How appeal to national ideals sold Operation Iraqi Freedom

Drawing on sources from political science, history, media and the psychology of nationalism, this paper explains how the Bush administration used what Americans perceive as the virtues of their nation and its foreign policy–freedom, democracy, peace, humanitarianism and God–to win support for its invasion of Iraq.

The causes of 9/11

In this post, I will outline the evidence that 9/11 was an “outside job”. If that upsets you, consider the following. I do not rule out the possibility that it was also an inside job. There is evidence that it was, and it is wrong to close one’s mind to evidence. I do not know if the terrorists were found or trained or paid off by some CIA operative. Because of government secrecy, it is extremely difficult to know the complete truth. Neither am I an engineer, least of all a demolitions expert, so it is hard for me to know which engineers are right and which are wrong. This post presents the evidence that a small group of radicals swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, believed the US and Israel were at war with Islam, and took it upon themselves to destroy a symbol of American power, hoping to lure the superpower into a cosmic war in which Islam would prevail.

Ron Crelinsten, a terrorism expert at the University of Victoria, says that terrorism is about communication. Every terrorist attack sends a message. It is important to listen to them, or else how are we supposed to stop terrorism? Terrorists are not irrational. They are not crazy. Those accusations are a smokescreen designed to make you listen to the government and Thomas Friedman for explanations rather than the terrorists themselves. But the terrorists can tell you why they are angry, and if we had listened to them, we might not have witnessed their anger in September of 2001. Let us look at a timeline of events that could have given clues to those paying attention that something was going to happen.

May 31, 1996: Four Saudi men were executed for the bombing of a US military mission in Riyadh the year before. The attacks were aimed at American “infidels”, 6 of whom died. Three of the four men executed had fought in Afghanistan, and one had fought in Bosnia. This is where you could trace their radicalisation to. They all claimed to have links to Osama bin Laden. They felt that Islam was under attack worldwide, and that they were part of what they believed was a global jihad. They had discussed the Saudi state and were disgusted that it embraced secular law, rather than Quranic law, and how the ulema, Islamic scholars supposed to be independent of lawmakers, “were conspiring with the state to undermine Islam….Saudi Arabia [was] an infidel state.” Many Saudi dissidents believe the ulema should have a strong consultative role in politics, as this would mean policies along Islamic lines.

June 25, 1996, less than a month later: In Khobar, Saudi Arabia, an explosion killed 19 Americans and wounded hundreds more in a complex that housed foreign military personnel called the Khobar Towers.

It is around this time that Osama bin Laden begins appearing in the headlines. Naturally, after the 9/11 attacks, millions of Americans asked “why us?” Bin Laden had already outlined very clearly why, and if Americans had realised that, they might have been less likely to use words like “evil” and “senseless” after the attacks.

Journalist Robert Fisk met with bin Laden three times, in 1993, 1996 and 1997.

When I met him again in Afghanistan in 1996, he was 39, raging against the corruption of the Saudi royal family, contemptuous of the West. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bin Laden told the House of Saud that his Arab legion could destroy the Iraqis; no need to bring the Americans to the land of Islam’s two holiest places. The King turned him down. So the Americans were now also the target of Osama’s anger.

The House of Saud invited thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia as protection from Saddam Hussein. We can identify the first two causes of 9/11 here: the corruption of the House of Saud and the American military presence in the land of the Islam’s two holiest places.

In 1996, bin Laden said

When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy places [Mecca and Medina], there was a strong protest from the ulema [the religious scholars] and from students of the sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops… After it insulted and jailed the ulema 18 months ago, the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy….

The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems. The ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now…our country has become an American colony… What happened in Riyadh and Khobar is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America.

What bin Laden was saying was basically truthful. Most Saudis objected to the presence of non-Muslim troops in the land of Islam’s holiest places, even though they had been asked by the House of Saud to come to protect them from Saddam Hussein, and they weren’t actually in the holy places themselves. But by 1996, the threat from Saddam was gone. He was under sanctions, no fly zones and bombing raids. But American troops were still there, just like they are still in Germany, Spain and Japan, long after the threat from a powerful army is gone.

In 1990, there were 31,636 US troops in Saudi Arabia.

1991: 14,943 troops

1992: 4,159

1993 and 4: fewer than 2,000

1995: 2,526

1996: 7,780

2001: 12,075

By 2001, it was clear that the US had not got the message the terrorist attacks over the 1990s had attempted to convey.

In 1997, bin Laden told Robert Fisk he would turn America into a shadow of itself.

We declared jihad against the US government, because the US government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. It has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation of the Prophet’s Night Travel Land [Palestine]. And we believe the US is directly responsible for those who were killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.  The mention of the US reminds us before everything else of those innocent children who were dismembered, their heads and arms cut off in the recent explosion that took place in Qana [Lebanon]…. The US government hit Muslim civilians and executed more than 600,000 Muslim children in Iraq by preventing food and medicine from reaching them….”

At a different time, bin Laden called the war and sanctions on Iraq “the oppressing and embargoing to death of millions…the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known”.

Now we are adding reasons for 9/11: support for Israel and its war in Lebanon, the sanctions on Iraq that crippled the economy and the people. I do not know if 600,000 children and millions of other people truly died as a result of these policies, but it is not truth that makes decisions but perceptions. Most Americans had no idea about any of this, and were every time misled by their representatives. For nearly twenty years after the first Gulf War, Bin Laden issued specific demands, such as “get US troops out of Arabia” and American politicians responded with “stop trying to force our women into burkas”. As a result, we have millions of people believing that “the terrorists” cannot be reasoned with and must be killed. Their solution is to escalate the wars that are, in fact, the causes of the anger and hatred that might lead to another major terrorist attack. They are wars that do not make anyone safer or freer. They kill and terrorise innocent people, including Americans, for the purpose of strengthening the US government overseas and domestically.

August 7, 1998: Hundreds were killed in truck bombs at US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Bin Laden was then placed on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. Some other things happened in 1998.

Bin Laden issued a fatwa, a religious opinion on Islamic law by an Islamic scholar. (Incidentally, bin Laden is not an Islamic scholar and is thus not qualified to issue fatwas.) He called the US military presence in the Arabian Peninsula crusader armies spreading like locusts through the Muslim world and gobbling up its resources. “First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.” Second, he claimed that the “crusader-Zionist alliance” had killed more than a million Iraqis through war and embargo. (Bin Laden often refers to “crusaders” when talking about the US, in order to show that he sees little difference between the Crusades and current US foreign policy regarding the Muslim world. Right after the 9/11 attacks, George Bush called the War on Terror that was about to begin a crusade. Probably wasn’t the ideal choice of words for winning Muslim hearts and minds.) Third, “the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”

Why did he mention Jerusalem? What is so special about Jerusalem? Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam, because it is where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. And many Muslims in the world consider Jerusalem and all of Palestine under occupation by foreigners, supported by the US.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Here is what bin Laden said about it in 2004.

The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that…Many were killed and injured and others were terrorised and displaced. I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy. The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams. Does the crocodile understand a conversation that doesn’t include a weapon? And the whole world saw and heard but it didn’t respond.

He is not just making stuff up. The US has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of many innocent Muslims at the hands of Israel.

April 18, 1996: During its occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel shelled the village of Qana, killing 106 civilians and injuring around 116 others who had taken refuge there to escape the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. I’ll spare you the pictures. Look them up if you are not faint of heart.

Lawrence Wright, in his 2006 book The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, says that Mohamed Atta, one of the masterminds of the attacks, signed his will during the operation against Qana, because he was enraged and wanted to offer his life in response. So Israel was a major factor in perceptions of injustice against Muslims and desecration of Palestine and Jerusalem.

Bin Laden’s anger had foundation, and Muslims around the world knew it. Most Muslims do not support terrorism, but at least as many have the same complaints as the jihadis. For instance, though most Saudis do not like al-Qaeda, 95% of those asked wanted American troops to leave Saudi Arabia. Terrorists are supported by communities. If the communities are sympathetic to the terrorists’ causes, they will fund, shelter and supply them with recruits. People support al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and whoever else not because they are under some misapprehension but because they have seen injustices before their own eyes and they know who did it.

Also in 1998, a memo from Mohamed Atef, al-Qaeda’s military chief, said that al-Qaeda was aware of negotiations between the US and the Taliban on a UNOCAL oil and gas pipeline through Afghanistan, and that a terrorist attack would be the way to draw the US in to Afghanistan, otherwise known as the graveyard of empires. Both Clinton and Bush administrations negotiated with the Taliban. After the embassy bombings, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions and continued talking to the Taliban, mostly pressuring them to hand over bin Laden.

In another response to the embassy bombings, Bill Clinton signed off on Operation Infinite Reach, a series of US cruise missile strikes on terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. Operation Infinite Reach took place in August 1998. Does anyone remember anything else that was going on at this time? The Monica Lewinsky scandal. It has been speculated that Operation Infinite Reach was a way of deflecting attention from Clinton’s sex life and raising public opinion of him by killing terrorists. Anyway, one of the attacks destroyed al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The US claimed the factory was making VX nerve agent and its owners had ties to al-Qaeda. The US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research said the evidence was highly dubious. Noam Chomsky and other critics say that tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians died because they would not have the drugs they needed.

In 2000, a suicide attack on the US Navy destroyer the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. 17 US sailors were killed and more were injured. Al-Qaeda proudly claimed responsibility. Bill Clinton declared, “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable”. (That said, being an attack on a military target, the USS Cole bombing does not actually meet the official US definition of terrorism.) The 9/11 Commission Report says that bin Laden supervised the bombing, chose the location, and provided the money, and that an unidentified source said bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger. (By the way, bin Laden has been indicted for the USS Cole bombing but not for the 9/11 attacks.) The Report goes on to say that he

instructed the media committee… to produce a propaganda video that included a reenactment of the attack along with images of the al Qaeda training camps and training methods; it also highlighted Muslim suffering in Palestine, Kashmir, Indonesia, and Chechnya…Portions were aired on Al Jazeera, CNN, and other television outlets. It was also disseminated among many young men in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad.

Things were heating up, and not just for al-Qaeda.

The Report also says that during spring and summer 2001, US intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings that al-Qaeda was planning something huge, CIA Director George Tenet saying that “the system was blinking red.” Between January and September 2001, the FBI issued 216 internal warnings about the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack.

The form it did take was a kind of suicide bombing. Suicide bombing is a pretty new phenomenon in terrorism, going back about 30 years. Why suicide bombing? Under what conditions does suicide bombing occur? Since the most visible and horrific acts of terrorism are suicide bombings committed by Muslims, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause. But it is not. Robert Pape has compiled a database of every suicide attack around the globe since 1980.

The data [for all attacks between 1980 and 2003] show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more suicide attacks than Hamas.

Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.

Nearly all suicide attacks are parts of organised campaigns; democratic states are most vulnerable to suicide terrorists; they have a strategic objective: trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democracy to withdraw from  the territories they claim (nationalist, not religious, goals); their goals, if not necessarily their tactics (taboos on suicide exist in every culture, especially Islamic ones), are supported by the distinct national community they represent (enough people must think them worth defending that they will allow them to recruit, help them hide and consider them martyrs) (for instance, as I said, almost all Saudis want US troops out of the country); loyalty among comrades and devotion to leaders; suicide terrorism is more lethal than non-suicide attacks, which are used for a wider variety of goals; and finally, they work, at least sometimes.

To sum up the causes:

-The perceived occupation of Saudi Arabia

-The “infidel” House of Saud

-US support for Israel

-The 1991 invasion of Iraq and the sanctions that hurt Iraqi civilians

-And the conclusion from all of this that Islam itself was under attack.

Ten years ago today, these factors combined to cause the most spectacular terrorist attack in history.

The power of the state of exception

It saddens me to hear Americans speak of their country as a paragon of freedom governed by the rule of law. It is possible that it once was. However, it is clear that the United States is no longer a free country. It is only free to those who put their heads down and keep quiet.

In 1922, Carl Schmitt wrote Political Theology, where he outlined his ideas on the state of exception. Schmitt advocated that the sovereign, defined as he who decides the exception, should be vested with extraordinary powers to deal decisively with an extreme emergency. If the state, and democracy, are in jeopardy, Schmitt believed, the sovereign should take control until the situation is defused. Schmitt erroneously believed, however, that the sovereign would restore democracy when conditions were reasonable to do so. It is perhaps for this reason that Schmitt enthusiastically supported Hitler during his rise through the chaos of the Weimar Republic and the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, including the political murders of the Night of the Long Knives. In a democracy, the sovereign is supposed to be the people. The people have the power to bring down governments, start wars and approve of virtually anything in their name. In the US, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led Americans to turn their power over to their government to keep them safe.

Elites frequently try to create a state of exception in order to use emergency powers. Sometimes, of course, they do not need to. The sight of two airplanes hitting the World Trade Center was so shocking that most Americans threw their hands up and cried out for a strong government to take over. As we now know, planning for a war in Iraq had begun before 9/11, so the US government could proceed to put its plan into action.

Since 9/11, the US government has blatantly flouted its own rules. Take the abrogation of the Bill of Rights with the USA Patriot Act. The government assumed greater power to spy on and detain its own people. The Patriot Act has not yet been repealed. Though such laws should only be enacted during a state of exception, the US government has done its best to prolong the state of exception through war and the creation of enemies, and keep everyone scared. Few Americans even question the Patriot Act anymore, perhaps because doing so might land them in jail.

In the course of the war in Afghanistan, the US locked up hundreds of “unlawful combatants”, a term deliberately chosen by the Bush administration because it fell into a legal grey area. The phrase does not appear in the Third Geneva Convention, which means that, unlike, say, prisoners of war, those designated unlawful combatants have no legal recourse. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires that anyone captured in war be protected and eventually charged. These are laws that the US helped craft for its own benefit. After all, if other states follow these laws, Americans are treated better by their enemies. But in a state of exception, laws go out the window. According to journalist Andy Worthington, there are still 174 inmates at Gitmo, 90 “approved for transfer”, 33 recommended for trial, and 48 still there indefinitely.

The intervention in Afghanistan was legally permissible. The UN Security Council acknowledged the US’s right to self defense with Resolution 1368. However, international law also bars indiscriminate use of bombs that do not attempt to hit specified enemy targets. It is all right to bomb what one strongly suspects is a military or terrorist stronghold, but many of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan targeted heavily populated civilian areas. Over three thousand Afghan civilians were killed in the first six months of that war. Most American citizens did not question the bombs and the dead people, because they saw that whole part of the world, wherever it was, as deserving of retribution.

Next came Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iraqi Freedom was not approved by the Security Council and was a wholly illegal war. It was an act of aggression, which is ius cogens, universally accepted as law and permitting no derogation. In case you have forgotten Abu Ghraib and CIA waterboarding (see more here), torture is also ius cogens. Extraordinary rendition, in which the UK’s and Canada’s governments also participated, and which seems like the kind of legal term or political euphemism that makes the average person turn the page, is abducting and transferring someone without trial to somewhere they might be tortured. The practice may still be going on. Government secrecy has made it almost impossible for us to know the truth.

We are aware, nonetheless, that the wars and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Pakistan has become the new frontier in the fight against terrorism, with drone attacks increasing under Barack Obama and killing 54 this past week. The war in Pakistan is an undeclared war, making it also illegal. After seven years of violence, the president announced in March 2009 the administration’s goal in the AfPak war: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” It is likely that special interests want a US presence to safeguard the building of oil pipelines through Afghanistan and the mining of the trillion-dollar mineral deposits under Afghan soil. So confident is he that the ongoing state of exception will vindicate him, Barack is free to continue drone strikes (which occupy something of a legal grey area; they may be legal if they can actually be shown to be used in self defense) and still not formally declare any kind of war in Pakistan (which is not grey at all) because the only ones who can truly stop him only receive a few soundbytes about it a week on TV.

Another practice that has not abated is illegal detention of Americans. Just this week, 131 peaceful antiwar protesters were arrested outside the White House, guilty of nothing more than voicing disagreement with their government. No less depressing is the state of Bradley Manning, stuck in solitary confinement for leaking documents that compromised the US’s and other governments’ ability to hide their crimes. Manning has not been charged; he has no access to the outside world; he is not let out of his cell for more than an hour a day and cannot exercise in it; nor does he have even a pillow or sheets. Psychological studies find prolonged solitary confinement highly destructive to the brain, with effects including “overwhelming anxiety, confusion and hallucination, and sudden violent and self-destructive outbursts”. The effects of such solitary confinement are not far from those of torture. According to lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald, the government is extremely concerned about leaks, and torturing those who do what concerns you is a brilliant way to prevent it. Bradley Manning, like Julian Assange, is being made an example of. Criminalising the publishing of classified information is akin to banning investigative journalism. But the US officials that ordered and approved of locking up Bradley Manning, along with the cutting up of the Bill of Rights, the illegal war, the bombing of civilians, the torture and the indefinite detentions, will never see a courtroom.

In a world where chaos is inevitable, we cannot let fear permit our worst behaviour and legitimise anything the government does. There are going to be more disasters, more terrorist attacks and more wars. We must not lose our heads and let them take our freedoms when no one has the right to take your freedom. How can we trust the government on anything? If the government does not follow its own laws, why should the rest of us? We should attempt to free ourselves from the arbitrary force of governments, and deny them the chance to take our freedom.

Hatred, enemies, revenge: how to destroy yourself

I was spending my time in the doldrums
I was caught in the cauldron of hate
I felt persecuted and paralyzed
I thought that everything else would just wait
While you are wasting your time on your enemies
Engulfed in a fever of spite
Beyond your tunnel vision reality fades
Like shadows into the night.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Do you hate? Do you have enemies? Will eliminating your enemies make you safe? Do you take revenge? Do any of those things make your life better? Do they bring you happiness?

Hate as a psychological phenomenon comes in seven forms: cool hate (disgust), hot hate (anger/fear), cold hate (devaluation), boiling hate (revulsion), simmering hate (loathing), seething hate (revilement), and burning hate (extreme combination of all components of hate, driving a need for annihilation). These feelings are painful. They cause despair, illness, violence, war. But none of them are necessary or inevitable. Many people have moved beyond hatred to feelings of forgiveness and compassion for all humankind, or all living things. Those people, in fact, understand hatred from a different angle than those who continue to hate. They understand that we should not judge others for being different, but accept them as misguided, or simply unfortunate, extensions of the human family.

Why hate people? People are basically products of their genes and their environments, neither of which they had any but the remotest control over. How can I judge another person knowing that? On September 15, 2001, a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot as payback for the terrorist attacks of four days earlier. Although Sodhi, a Sikh, was related to the hijackers neither ethnically nor religiously, a United States gripped with fear forgave and forgot about his murder. 1700 incidents of abuse of Muslims took place in the five months following 9/11. Muslims had become the outsider, the twisted, the enemy.

An evil Jewish landlord evicting a poor old German man


Jews being kicked out of school in Nazi Germany

The enemy is not human like us. In his excellent book the Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Dr Philip Zimbardo describes the process of dehumanisation. When others are less than human, torment, torture and murder can seem entirely legitimate and even pleasurable. The book’s website contains pictures of Nazi comic books that led young Germans to consider the Jews deserving of a final solution, many examples of government propaganda depicting the enemy as an enemy of god, a barbarian, criminal, rapist, and subhuman creature, and postcards of lynchings of blacks in the old American South that people would send each other. It is well worth a visit.

One of the main points of the Lucifer Effect is that anyone, regardless of mental ability, can become evil. The right justification and the right rhetoric, perhaps mixed with a stressful situation, can lead anyone to viewing others as subhuman. The movie American History X describes the process by which an intelligent, well-adjusted young man became leader of a gang of neo-Nazis. He had all the apparently well-reasoned arguments in the world. White people came to America and prospered, he averred, while all the other races fell behind. His mistake was assuming the reasons why that happened were racial or cultural, rather than anything else. A little ignorance of history turned everyone but white, protestant-descended Americans into his enemies.

But why have enemies? How could a Christian, for instance, want to kill his enemy, when the Bible says to love them? How could the lower classes have foreign enemies when their true enemies are the elites in their own society that repress them? After all, we did not choose our collective enemies; political opportunists did. Who are the scapegoats on any given day? Terrorists? Muslims? Iraqis? Iranians? Chinese? Are communists still our enemies? I forget. In George Orwell’s 1984, the enemy, the object of all the hate, would change when the Party decided it would change, and the stupid people accepted it without question. Orwell had a strong understanding of how manipulable humans are. To this day, the enemy of the people is whomever the elites who control the people say it is.

Too often we cling to enemies as we might to a security blanket. A Buddhist website says, “If you try for a moment to befriend an enemy, he will become your friend. The opposite occurs if you treat a friend like an enemy. Therefore, the wise, understanding the impermanent nature of temporal relationships, are never attached to food, clothing or reputation.” The time for being enemies or friends needs to last no longer than we want it to. Life is fleeting, too short to waste being angry. Buddha said, “In another life, the father becomes the son; the mother, the wife; the enemy, a friend. It always changes. In cyclic existence, nothing is certain.”

We should not struggle against enemies, but against ourselves. That is why the Prophet Mohamed called the struggle against one’s own shortcomings, movement toward the full embrace of moral living, greater jihad (holy war is lesser jihad). Often, our hatreds are a reflection of what we see in ourselves, and what we dislike about but are not willing to admit to ourselves. Think about the wars of the world: most of the worst are between groups that have the most in common. Since they are different groups, however, only one may remain.

Along with hatred and enemies, revenge is a misguided action. It springs from loss of control of oneself. Revenge tends to lead to a cycle of violence (unless it leads to genocide) that descends through collective imagination and memory to infect young nationalists and prompt them to pick up guns. It turns cool heads hot, whipping people into a frenzy that leads to irrational and self-destructive action. Chandrakirti said, “It is foolish and ignorant to retaliate to an enemy’s attack with spite in hopes of ending it, as the retaliation itself only brings more suffering.” Here is a familiar example.

Why did 9/11 happen? Do people know yet? Have they read the 9/11 Commission Report? Here is a brief summary of what made people so cross with the US. Bin Laden and his associates declared all Americans deserving of death due to the sins of their government. What could make someone so blind with anger he cannot see distinctions among 300m people? First was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and support for despotic governments in the Muslim world; second, the suffering of Iraqis under US-imposed sanctions during the 1990s; third, US support for Israel and its brutality. All those results were the brainwaves of American foreign-policymakers. The Bin Laden Gang’s mindless advocating of violence was never very popular among Muslims but many of them could nonetheless agree that the US’s foreign policy had had disastrous effects on their societies.

In the Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes our desire for revenge as akin to mindless anger: not directed, but just a desire to do harm. Now the US has entered into wars with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether or not Afghanistan was a reasonable target has become irrelevant. The American people were still so filled with revenge that, at any given time, between 56 and 78% of Americans polled felt it was right to invade a country they knew nothing about to kill people of the same religious category as the ones who killed a small number of their compatriots. Of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, who was taking revenge? Both sides. Who won? Neither. Revenge has neither eliminated the threat nor provided any kind of catharsis to anyone.

I learned all I needed to know about revenge from the old cartoon He-Man. When some powerful sorcerers were making others fight each other against their will, He-Man came along and subdued them. The victims immediately called for blood: make the sorcerers fight now, to teach them a lesson. But He-Man, in his wisdom, told the erstwhile gladiators, if we force them to fight, we are no better than they. Let us instead forgive them and grant them the opportunity to redeem themselves. They felt good for having performed an act of forgiveness and kindness, and the others had the chance to rediscover the good side of themselves. Everyone’s suffering was over.

When we are under stress, we turn inward to the groups we say we belong to and turn against the unknown. Political opportunists and hate mongers do not want us to learn about other people, because we will learn about our similarities, become interested in their differences, and realise that we have been lied to by the propagandists we hear on the news.

Hate begets hate. Love begets love. Free your mind of desires to cause pain in others and soothe your own pain in the process.

So I open my door to my enemies
And I ask could we wipe the slate clean
But they tell me to please go fuck myself
You know you just can’t win.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the book Counterterrorism. In his book, Dr Ron Crelinsten describes one challenge would-be terrorists face. A reasonable question to ask is, why have there been no successful terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11? Well, he explains, terrorists need money, food, shelter, training, weapons, explosives, safe houses, communications and travel documents to carry out their missions. The reason there have been no attacks on, say, malls all over the US is that the terrorist needs to be a resident in the community, to know the ins and outs of the mall, and plan everything accordingly. They cannot simply plan the attack from New York, fly to a mall in Kansas City, and blow it up. Furthermore, despite some well-publicised discrimination, American Muslims are generally well integrated into their communities. They do not suffer the de facto segregation of many of their counterparts in Europe that could be the foundation of the desire to do harm.

Another answer to this question comes from Loretta Napoleoni. Since 9/11, we are seeing a concentration of terrorism in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, when there were no terrorists before. The supposedly globalist terrorist organisation of today, however, is like a virtual organisation. They often recruit through the internet, and they do not engage in selection or training, like the Western European leftist terrorist groups of the Cold War did. They can be recruited partly because they are not very smart, and thus “the reason why they are not doing so much [in the US] is that they’re not very good at it.” Anyone who thinks he might bring down the US or the UK by blowing himself up in a subway is stupid. The leaders are clever, but the fanatics on the bottom are not.

Bruce Schneier has a third perspective: three reasons that probably run counter to the conventional wisdom. First, it’s not easy. “Putting together the people, the plot and the materials is hard. It’s hard to sneak terrorists into the U.S. It’s hard to grow your own inside the U.S. It’s hard to operate; the general population, even the Muslim population, is against you.”

Second, there are simply not that many terrorists in the US. Contrary to post-September 11th FBI scaremongering, there are no terrorist cells in the US. Al Qaeda is not Cobra or the Decepticons or the Joker and his gang. It is more like an affiliation whose members know each other only by a secret handshake or hidden tattoo. After all, most of the terrorist acts, successful and foiled, in the US since 9/11 have been by lone wolves and nutcases.

Third, because terrorism is communication, small attacks may not serve terrorists’ needs. Terrorists want to scare millions by killing a few. An imperfect attack might not scare enough people, which in turn may be counterproductive because their ineptitude is laid bare before their audience.

Finally, as an aside, Mr Schneier reminds us that most of the terrorist bombings we hear about are in places where terrorists believe they are fighting occupation: Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Russia, China, Iraq and Israel. But no one is occupying the US.

The al-Qaeda label

What labels do you use to introduce yourself? Do any of them accurately describe you? Do any of them account for the nuances in your thinking or identity that make you unique?

Do you consider yourself a liberal? A conservative? Do others label you as such? If your answer to any of these last three questions is yes, you are playing a game that cannot be won. Such labels are useful to simplify our thinking and polarise disputes, erasing nuances and the colours in between. The more people call themselves liberals and conservatives, the more people we have on our team. There is no room for diversity of thought or deviation from orthodoxy: you are either with us or against us.

The same liberal-conservative false dichotomy is reflected in the terrorist-freedom fighter example (or perhaps today terrorist-martyr more accurately describes this inaccuracy). People cling to their labels as symbols of their identity, which is why simplistic labels are pernicious. Of many significant examples, this post will look at “Al-Qaeda” as one such label.

Al-Qaeda is not really one organisation like the Tamil Tigers or the PKK. It is a very loose network of people who violently oppose American occupation of traditional Muslim land. Al-Qaeda members in different regions have little or no contact. However, to read US government communications, it is a well-organised group inches away from taking over the world. (The US is not alone.) The label “al-Qaeda” is extremely useful for the US government to legitimise its actions. Whenever someone declares himself a member anywhere in the world, the US government feels justified in violating sovereignty, detaining anyone who might be “al-Qaeda” and engaging in so-called targeted killings (assassination). There is no legal basis for such action simply because someone says he is al-Qaeda: he needs to participate in hostilities to be targetable. But to the American people, al-Qaeda is evil and must be stopped at any cost.

The US government is currently targeting Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. It says such a policy is justified because he is leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is associated with al-Qaeda, an organisation with which the US is at war. Awlaki is located in Yemen, and while he presumably poses some degree of threat to US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely he can conduct any major terrorist attack on American soil. Dangerous, probably; worth invading Yemen and keeping Guantanamo open for, international law would say no.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as important. People have rushed to form organisations named al-Qaeda in order to bait the US into a war, for the purpose of draining its military power, depleting its treasury and frustrating its people. The naming of al-Qaeda in Iraq (or Mesopotamia) illustrates this point. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed his organisation in 2003 to oppose American occupation, but it was not for another year that he renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi knew that by declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renaming his organisation al-Qaeda, he would be perceived as defender of Sunni Islam from the crusaders and get all the press he could want.

But the question was not, was he al-Qaeda, but rather, was al-Qaeda in Iraq deadlier than any of the other insurgent groups there? The Bush administration immediately assumed so in its external communication. George mentioned al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech in 2007, even though about 30 groups had claimed responsibility for attacks on American targets in Iraq and many experts at the time did not believe al-Qaeda in Iraq was a real threat. But it did not matter to Americans: al-Qaeda did 9/11; al-Qaeda might take over Iraq; give us more support for the mission and the recent surge. Al-Qaeda is there, and we must remain until it is defeated.

Wise people eschew collectivist labels that are designed to divide. Belligerents revel in them.

Counterterrorism: the fundamentals

This post is a review of the book Counterterrorism by Ron Crelinsten. Any quotes should be attributed to him unless otherwise stated.

Terrorism is communication. The selection of victims, the actions and their spectacular nature all have communicative functions. It uses violence against one group (the victims) to coerce another group (the audience). Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, either non-state actors who cannot put a guerrilla movement together, or a state that cannot spread the rule of law where it likes. It is singularly economical: “kill one, frighten 10,000”. To truly understand terrorist acts, we must view them in the context in which they occurred and listen to what message they send.

The 1990s brought terrorism into the world’s living room in a process that culminated on 9/11. Since 9/11, two basic schools have thought have emerged among the public, known pejoratively by the supposedly different eras they reflect. “September 10th thinking” holds that terrorism should be about domestic law enforcement. The right laws and the right policing can prevent and punish terrorism just as they do with other crimes. “September 12th thinking” defines counterterrorism purely in military terms, believing we are at war with an implacable foe that cannot be reasoned with or deterred, wants to kill us all and might take generations to defeat. If we have to suspend human rights to achieve victory, such thinkers maintain, it is worth it.

Both of these lines of argument are based on straw men, or painting one’s opponent’s argument as simplistic and then defeating it. More importantly, like the “liberal”-“conservative” divide, they limit how we perceive the problems in question and narrow our options in addressing them. Discourse following 9/11 was often polarised into such ideological camps without recognising the complexity of terrorism.

More robust and useful extensions of these patterns of thought are the criminal justice and war models of coercive counterterrorism, Prof. Crelinsten’s second chapter. In the criminal justice model, terrorism is a crime. It is punished without special anti-terror legislation that suspends suspects’ rights. This model has similar benefits to regular law enforcement: deterrence, incapacitation, stigmatising the criminal, and so on. On the other hand, if there is no law (nulla crimen, nulla poena sine lege), insufficient evidence, a compromised trial or unwillingness to extradite (for instance, EU members are not allowed to extradite criminals to countries where they might be tortured), the suspect goes free. It also does not address the root causes of the crime.

When the criminal justice system is badly used, in an unfair or unjust manner, or when criminal justice procedures become politicized, such as in political prosecutions or show trials, or are compromised, such as when amnesties and early release are given to people convicted of murder, then it can inflame grievances, trigger counter-grievances, or create the impression that violence is the only way to achieve anything. In such cases, a criminal justice approach to counterterrorism can prove counterproductive. In short, other approaches are necessary to address the grievances that charismatic leaders and ideologues use to mobilize recruits, supporters and sympathizers.

Proactive counterterrorism means preventing terrorists from acting. The norm in the criminal justice paradigm is reactive policing, solving crimes and arresting people after they are suspected of one. The proactive approach deals with detection, intelligence gathering and blocking terrorist financing. In this chapter, as in later ones, Dr Crelinsten warns of the dangers of intrusive measures that violate norms of privacy, racial profiling, incarceration without charge and torture.

Moreover, the either-or mentality–either you preemptively tap phones, incarcerate suspects without trial and invade rogue states or you get attacked–limits discourse and the imagination of alternatives. To September 10th thinkers, who hold the law paramount and who fear too much government, Dr Crelinsten says enhanced powers should be tried if they are considered essential. Nonetheless, they need to be accompanied by oversight of counterterrorist agencies and sunset clauses for laws that are only for emergencies. To September 12th thinkers, who advocate preemption at the cost of liberty, he urges the sensible use of intelligence that must be reliable and made available to oversight committees, not cherry-picked and politicised as it was in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Persuasive counterterrorism, like terrorism itself, is communicative. Its function is to dissuade potential or actual terrorists from carrying out their missions. Propaganda, appealing to hearts and minds, incentives to abandon violence and disincentives to engage in it are in this category. One form of preventive communication was nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, or MAD. The message was, our retaliation will be so massive that both of us will be destroyed.

Persuasive counterterrorism can take four basic forms. The first is offensive external psychological operations (psyops). The terrorist organisation and its supporters are targeted (external), as counterterrorists assure the terrorists that their actions are pointless. Public demonstrations, media coverage that ignores the terrorist message and widely-viewed successful conviction and punishment of terrorists are examples. In 1998, the Real IRA killed 29 people in a bomb attack. The result was that leaders worked even harder to achieve peace at the negotiating table. It could also mean penetrating terrorist organisations and spreading disinformation.

The second form of persuasive counterterrorism is defensive external psyops, or preventing undesired perceptions among terrorists’ constituencies. Promising terrorist recruits that they can return to their group, or rehabilitation and reintegration, can prevent them from acquiring a fixation on violence or martyrdom and help them throw it off. The US State Department openly engages in dialogue on Arabic online forums, frequently to receptive audiences. Too often, people who are “radicalised” are exposed to very few perspectives on what they are angry about. Cross-cultural exchanges can thus soften attitudes on all sides.

Offensive internal psyops aims at preventing excessive fear or other behaviours among the counterterrorists’ public. The US government and media are guilty of fomenting fear through their words and confusion through the disconnect between the values they claim to espouse and their actions. What they could be doing is downplaying the real impact of terrorism (after all, even in the 9/11 attacks, only 0.001% of Americans were killed) and simultaneously condemning terrorism. I believe successfully breaking up terrorist plots and punishing conspirators through effective legal means would also constitute offensive internal psyops, as people would see that the justice system is effective, and that circumvention of rights and wild eyed wars on terror are not necessary.

Finally, you guessed it, defensive internal psyops are defensive measures that prevent undesired behaviours among the public. A terrorist attack is a symbol of the terrorists’ ability to strike anywhere, at any time, in spite of the security forces. Dr Crelinsten says governments need to establish trusting relationships with the public through sharing information that is not politicised. Officials must speak realistically about what they know. The media should provide coverage of terrorist groups’ perspectives without accusing them of being in bed with terrorists.

Defensive counterterrorism assumes that a terrorist attack will happen, so we must minimise the risk and the damage of such an attack. Target hardening means making potential targets harder to attack, say by surrounding VIPs or major sports events with armed guards, or by reinforcing cockpit doors on airplanes. Of course, target hardening is not perfect. Terrorists, like counterterrorists, learn and innovate. Moreover, it is subject to politicisation and the taint of inefficient government that claims that any price is worth saving just one life, when there could be much cheaper ways of saving it.

Critical infrastructure protection (CIP), attempting to secure energy, water, oil supplies (especially in Nigeria and Iraq), urban transport (especially since the Madrid and London bombings), is part of defensive counterterrorism. As the list grows (add to the above banks, electric plants, nuclear facilities (even hospitals have nuclear material), government buildings, computer systems and national monuments), so do the questions. How can we possibly protect all these potential targets at the same time? Who will pay for it? Is it worth it? In the US, funds for CIP were handed out by region, which meant that cities like New York and Washington received similar levels of funding as rural regions terrorists have no interest in (which to me is evidence that anything the government touches becomes a pork barrel slush fund). An integrated approach would mean prevention, preparedness, quick and effective response, and mitigation of adverse effects. Such methods would, of course, be part of a long-term solution.

While claiming their detractors need to think outside of the proverbial box, September 12 thinkers have created a new box in which they have trapped themselves: the “new terrorism”. There are many kinds of terrorism and many different contexts in which they occur. Lumping them all in together has given governments round the world the green light to go Colin Powell on groups as diverse as Chechen rebels and the Tamil Tigers while claiming they were all part of a global conspiracy.

If we want to end terrorism in the long term, we need to understand the causes. A 2003 conference of leading terrorism experts in Oslo came to a consensus, summed up in the book Root Causes of Terrorism: myths, reality and ways forward and available in concise form in this PPT. Poverty, religion and insanity are not root causes of terrorism, whereas repression, foreign occupation, racial or religious discrimination, charismatic demagogues and rapid leaps into modernity are major causes. Moreover, far from one or two of those preconditions leading inevitably to radicalisation, the panel concluded, “terrorism is better understood as emerging from a process of interaction between different parties”.

Despite our inability to find clear causes of terrorism, it is probably inadvisable to continue to spend billions of dollars attempting to pound terrorism into the ground as a long-term tactic. Pakistan has received US$10b in aid since 2002, and less than 10% of it has gone toward education, health and democratic reform. Most of the rest has gone to the military. Surely, the Pakistani military is not naive enough to think it can buy its citizens’ loyalty this way. Not only is attacking villages that may contain terrorists not likely to reduce the number and determination of terrorists, but the corruption that helps radicalise people can be seen as a form of western imperialism through corrupt local officials. As a result, Pakistan has seen hundreds of terrorist incidents since 9/11 and the number is rising

The long-term counterterrorist solution Dr Crelinsten discusses that I agree most with is building cross-cultural relations. Many of the worst problems in the world are due to a failure to respect and understand people outside our own exclusive groups, and exchange across groups (particularly at the grassroots, rather than the elite level, to my way of thinking) reverses this situation. One weakness of the thrust of such talks is that “the current fashion of focusing on Islamist terrorism and Salafist-jihadist extremism” has led to the privileging of religious leaders over secular ones. For instance, 80% of Muslims in Melbourne do not attend mosques. When religious leaders are called upon to speak on behalf of Muslims, the majority feel excluded. Moreover, sources of identity beside religious ones are marginalised when they should be emphasised. When people’s religion, nation or race is their single source of identity, or even just the dominant one, they are likely to respond violently to any slight against it. Appealing to other sides of a personality waters down the danger of one aspect’s dominating.

Education is also a major battleground in the fight against extremism. Education should teach respect and understanding of our differences, the ability to communicate across cultures and deal with misunderstandings, the ability to understand culture (I am convinced Sayyid Qutb became a radical because of his superficial understanding of American culture) and critical thinking in the face of propaganda and prejudice. Schools should also teach history in balanced ways that do not obscure a country or other group’s crimes or highlight those of others. All these measures can be more effective than a military approach to terrorism.

I found Ron Crelinsten’s Counterterrorism an excellent, comprehensive book on the theory of its subject. Its analysis is calm and clear and should be required reading for policymakers in the field.