By Ismail Kukhmazov
When I set out to write on this topic, it became immediately obvious to me how hard it would be to make a logical point without providing at least a bit of the context. So, I begin by spelling out some of the concepts, which I hope will provide the necessary background to enable a rational discussion of the topic.
Recent public attention to the concept of terrorism created a popular perception of heightened vulnerability of the State. The public has confused terrorism with rightful self-determination. Today, it is common to hear politicians and the media outlets describe terrorism as the single most important threat facing our society. It has become a common to suggest that meeting the objectives of the War on Terror (especially in the foreign policy arena) requires the abandonment of conventional political wisdom, because terrorism is seen as an unconventional phenomenon.
The purpose of this essay is to suggest that, far from remaining the front-and-center focal point of the foreign policy of the United States, the battle against so-called terrorism may remain only one part of the United States’ Grand Strategy in the War on Terror. I also argue that the confusion surrounding when it is appropriate to use the term “terrorism,” while offering the United States the opportunity to maintain a necessary ambiguity in its foreign affairs goals, leads to political opportunism that diminishes the image of the United States as a bulwark of liberty in the world.
The collapse of the USSR finally gave the US the unique global standing that it sought for the better part of the last century. For the first time since 1945, a President of the United States found his actions in the world virtually unconstrained. The threat of initially minor “brushfire conflicts” growing into international quagmires receded, and the threat of nuclear annihilation virtually disappeared, as the only nation with a credible second strike capability became busy begging for loans from the International Monetary Fund. It became the policy of the United States to spend more on defense than all other nations combined so as to assure this newfound unipolarity.
By embracing the policy of “full spectrum dominance,” we intended to assure a capacity to decisively engage any contender across a full array of the military (i.e., naval, terrestrial, air, and even space) spectrum. Meanwhile, our foreign focus began to predictably shift. What used to be the “Third World,” contested over by the rival Communist and Capitalist ideologies of the “First” and “Second” worlds, is now the “Arc of Instability,” where the United States faces little opposition in establishing its dominance. This Arc of Instability now covers an area starting in Western Africa and culminating in Central Asia, an oil and gas rich region of the world with predominantly Muslim occupants and largely authoritarian regimes.
In a commencement speech delivered at Ohio State University, President George W. Bush outlined the new trajectory of American military strategy. The United States has been implementing that plan with several major energy projects in the region, notably the Trans-Caspian (“Nabucco”) pipeline. This plan drew attention from the People’s Republic of China, which has its own desires for the region. To secure its influence in the region, the United States began to reorient its military resources from the positions that were appropriate for the “Iron Curtain” days of the Cold War, in order to meet contemporary needs. As the prospect of full-scale ground warfare with the USSR disappeared, the European theater was no longer as significant as it had been. Thus, military bases began to appear in unsavory places like Kyrgyzstan, the site of the bloody “Tulip Revolution.” Meanwhile, the “footprint” of the US military was reduced in Germany (due to environmental concerns) and on Okinawa Island (due to concerns of an Okinawan minority and the scarcity of arable land). Gradually, and without much awareness or interest from the public, the US focused its military and diplomatic policy efforts on a region of the world where we are now fighting two major armed conflicts.
It is this subtly directed trajectory of American foreign policy that has led a number of commentators to observe that the War on Terror is merely one segment of the United States’ overall designs. A very informative piece published by Foreign Affairs argues, based on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Industrial Union Dept. v. American Petrol Inst., that terrorism presents no existential threat to the State. The Foreign Affairs article uses the same risk assessment method endorsed in Industrial Union, and now typical in the regulatory world, as the metric for judging the necessity and success of counterterrorism actions. A so-called “unacceptable risk” level for any given activity is determined, and the activity is then regulated to reduce the incidence of death or injury to below that risk level. Regulation is continually tightened, so long as the cost of any additional reduction in death or injury does not exceed the benefit(s) flowing from the reduction.
The authors of the Foreign Policy article argue that the annual fatality risks for Americans (outside the zones for armed conflict) due to terrorism are less than 1 in 1,000,000, and thus comfortably lie within the range of acceptable risk. Therefore, we do not need additional spending to reduce the risk of terrorism, especially if the marginal cost of reducing terror-related deaths or injuries is high. Though acts of terrorism evoke strong emotions, necessitating an immediate response from the State, so does homicide. The rate of death by homicide consistently falls squarely within the range of unacceptable risk, but little additional spending has been allocated to address this problem, at least in comparison to the estimated $1 trillion spent to “fight terror.” This is evidence that current American foreign policy is dysfunctional. Additional evidence includes the fact that, despite an emphasis on combatting fundamentalist Islamic jihadists, the United States readily liquidated the secular Baathist Party in Iraq. Also troublesome was the dismantling of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, despite the United States’ emphasis on avoiding failed states. The fact is that the Taliban is the only entity in the history of Afghanistan to establish governance over the whole country.
The point here is not that terrorism presents no serious threat to the Americans. It is also not to suggest that terrorism is merely a new feature of today’s world that the society should come to accept. My point is to suggest, as some have, that the War on Terror is a continuation, or single element, of the Grand Strategy of the United States, by which it has acquired access to Russia’s traditional influence on the energy-rich “near abroad” of Central Asia.
In this new frontier, the US has acted largely without impediment, as those who oppose the United States’ influence cannot engage the U.S. in a direct military confrontation. Where the odds of success in a direct confrontation are low, the traditional response has been to implement a strategy of asymmetric warfare. A contemporary example of this response is the People’s Republic of China’s heavy investments in quiet diesel-electric submarines, rather than conventional aircraft carrier groups. China’s subs assure Chinese competitiveness in an area outside the U.S.’ traditional fields of dominance, such as surface battleship and air combat. They serve as a credible threat to U.S. military hegemony, enabling China to break out of the first chain of islands in the event of a conflict with Japan or the US.
High interest in nuclear weapons from authoritarian regimes is driven by the same concerns. Having nuclear weapons assures the regime that the gains from a potential U.S. military victory against it would be outweighed by the losses resultant from a nuclear strike, hence dampening America’s desire to fight. This explains why the Islamic Republic of Iran and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have such a drive to obtain nuclear capabilities, especially now that Libya is in turmoil only 8 years after it rejected plans to develop nuclear weapons.
So-called “international terror” is arguably no more than a type of asymmetric warfare. The aims of “terrorists” typically are not the physical destruction of a military installation or the reduction in the capabilities of the military force to wage a decisive battle, but rather the exertion of influence on the domestic population of the target country in order to alter the external behavior of the target country’s government. In fact, many conventional military tactics that are widely accepted may warrant the label of “terrorism.” Economic blockades are not directed at state actors, but at the general population that tolerates the existence of such state actors and allows them to determine the state’s external policies.
For example, the naval blockade of Germany during World War I is commonly argued to have been the decisive element in the eventual signing of the Treaty of Versailles. It led to the implementation of a punishing rationing system, and quite possibly the deaths of many German citizens. However, international law accepts such measures as “privileged.” In other words, the two belligerents in a given armed conflict make the informed decision to engage one another by formally declaring war, and thus assume the risks of warfare. Naval blockades are merely an accepted manifestation of such privileged international conflict. Terrorism, meaning the intentional infliction of violence (or threat of violence) against the civilian population, calculated to spread fear among the civilian circles to alter the behavior of policymakers, is said not to be privileged.
There are two problems with this view. The chief problem is that no one declares wars anymore. There is no longer public notice, in the sense of a Declaration of War, to the general population of each country. The media and political commentators are often outraged when they find that the U.S. deployed its conventional forces against states with which no formal conflict is taking place, as happened when it was discovered that the U.S. conducted drone strikes in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Republic of Yemen. The incidences of collateral damage that occur with almost any use of force receive attention in the local context, but are typically not reported, entirely ignored, forgotten, or excused as an acceptable cost of counterterrorist actions in U.S. media. More importantly, the public manifests a general refusal to give credence to even the most basic of attempts to rationalize (while not condoning) terrorist actions. “Blowback” theories of terrorism are extremely unpopular.
Given the visceral reaction that the acts of indiscriminate violence evoke, the rejection of such attempts to understand terrorism is understandable, but fundamentally wrong. What the public retains is not a rational understanding of the actions of persecuted masses or some distinct individuals, and a sense of the need for a measured response to the causes underlying acts of terror. Rather, the American public is forced to tacitly accept the government’s prescriptions in the War on Terror. When it comes to public discussion and media reporting, escalating the War on Terror is apparently assumed to be the panacea for America’s foreign policy ills.
The second problem with international law’s view of terrorism is that, while terrorism now receives global attention, it tends to be conducted on a very limited basis. The acts of indiscriminate violence by a State that necessitate the use of the unconventional tactic of “terrorism” usually inspire a limited reaction. Compare the events of the “Arab Spring” to events in Libya and Syria. But, because of the fundamental deference to State sovereignty in the international domain, this problem is usually not addressed in the current debate.
There is no commonly accepted definition of “terrorism.” The definition I used above is my own rendering of the concept that I generated from a list of common features of terrorist attacks cited in the earlier hyperlinked article. International Humanitarian Law speaks of indiscriminate acts of violence that affect the civilian populations during an armed conflict as “war crimes,” but it does not address the prospect of a group of individuals acting on their own volition against a State outside of a conventional theater of warfare. Simply put, international law deals with war crimes committed by “parties” to a conflict. To be a party, some presence of military formations with elements of command and control structure, as well as party-distinguishing uniforms, must be present.
Terrorism, in the form in which it commonly appears today, is really a domestic issue to be dealt with according to the law of any given State that confronts the issue. It is inherently not a foreign policy concern. In fact, the very use of the words “war” and “terror” in combination is ridiculous, because “terrorism” is not a targetable enemy in an armed struggle. It is a multifaceted phenomenon arising from a myriad of social, economic, and political factors.
The many identified “causes” of the phenomenon of suicide bombing are instructive in pointing out the richness of the precipitating factors of terrorism. Consider this study of five children who survived the Sabra and Shatila massacres and grew up in a PLO-administered refugee camp before becoming suicide bombers. To protect them, their parents hid the five children, then infants, in trashcans. Their real identities were unknown at the camp, and they were given the last name “Arafat.” Upon a psychological examination, the author of the study concluded that the refugees suffered from severe emotional disturbance, an inability to socialize, and difficulty in forming personal identities. The study’s main conclusion was that group identity, supplemented by a sense of religious or social belonging, the desire to please their social equals, and/or to vent their collective rage, was a driving factor in the desire to commit atrocities.
The author of a different study drew similar conclusions as to the factors motivating the child soldiers and child terrorists in Sri Lanka who were members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (a.k.a. the “Tamil Tigers”). The common feature between the Palestinian and Sri Lankan children is that some initial sense of “outsiderness” was exploited to convince these individuals to commit atrocities. Significantly, the precipitating factors that create that sense of outsiderness often vary. Traumatizing persecution motivated the Palestinian children; the Sri Lankans were driven by the (less obvious) stress of the 2004 tsunami disaster that left thousands of orphaned children to fend for themselves, and ready to accept a galvanizing presence in their lives.
In these examples, the path toward terrorism could have been blocked by humanitarian and diplomatic efforts. Of course, these studies could be interpreted as showing that terrorism is spawned principally by the irrational acts and decisions of the terrorists themselves, and therefore, that these individuals are simply “mad.” However, this report dispels that notion, concluding that the two studies represent only a few examples of a grander trend, and show that people in these situations are very much sensitive to the political, social, and personal determinants of their environments. Oftentimes, the “cause” of terrorism is an association with a communal group and/or the desire to address an event of collective humiliation.
For example, the report states that in the months after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, “daily suicide attacks in Iraq increased dramatically.” The report also refers to the biographies of more than 700 foreign fighters in Northern Iraq, of which 137 were Libyans. 52 of those 137 Libyans were from a single town: Darnah. The reason why so many Libyan men went to die in Iraq was not a jihadi ideology; it was a potent mix of “desperation, pride, anger, sense of powerlessness, local tradition of resistance and religious fervor.” While it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions based on these limited examples, I cannot avoid the general impression that these men and women act not out of the blind aggression for the West, with all its luxury and freedom, but out of a general perception of disregard for their true national identity and their right to assert their interests. Certainly, the concept of Jahiliyya helps to explain the phenomenon. However, this is only my personal view, and I do not want to force it onto others. What is patently evident from the examples, however, is the true complexity of the problem. It requires in-depth study, rather than the rejection of it as fringe idea.
Yet it is exactly this latter position that the official sources of public enlightenment take with regard to the terrorist problem. Often, the media conflate the legally and morally acceptable notion of national self-determination with pure acts of terrorism. Consider, for example, this report of the recent siege of a US embassy and NATO compound in Afghanistan, filed by CNN reporter Suzanne Malveaux. It constantly treats the terms “insurgent” and “terrorist” as synonyms, despite the fact that the Afghanis engaged uniformed US and Afghani military and state forces, rather than civilians. This report is just one example of the overbroad application of the term “terrorism” to non-state actors. I would argue that this overbroad useage has gained traction in the public mind as a whole, and it now facilitates the general application of that “terrorism” label to whole groups of people and geographic regions.
To that effect, I would cite two sets of examples. The first set is the general categorization of Muslims and Muslim Americans as belonging to a terrorist “creed.” Here is a handful of examples to illustrate the point that it has, once again, become politically acceptable to bash a minority: the constant highlighting of Barack Obama’s middle name “Hussein” by his political opponents, and the allegations that he grew up in Indonesia and attended a madrasa; Peter King’s Senate hearings on the radicalization of Muslims in the U.S., despite his open (and apparently hypocritical) support of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and; the issue of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”
The other example came to my attention only recently. It concerns the willingness of a number of political commentators to rationalize the actions of Anders Behring Breivik, despite the fact that the Norwegian authorities charged him with “terrorism.” Breivik committed atrocities, and murdered many children, due to his political and religious convictions. But to this day, I have yet to see this man referred to as a “fundamental religious terrorist” by any media outlet.
These concerns are of major significance. However, far more importantly for the US as a whole, is the opportunism that such broad use of the “terrorism” label implies in the international context. The U.S., in choosing to justify its actions with this label, assures itself of a self-created right to occupy nations that have traditionally been subject to foreign dominance. This use also enables other States to use the same pretext to justify similar interventions and acts of violence.
In the wake of September 11th attacks, Human Rights Watch urged the United States to exercise caution in how it justified its counterterrorism actions on the international level. Over the next several years, HRW composed a list of opportunist regimes that took their lead from the US and declared their “participation” in the Global War on Terror, while merely using the War on Terror concept as a cover to suppress legitimate movements for self-determination or for political participation by minority groups in their respective countries. Such use of the “terrorism” label by the U.S., designed to advance the goals of its Grand Strategy, coupled with the unwillingness of public and political figures to concern themselves with the details of our foreign policy, has effectively delegitimized the U.S. as a bulwark of liberty in the world.
To further illustrate this point, examine the Chechen secessionist movement in Russia’s North Caucasus. This conflict has its roots in the colonization of the Caucasus Region by Ivan the Terrible. The name of the Chechen capital, Grozny (literally meaning “Terrible”), stands as a testament to Ivan’s arduous invasion. The Chechen resistance has not been subdued since Ivan’s time. It flared up once again during the Second World War, at which time the entirety of the Chechen population was relocated to Central Asian countries rather than being left behind as a “fifth column.” After the war, Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland, as many have, but they were shut out of the political process. To Chechens’ delight, the USSR fell apart in the 1990s. Chechens quickly declared independence, electing an independent president and forming a government before Moscow could even begin to react. That was the start to the first Chechen war, which ended in 1996 with the de facto recognition of its independence after several years of vicious internal warfare. A second war began in 1999, after two explosions in Moscow were blamed, without any evidence, on Chechen separatists. In 2003, in a famous speech on national television, then-President Putin declared that the methods used by the Chechen rebels meant that they must belong to an international global terror network. Putin vowed to wipe them off the face of the earth and “even in the toilet.” (Ex-KGB officers are not very diplomatic.) Despite this, in 2005 U.S. President George W. Bush, in a joint press conference with President Putin, declared that Russia was a “valuable ally” in the Global War on Terror.
A recent, though unconfirmed, estimate puts the number of killed persons in Chechnya in the two conflicts at 160,000 people, out of a total population of 1,200,000 people. The Russian human rights group Memorial puts the estimate at approximately 100,000 people killed. An additional 250,000 were either exiled or remain as refugees in the bordering Russian province of Ingushetia. That means that close to one-third of the population of Chechnya was either killed or displaced. Furthermore, the widespread destruction left by the two wars means that an entire generation of Chechens grew up without any conception of civil government or education. One representative of the Russian Government cited the changed “information policy regarding Chechnya” of the western media outlets as the chief reason for the “improvement” (in the Russian view) in the situation in Chechnya. Yet, prior to the inclusion of Russia in Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” Western media commonly reported on the extra-judicial killings and the aerial bombardment of densely populated civilian areas of Grozny by the Russian forces.
This documentary, shot by a Russian serviceman, depicts Russian conscripts and mercenaries entering Chechnya ill-equipped. It contains interviews with Russian soldiers, who tell how they obtained their daily rations by pillaging from the local population. The timeline for the entire conflict has been well-captured by two documentary films, one shot by the Dispatches, another by the News World, which show Chechnya’s slow descent into chaos and religious fundamentalism in the face of an economic crisis and the 100,000-strong Russian regular force present in Chechnya during the latter stages of the war.
Today, the conflict is largely subdued and no longer has the backing of Western idealists. Whatever backing it once had, it lost, due to the Western perception that this inherently nationalist conflict was merely another part of the global War on Terror. The BBC recently published an article about Ramzan Kadyrov, current President of Chechnya, and his hiring of Ruud Gullit, a famous Dutch soccer player, as the coach of a Chechen soccer team. The BBC painted a rosy picture of progress in the war-torn republic. Yet, Ramzan, the President of the Republic of Ichkeria (Chechnya) is locked in a personal quest to avenge the death of his father, the late President of the Republic of Ichkeria, Ahmad Kadyrov, flanked by Chechen militia as he does so.
As I have already stated, international human rights law recognizes groups of people with an organizational command and control structure and wearing the same uniforms as “parties in an armed conflict.” In the examples I have discussed, the treatment and the segregation of conflicts along those lines is patently flawed. I urge you to consider the links in the last three paragraphs, which illustrate my point much better than words can. Draw your own conclusions.