Face The Truth About Terrorism
By Terrell E. Arnold
In the wake of 9/11, Americans struggled with a baffling question: Why did they do that to us? The answer we got from the Bush administration was the terrorists "hate us because of our freedom" That answer was wrong, careless, even simple-minded, but at the moment it inspired us to get behind a plan to fight back. We welcomed the invasion of Afghanistan because we were told the kingpin of al Qaida, Osama bin Laden, who was said to have master-minded the 9/11 attacks, was holed up there under the protection of that country's ruling Muslim extremists, the Taliban. To go after him and his cohorts, the administration launched the War on Terrorism.
Now, over three years later, President Bush himself has indicated we have variously disposed of several thousand al Qaida members, including key bin Laden advisers, although few have gone to trial. However, terrorism experts estimate the organization not only is substantially regenerated, but its appeal to other disgruntled activists has been greatly increased by American actions. Meanwhile hatred of America or dislike of its policies has grown remarkably in most of the world. . And we still need a good answer to that question: Why did they do that to us? But we need a forward-looking answer: Why might they do that again?
Just Where Are We On This?
We are stuck in this odd position, like a captured fly whirling on a straight pin, because the answer we were given to the question was incorrect at the time, but since 9/11 our waging of the so-called War on Terrorism has greatly increased the number of people who may indeed hate us. Before we get in any deeper, it is vital to find workable answers to leading questions: What is terrorism? Who is a terrorist? Why does terrorism exist? Does the War on Terrorism address those issues? Maybe the answers will enable us to see"what seems patent to many others--why they did it, and may do it again. Just possibly we might learn what to do about it.
To get there, we must be absolutely realistic. That means we must put on the table our own actions and those of our allies, such as Israel, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Colombia, alongside other acts of violence now troubling the Middle East and the rest of the world.
No matter who wins in November, the next President must have answers, because our country is losing too many lives and spending too many of our national resources, including the goodwill of most of the world, as we fight in Iraq to win an illegal war, blindly support Israeli expulsion of the Palestinian people, and, under the flag of the War on Terrorism, attempt to suppress people whose motive is to expel illegal invaders. While occupying and destroying Iraqi cities, our government, and likely the coalition members, appear unwilling to define the enemy. What Is Terrorism?
This seems an odd question after we already have had War on Terrorism for nearly three years, but we need agreed definitions of (1) what is terrorism, and (2) who is a terrorist? None of the official definitions of terrorism appear to serve us here. For most of the past 100 years, the international community has failed to agree on a definition. In 1937, the League of Nations proposed the following, but it was never adopted:
"All criminal acts directed against a state and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public."
The FBI adopted its own working definition, one that is more comprehensive than the League's:
"Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
Brian Jenkins, an experienced counter-terrorism professional, states: "Terrorism is the use or threatened use of force designed to bring about political change."
While the FBI and Brian Jenkins define the term without specifying a group of actors, the State Department narrows the definition thus: Terrorism is "premeditated, politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, (emphasis added) usually intended to influence an audience." In short, as State sees it, terrorism is violence carried out against civilians by groups who are not officials or employees of a government. The State Department annual report, Patterns of Global Terrorism, is compiled around data that fit this definition.
The United Nations, while charged with global responsibilities for dealing with violence, has yet to agree on a definition of terrorism. Most likely that is because the 15 member Security Council cannot agree.
The ultimate definition, voiced by some unknown wag, is: "I will know it when I see it." The average definition of terrorism worldwide is at this level of generality and therefore virtually useless.
Do Examples Define It?
Examples would define it, if we dealt with the problem fairly, but fairness seldom enters into the definition. Are people who oppose the occupation in Iraq terrorists? Or are they just victims of an unwanted occupation with some spirit left? Are the Chechens, who have been trying for centuries to gain independence from Russia, terrorists or just bone-headed and sometimes ruthless nationalists? Are the Palestinians, who have fought over fifty years for dear life to keep from being forced out of their ancestral homeland, terrorists? Is a Palestinian woman who, out of desperation, blows herself up in an Israeli street, taking several Israelis with her, a terrorist? If she is, why isn,t an IDF tank driver who uses his cannon to destroy a Palestinian home with the family still in it? Are the IDF soldiers who have put bullets into the heads of more than 200 unarmed teenagers since the current Intifada--the Palestinian uprising"that began in 2000 in any way distinguishable from terrorists? Where do US pilots who dropped cluster bombs on Samarra, and killed more civilians than militants in Iraq a few weeks ago, fit in the definition?
One can maneuver through this minefield like a contortionist dodging knives in an arcade. But it is essential at all times to keep in mind that the definition of terrorism is at the will of the user. As a four-star Air Force General, who was speaking on Vietnam, once told a National War College assembly: "Where you stand depends on where you sit." That was a cynical portrayal of bureaucratic loyalties, but in essence your role defines your terms for you. Crass, but useful, because it alerts you to pay attention to sources:
Who Is Talking, And Why?
The most troublesome issue relates to who uses the term "terrorism" and for what purpose. There is an intellectual trap here, because the more cases the term can be defined to cover, the more broadly based is justification for the so-called War on Terrorism. The converse is, of course, also true. That leads to such travesties as classifying the Iraqis who fight to expel invaders from their country as terrorists. That includes outsiders who for whatever reason come in to help. It also leads to stretches of the truth such as "al Qaida terrorists are responsible for the uprising in Fallujah", when in reality even senior US officers in Iraq say that only a small number of fighters there are not Sunnis and sympathizers who are trying to take their city and country back.
The most insidious use of the term is to refuse recognition, de-frock or de-legitimize an opposition group or its members. That problem hovers over the Chechen rebellion. Putin was happy with the west when he was able to treat his response to the centuries-old Chechen fight for independence from Russia as part of the war on terrorism. He is now unhappy indeed, because recent US and British statements suggest he should negotiate a settlement. The mere idea of negotiating, Putin knows, would convey legitimacy to the Chechen rebels.
Where Is The Hang Up?
As a general rule, the politics of what terrorists do are easier to manage than the politics of what terrorists want. Slash and burn tactics make the actors look bad, no matter what their motives. Goading them to do more mayhem is, of course, helpful to keeping the terrorist label on them. Actions to punish the actors for such tactics are likely to be politically popular, while actions to respond to their agenda may involve a politically unpopular re-division of national pies. As a general rule, it seems easier to keep a society polarized against a trouble making out-group than it is to persuade interested parties to engage them.
That is certainly true in the Chechen case. In fact, negotiations conducted with Russian officials by Chechen moderates during the past few years appear to have reached the verge of a settlement. However, not long before the recent terrorist attacks, and more than likely among the motives for those attacks, Vladimir Putin is reported to have denied that any such talks had occurred and to have disavowed any agreement. What he did was hand the Chechen ball back to the hardliners. Their response enables Putin to continue calling the Chechen rebels terrorists, and after the Beslan massacre, there is said to be broad Russian popular support for doing so. In this case, the Chechen rebels have set back their own cause.
The same is true in the Israeli case. Typically and almost totally one-sidedly the Israelis treat the Palestinians as less than equal people who are aggressors and themselves as perennial victims. People who do not buy this line are accused of being anti-Semitic, or Jew haters. American media, more than any other, go along with this line, seldom if ever reporting on the daily crimes the Israeli Defense Force commits against Palestinians, but always reporting what the Palestinians do in response. Powerful lobbies in the US, such as AIPAC and ADL work constantly to prevent any criticism of Israeli actions. This is the case because Israeli leadership and Israeli supporters know that it cannot do any of the criminal things Israel does (targeted assassinations, destruction of homes and villages, expulsion of farmers from their land, killings of teenagers) if those actions are held up for international review. Under the Israeli model, as practiced from the beginning by leaders such as Ariel Sharon, no one can be allowed to assert that the Palestinians have any legitimate grievances or rights, because if those rights and grievances are recognized, Israel cannot go on doing what it has done consistently for fifty years to dispossess the Palestinian people. As brave souls such as Paul Findley and Cynthia McKinney have found, one can lose his or her job by questioning the sacrosanct Israeli posture.
If one looks at the situations of the sixty or so terrorists groups annually written up in the State Department report, there are variations around the foregoing themes, but the norm is some version of them. A perverse result of the alliances the US has created to fight the War on Terrorism is that governments are encouraged to treat their dissidents as terrorists, not to negotiate with them on resolving differences. This is, after all, a war!
Real Life Cases Are The Hard Part
Terrorism in the abstract is perhaps easier to define than it is in the specific case. That is because the abstract definition carries no freight. The accusation in a specific case has to be dealt with, because when all is said and done, at least a crime has been committed. But here the FBI definition presents us with a judgment problem because it implies that force may lawfully be used to "intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
There is a fence here that depends on the legal standing of the intimidator. Palestinians, Iraqis, Chechens, Colombia's revolutionary armed forces, the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf, Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyah, and many others face this problem every day, because the characterization of events rests with the party who has legal standing. A key element of the War on Terrorism is to deny such legal standing to any so-called terrorist or terrorist group, because once a group achieves legal standing, e.g., as a recognized insurgency such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the group enters a world where recognition requires conformity to the rules of war, notably the Geneva conventions. The politics of what the "former" terrorists want take over.
Former US Ambassador Ronald Spiers in a recent article (Foreign Service Journal, September 2004) stated that terrorism is a tactic and one cannot really make war on a tactic. True enough. But counter-terrorism is also a tactic with component approaches such as: (1) Do not negotiate with terrorists; (2) capture, confine or kill the terrorists; (3) do not make any concessions. These are the essences of US counter-terrorism policy. They do not add up to a strategy for dealing with global terrorism, because they collectively deal only with the perpetrators of attacks.
Where Does Iraq Fit In This Picture?
How legitimate are US uses of force? The FBI definition of terrorism implicitly states, as cited earlier, that force be used by the government to "intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." Strictly speaking, by the FBI definition, those are lawful terror tactics. How do they work, however, in a situation such as Iraq where the United Nations, as well as many other national governments, declared the invasion illegal under international law? The FBI definition states that terrorism is the "unlawful" use of force. If the invasion is illegal, the US use of force in Iraq is unlawful; therefore, it is terrorism as defined by our national law enforcement agency.
Within the past few weeks, Muslim clerics in Iraq, viewing the wholesale destruction wrought by US forces on the city of Samarra, stated through a spokesman: "It is the latest in a series of many criminal acts perpetrated by the greatest terrorist nation on the face of the earth: the United States." The notion that what is terrorism depends on where one stands is truly forceful in such circumstances.
Why Is This So Hard?
The elephant in this room is the persistent unwillingness of political leadership to look at the root causes of terrorism. No two situations are precisely the same. The fact of present-day national boundaries, and probably universal reluctance to change them is one factor. Certainly the Iraqi Kurds are frustrated by this fact. Existence of a selfish and distinct ethnic, religious, economic, or cultural majority in many unstable societies is another. Widespread conditions of scarcity, accompanied by hunger, poverty and disease, are commonplaces of the countries involved. Population groups who seek to go their own way are often a critical factor. Variously unrepresentative forms of government in many countries generate a rising frustration and anger. The stubborn unwillingness of leadership to bend, to make concessions, is certainly a major feature of most situations.
Chechen, Iraq, Indonesia, Palestine, and other trouble spots on the terrorism/insurgency landscape are among most serious examples. Judging from countries that have had significant internal conflicts over the past decade, easily a quarter of current nation states are in this kind of trouble.
The War on Terrorism Is Self-Defeating
The reason the War is self-defeating goes with the motivations of terrorists. Such attacks are designed typically to get the attention of a target group, usually a government and/or its elite. For reasons of simplicity and safety, terrorists try to mount attacks that minimize their exposure while maximizing their message. Thus bombs--that always get attention-- are the most common tool. But if the target group or leaders do not respond properly"that is they respond aggressively rather than seek dialogue or resolution of differences--the choice of means tends to escalate: Bigger bombs. More casualties. In those terms, the more harshly the War on Terrorism is pursued and the more cruelly captured dissidents are treated, the more likely that terrorist weapon choices will escalate toward weapons of mass destruction. Such a war is self-defeating and may even prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ultimate attention getters may be used to make the point: You people are not listening!
How Effective Is Force?
Forceful solutions are not working. Russian efforts to squelch Chechen and other Caucasus drives for autonomy have not worked for many centuries. US led efforts to keep Iraq together as a single state are unlikely to work unless the three major groups, Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish, themselves reach a workable accord. Indonesia faces a similar future of growing conflict among peoples (such as the Aceh) who seek fully to participate or to develop in their own ways. In addition to competing Indian and Pakistani claims to Kashmir, the Free (Azad) Kashmir movement wants to be alone. Current Sharon designs on expelling Palestinians entirely from the West Bank and Gaza will be fraught with conflict that may destroy Israel itself, and Palestinians as well as sympathetic third parties are likely to help. Many Sub-Saharan African countries are presently fragmenting under the pressures of disaffected tribal groups and competing power seekers.
All of these and many other efforts to quell local dissent are failing and have failed historically for the same basic reason: The states/power elites involved have consistently sought to impose a solution the dissidents do not want, and the matter is important enough for disaffected people to be willing to die or go to jail for it. It is no coincidence that the more than fifty countries that have experienced significant internal conflicts in the past decade generally have one or more dissident/insurgent/terrorist groups.
Who Then Is The Enemy?
Accumulating flaws in the human condition are the principal causes of terrorism. This is the enemy we must look in the face. Such hate as exists among terrorists is a symptom of those flaws. William Pfaff, writing for the International Herald Tribune, states that "the usual motives for terrorist outrages" are "nationalism, irredentism and religion". Those indeed are important motivators, but they are the dominant motives in only some cases. Actually about half of the terrorist groups on the US State Department list seek some form of regime change, but only a few are revolutionaries. Most who seek regime change are trying to get their government to listen to them or to get a regime that will listen to them. But they are doing this because they are left out, not because they fit the William Pfaff categories. Perhaps the real problem here is that few, if any, of the terrorist groups are driven by single-minded urges. It is worth reminding ourselves that terrorists are real people with real problems in real contexts. They are not the cardboard cutouts of villains that the al Qaida, Osama bin Laden images often convey.
Is The War Missing The Point?
In this context, the superpower focus on al Qaida has taken the eye off the ball. World terrorism is a great deal more complicated than the schemes of a disaffected, rich, ambitious outcast Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The tragedy of it all, however, is that a narrow focus on al Qaida has blinded American leadership and distracted world leadership from the vital mission of attacking the causes of terrorism. Whatever else we do, our leadership must get to work on dealing with the flaws in the human condition. If we cannot fix those, forget about making terrorism go away.
For the world as a whole, the least cost choice is to step back and reorganize, the sooner the better. But a vital requirement of that reorganization must be a built in recognition that all people are equal, and all people have rights. To get there, present day statehood and power structures must be modified. With weapons and explosives so generally available, there is no alternative but to recognize the goals of dissidents or to persuade them to accept workable alternatives. Virtually no global energy is being devoted to this task. Reducing the number of terrorists or the number of attacks is impossible without accomplishing this task.
What Are The Answers?
The Bush team touts the War on Terrorism as a silver bullet. There is no such tool. Rather the actions likely to be effective embrace a broad range of American policy and practice. Here is a short list of ten:
1. Really export American democracy. American democracy is government by the will of the governed, and everyone in American society is entitled to have a say in it. What we are doing in Iraq right now is a fraud. Without asking the Iraqi people, we are building military bases"fourteen of them"designed to create a permanent US presence in Iraq. To rig a compliant government for making the basing system acceptable, we have chosen people who are well known to the leading American companies involved, or to the CIA, to head up the transition process, meaning to guide it toward our desired outcome. We are doing our best to eradicate the serious objectors. That is cynical pragmatism, not democracy, and it centers on US interests as defined by the neo-cons, rather than on the interests, self-defined, of the Iraqi people. Enough Iraqis know this so that chaos reigns. Give them back their country, and let them figure out how to run it.
2. Promote improvements in justice systems and law enforcement as the main strategies for dealing with accused terrorists. Under United States law, all acts of terrorism are crimes. Terrorist attacks are single acts more often than not, and the appropriate response to them lies in the realm of crime and punishment. Assure that in all cases the accused are treated fairly. There is no practical reason why the detection, detention, and punishment of a terrorist group require more radical treatment than applied to an international criminal mob.
3. Stop torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other holding sites. On this matter, the United States now enjoys a reputation alongside the most reprehensible 20th century dictators. It may be that such inhumane practices have produced some information that was valuable in apprehending individual suspects, possibly even key al Qaida leaders. However, the costs of torturing prisoners, denying them due process, sending them to places where torture is a commonplace of local practice, hazing them, have been morally and politically catastrophic for the United States. By such means the United States has succeeded in building an enduring al Qaida organization, while at the same time destroying America's reputation as the wellspring of democracy and the defender of human liberties.
4. Enter into alliances with other governments that promote the first three principles. Encourage those governments to seek accommodation with their out groups and find ways to bring them into the mainstreams of national society. Recognize that there are legitimate complaints against many governments, and that merely taking actions to suppress the complainants will not make such problems go away.
5. Consider seriously the issue of state restructuring under UN auspices. In some instances that may be the only answer that reduces or avoids long term conflict. There are several cases as clear as East Timor. The key is to encourage affected governments and groups to enter a serious dialogue aimed toward solutions. When all peoples are equal, the world is too crowded to have violent arguments about who belongs to whom. Present territorial boundaries should be no more cast in stone than they were when the boundaries of many affected present states were drawn, often arbitrarily, after World War II.
6. Support national initiatives to deal with out-group problems by providing assistance, including real, multi-national financial and technical resource inputs to ease the transition from one organizational pattern to another.
7. Apply the definitions of terrorism that we use on others to ourselves and to our allies and friends. Somehow we must rid ourselves and the rest of the world of the miasma created by failure to adopt a worldwide single definition of terrorism. We were capable of codifying a democratic set of principles, including a complete set of criminal laws. Therefore, what keeps us from agreeing on a definition of terrorism other than the destructive wish to maintain an advantage over other people?
8. Eliminate the double standard treatment as between states that have nuclear weapons and states that do not. Live by the same rules we try to impose on others respecting ownership and use of or access to nuclear technologies. Today, over 3 billion people live in nuclear weapon states (the US, Russia, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and China). To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, the world cannot prosper with half of its people protected by nuclear weapons and half of its people who perceive themselves vulnerable and threatened by them. The end state appears to be all or nothing. The correct answer most likely is elimination of all weapons.
9. Look squarely at our own sins. They include not only our heavy-handed and unprovoked invasion of Iraq, and our brutal handling of prisoners, but also our unequivocal support of the Israelis in their expulsion of the Palestinian people from their homes and businesses. They include also our alliances with several governments that encourage the suppression of local dissidents. If we do not recognize these tragic flaws in our own posture and correct them, there is no chance that global terrorism can ever be reduced or eliminated.
10. Help restore the authority of the United Nations and our commitments to the UN system. Over a period of several years, we have undermined the integrity and authority of the United Nations by refusing fully to fund its operations and going our own way when the rest of the world disagreed with our goals or approaches. We may be the world's most powerful military state, but we are still less than 5% of its people. The exertion of that power, especially in pursuit of selfish and even illegal goals, works only to increase the number and diversity of our enemies. That places our current awkward situation somewhere between a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-inflicted wound. We can recover from this situation only by a sustained demonstration of responsible world leadership.
Our Choices Are Limited But Real
There is no single or magical cure for terrorism. Promoters of the War on Terrorism are simply wrong in their choice of remedies. If we continue as we are, the world will descend slowly into chaos, because no one actually will be working its problems. The truth about terrorism is that it feeds on our worst survival instincts. In the eventual outcome, the weak will be destroyed by the strong, and the strong will destroy each other. It is vital that we recognize terrorism and the terrorist as symptoms and that we look to the causes. Treating only the symptoms, especially with the harsh remedies we now apply, will only make matters worse.
Our people have two choices at this point: (1) We can go along with the rhetorical war on terrorism that is taking our country into increasing danger, while we learn to live with the constant fear that approach involves. (2) We can demand that our leaders get serious about attacking the deep-seated anger, frustration, and will to violence that is fed by the horrors at the bottom of the human condition, as well as distortions in the organization of states. We cannot win by waiting to be attacked in order to find out who is mad at us. We cannot win by conducting an international campaign, unless that campaign is truly multinational and it is directed principally at mitigating the causes of terrorism. We cannot win if our own campaign is widely seen to be violating human rights or international law. We cannot win without widespread agreement on what is appropriate for dealing with human grievances.
We can win in the long run only by reducing the underlying causes of terrorism or making them go away. That is the truth about terrorism, and our country must have top political leadership that will deal with it.
********** The writer is a former Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State and former Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at



This Site Served by TheHostPros