures subsequently revealed that during the seven-year revolt, the insurgents killed 32 settlers and 177 members of the security forces, about 100 of them African. Yet the army and police killed more than 20,000 Mau Mau, with hundreds of thousands of Kenyans injured and driven from their homes. Carr points out that colonial conflicts often brought former terrorist leaders to power: Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, Menachem Begin in Israel and Anwar Sadat in Egypt.

For the authorities the motives of terrorists are never legitimate. The sources of their discontent, their political and social demands, do not deserve to be taken into account except under pressure. Their use of violence exemplifies their fanaticism. Carr explains that in the 1970s, the west German authorities removed the brains from the corpses of members of the Baader-Meinhof gang in the hope of finding a genetic explanation for their behaviour. A psychiatrist even claimed to have discovered a pathological disorder in a brain he examined.

Eminent American writers have advanced other theories. In 1993 Samuel Huntington, a professor of political science at Harvard University, forecast a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam. In 1964 the historian Bernard Lewis maintained that the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict was the inability of the Muslim world to adapt to modernity. Lewis subsequently became a highly appreciated mentor of US neo-cons and hardline Zionists.

`Violence to oppose that of their oppressors’

Dining with Terrorists stands out for its contribution to demystification of the motives of terrorists. It is written by Phil Rees, an investigative journalist who has won a dozen international awards for books and documentaries. He travelled the world dining with the leaders of organisations and made contact with, even infiltrated, underground movements in Colombia, Algeria, the Basque country, Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Ireland, former Yugoslavia, Kashmir, Pakistan and Palestine. The human side that he reveals, assisted by photographs, and his descriptions of the force of terrorists’ convictions, are powerful arguments for finding more peaceable ways to end the violence.

Rees is a remarkable storyteller and draws fine portraits of his hosts. None of them see themselves as terrorists, all claim that they resort to violence only to oppose their oppressors. Only a few count on military victory. Some want to force the enemy to negotiate a compromise, others merely want to put across a political message. Rees argues that we should treat some of the Palestinian activities in the 1970s, especially the hijacking of airliners, as propaganda.

The Palestinians are resistance fighters, like the Zionists under the British mandate (1922-48) and the French during the German occupation. In 1997 Rees got to know a founder of Hamas, Ismail Abu Shanab, who was a graduate of several US universities, professor of engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza, and the author of several books on technology or politics. Abu Shanab said he would readily support the Oslo accords if he thought Israel would agree to the creation of a proper Palestinian state. But what could the Palestinians do but send their children to their deaths in Israel as a response to tank shelling, bombs dropped by F16 jets and missiles launched by Apache assault helicopters? He believed that violence was merely a way of raising international awareness of distress. Abu Shanab remained a militant despite eight years in Israeli jails, including two in solitary confinement in a tiny underground cell. In 2003, six years after his release, a rocket launched by an Israeli helicopter hit and killed him in his car. Rees saw it while watching a satellite news channel; AbuShanab was the 138th victim in two years of Israel’s targeted assassination policy. (Under international law extra-judiciary executions count as war crimes.)

Beside its military activities Hamas is an influential political party, currently holding the majority in a democratically elected parliament. Yet the US and Europe have condemned it as a terrorist organisation, stopping aid to the Palestinian government after Hamas’s election victory.

Stop the war on words

Rees crossed Colombia, visiting the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the counter-revolutionary militia. Both are involved in kidnaps and murder, targeting not only fellow citizens suspected of sympathies with the other side, but also strangers. Rees was shocked but concluded that it was counter-productive to treat such groups as terrorists. It would be more helpful to stop the war of words and make allowance for the interests of the conflicting parties. Quoting former US ambassadors to Latin America, he points out that the US policy in its backyard has little to recommend it (1).

Rees makes no attempt to gloss over the crimes committed by the Euskadi ta Askatasuna (Eta) independence movement in Basque country, but blames the Spanish government, and by extension the US and Europe, for condemning this terrorism without trying to initiate a genuine dialogue with those who claim to represent Basque history, culture and identity. He notes that in Northern Ireland a peaceful settlement has been found for a conflict that dragged on for decades and was presented as being religious in origin, therefore intractable: it required long negotiations with the Irish Republican Army.

The situation of al-Qaida is different. Along with Bush, al-Qaida believes that the confrontation between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West is a life and death struggle. There is no question of negotiation or compromise, less still of the peaceful coexistence that could be envisaged with the Soviet "evil empire". The jihad waged by Osama bin Laden is as inflexible as the crusade launched by Bush after 9/11. But coming to grips with such an organisation is difficult. It is scattered across the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with no overall command structure, nor national roots. It does little more than call its supporters to commit violence against the US empire and its lackeys. How should western governments deal with autonomous militant units dispersed around the world, with varying motives?

The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright, recently awarded the Pulitzer prize, answers these questions. It is one of the most comprehensive works on the topic. Wright is an academic and a contributor to The New Yorker. He bases his conclusions on first-hand evidence, unpublished material written by al-Qaida leaders, interviews with 483 protagonists or eye-witnesses (he provides a list), including people close to bin Laden, specialists on the Muslim world, and former Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. His five-year investigation took him to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen and western countries. The book describes in detail the origins of the transnational organisation, its ideology, internal conflicts, illusions and disappointments.

His picture of al-Qaida leaders, their social and family backgrounds, reveals the psychological roots of their action. The personality of bin Laden, described by close acquaintances, is a surprise. A marginal, self-effacing figure born into a family of billionaires, he leads a hermit-like existence hiding in caves. He is considerate towards his four wives - two of whom are PhDs, one in child psychology, the other in linguistics - and a faultless father to 15 children. He started his life as a Saudi nationalist before becoming anti-US and is thought to have only limited intellectual powers. This explains the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Egyptian second-in-command and the brains behind al-Qaida. Both men draw their inspiration from Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian fundamentalist scholar hanged under Gamal Abdel Nasser. Qutb maintained that the people of the US and Europe crushed their colonial subjects and saw the world divided into two opposing camps, Islam and the jahiliyyah (the decadent, pagan pre-Islamic era): a reference to apostate regimes subject to imperialism.

Al-Qaida’s rise not by chance

Al-Qaida began to be important in the 1990s, when most nationalist Islamist groups gave up violence, because they recognised its negative consequences, to enter the political arena. The 9/11 attacks brought the rift into the open. Almost all the legal or underground Islamist groups and Muslim religious authorities condemned the indiscriminate violence of the jihadists and their ideology as contrary to the message of the Qur’an. The media paid little attention to the schism and indiscriminate Islamophobia which seized western opinion and, dependent on prejudice and sloppy media presentation, confused Islam, Islamism, fundamentalism, jihadism and terrorism.

The cartoon published by a Danish newspaper in 2005 showing the Prophet Muhammad in a bomb-shaped turban exemplified the muddled thinking. The subsequent legitimate debate on the right to criticise Islam obscured more needed discussions. What about the many causes of terrorism, the frustration and anger provoked by US power, and the dictatorial regimes that stamp on civil rights? What about the corruption and social injustice in many developing countries, and the identity crisis ofimmigrants? Western elites know that Islam, as any other religion, has elements that may be exploited politically to justify good as much as evil.

US strategists had predicted that in the post-Soviet era, Islam would replace communism as the key threat. In Terrorism and Global Disorder, Adrian Guelke, professor of Comparative Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, assesses the geopolitical dimension. He maintains that the US administration, along with many political commentators, is wrong to consider the 9/11 attacks as a turning point in contemporary history. It was the collapse of the Soviet Union that opened the way for transnational terrorism, a new form of resistance to the global domination of the US. (Although the political importance of 9/11 was inflated to justify the subsequent wars waged by Bush, who accused al-Qaida of seeking to "establish a totalitarian Islamic empire that stretches from Spain to Indonesia".)

The 9/11 attacks were a gift to the neo-conservatives, an invitation to roll out their programme of imperial expansion: occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, as a prelude to the invasion of Iran; reinforced military presence in central Asia and the Gulf; control over oil resources; replacement of regimes refusing to bow to the new international order. All this to be done in the name of the "global war on terrorism", which would be total and endless.

This April the British Foreign Office woke up to the negative implications and issued a circular instructing diplomats not to use the expression "global war on terrorism". The audacity of the 9/11 hijackers, the number of their victims and the emotion worldwide, all helped initially to push the international community down the slippery slope behind the US. We know what happened next.

The Iraqi state has imploded. Afghanistan drifts further towards anarchy with each Taliban victory. Insurgents have thwarted the US military. These are the most spectacular results of the neo-con adventurers. The real consequences are far more serious. The Bush administration has taken advantage of the climate of fear to introduce repressive laws reminiscent of the McCarthy era. It has backed police states that repress opposition or minority groups. The US claims that any movement resisting US hegemony is a terrorist organisation. Yet state-implemented terror is allowed, even encouraged, if it serves US interests. This plays into the hands of those who use violence. The followers of al-Qaida, which had only 100 active members a decade ago, are now in a strong position in Iraq and are building up their forces in North Africa and Europe.

These books describe terrorism as the sole resort for the weak in a world dominated by the US. Only asymmetric warfare can harass the mighty. But then the only counter to terrorism is a political response.

Documenting terror

MATTHEW CARR: Unknown Soldiers: How Terrorism Transformed the Modern World (Profile Books, London, 2006, 400pps, £20)

PHIL REES: Dining With Terrorists: Meetings With the World’s Most Wanted Militants (Macmillan, London, 2005, 432pps, £7.99)

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf,New York, 2006, 480pps, $27.95)

ADRIAN GUELKE: Terrorism and Global Disorder: Political Violence in the Contemporary World (IB Tauris, London, 2006, 288pps, £12.99) ________________________________________________________

(1) The most recent example is the release on bail on 11 April of Luis Posada Carriles in New Mexico. He is an anti-Castro Cuban exile, who took part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, and a CIA informer. He masterminded the plan to blow up a Cubana de Aviacion airliner in 1976, killing 73 passengers. After entering the US illegally in 2005 he was charged with breaking immigration laws, invalidating the extradition applications filed by Cuba and Venezuela (from which the doomed flight took off).

Eric Rouleau writes for Le Monde diplomatique