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Talking About Terrorism

by Berry Friesen (May 26, 2017)

The suicide bombing in Manchester, United Kingdom (UK)—and the deaths of 22 concert goers—have brought terrorism front and center again.

It’s an emotional subject.  It’s also complicated because of unwritten rules about which aspects of terrorism are legitimate to discuss and which are not.  As a result of these two features, most conversations about terrorism tend to be rather superficial.

Here are the “unwritten” rules:

    1. Terrorism is committed by hate-filled private individuals and groups, not by legitimate governments.

    2. In countries that do not follow the rule of law, terrorism is sometimes carried out via a public- private partnership between the government and private groups.  But this doesn’t happen in the USA or Western Europe.

    3. Follow the guidance of law enforcement professionals when discussing terrorist incidents. Do not show too much curiosity over what happened.  Most importantly of all, remember that discussion of conspiracies is evidence of a weak mind and an unstable personality.

Next, let’s outline the basics assumptions of a mature conversation, one that does not follow these bogus rules.

What is terrorism?

It is the deliberate attempt to impact popular political attitudes and/or public policy by deploying violence (or the threat of violence) against noncombatant civilians.

Why is terrorism despised? 

Within the culture where I live, it is despised because it kills indiscriminately and because it is cowardly.

Human life is valuable and worthy of respect.  If a human life is taken deliberately, there first must be a moral calculus to justify the taking of that particular life; otherwise it is murder.   Thus, soldiers and police officers are required to follow established “rules of engagement” when using lethal force.

Why cowardly?  Rather than taking an open stand against those who oppose one’s values and goals, terrorists act from a position of trust and/or safety to deceive and then attack people who are not part of the fight.

Who does terrorism?

Individuals do it.  Private groups do it. Governments do it too, both through uniformed armed forces and through covert operations that involve private individuals and groups.

Ted Kaczynski—known as the Unabomber—was a lone wolf. From 1978–1995, he carried out over a dozen bombings, killing three and injuring dozens.

The Weather Underground was a left-wing group engaged in arson, bombings and robberies in the US during the ‘70s in the hope of launching a revolutionary political party that would change the direction of the government.

In regard to government terrorism, the August, 1945 detonation of atomic bombs over the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a prime example.  The 1968 My Lai village massacre in Vietnam by the US military is another instance, as is the 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people by the US cavalry at Sand Creek, Colorado.  Arguably, elements of the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq by the US in March, 2003 constituted terrorism.

Though frequently ignored entirely, government terrorism is sometimes discussed within the rubric of “war crimes.”  But since only nations defeated in war (e.g., Germany and Japan) or weak and poor African governments are prosecuted for war crimes, we often let this kind of terrorism drop out of our consciousness.  As the previous paragraph shows, that would be a mistake.

And now for the controversial part:  terrorism carried out by private individuals or groups with tacit government approval and/or covert support. This is the category we citizens of the empire are encouraged to ignore completely.

To get oriented, recall the Ku Klux Klan.  It was/is a private group that engaged in terrorism against black Americans in order to maintain a social and economic system of oppression and exploitation.  In regard to lynchings, intimidation of the black population was a primary purpose.  How did the KKK remain so strong so long?  It enjoyed covert support from government, support that persisted because government valued the role the KKK played in the wider political context.

Or consider a second historical example: Operation Gladio in Europe during the decades after World War 2.  As documented by historian Daniele Ganzer, secret cells of right-wing terrorists carried out bombings in train stations and public squares, often during election campaigns. Routinely, authorities attributed these bombings to left-wing and Communist groups, thus causing electoral support for those groups to decline. Like the KKK, these “Gladio” groups persisted for many years due to covert connections deep within NATO and because they played a role within the wider political context that NATO valued.  

This is the public-private pattern of terrorism we must bring to mind when we consider al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.  These are violent, law-breaking extremist groups that have persisted—even thrived—over decades, notwithstanding the expenditure of huge sums to suppress them.

Like the KKK and Gladio, they persist because they perform a role within the wider political context that is valued by governments.  As we saw in my previous post, Saudi Arabia is one such government.  Qatar, Turkey and Israel are others.  And because all those governments are members in good standing within the empire, we must conclude the USA is yet another.

See why it's controversial to talk about public-private terror partnerships?

Back to the Manchester suicide bomber

The alleged suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, reportedly was “an outgoing, fun guy, but since he went to Libya in 2011 he came back a different guy.”  Abedi was in east Libya during the time when NATO’s air force prevented Libyan government troops from expelling Salafist rebels from the area. Along with his father, he fought against government forces. The government of Muammar Gaddafi fell soon after.

Abedi was enthusiastic about Gaddafi’s fall and the Salafist victory.  Subsequently, he travelled to both Libya and to Syria for training with Salafist rebel groups.

So long as Abedi was in Libya or Syria, his political views—though extreme—fit nicely with the goals of the UK government, which values the role extremists play in the destabilization of foreign governments that refuse to follow the imperial agenda.*

But then Abedi came back home to Manchester, where he apparently deployed his newly acquired skills at the Ariana Grande concert.  ISIS has claimed responsibility for his murderous actions.

Was Abedi a lone wolf?  I doubt it.  An agent of ISIS?  Probably.  A collaborator with the empire?  Not in bombing the Manchester concert, but yes, in Libya and Syria.

Still, I hold the US-led empire morally responsible for the Manchester deaths and injuries. I imagine KKK lynchings “got out-of-hand” on occasion too (in the view of their government supporters), but none of us would find that excuse persuasive. It's similar here:  the US-led empire helped create today's terror monster and we must hold the empire accountable for these deaths.**
*  From the May 24th edition of The Telegraph:
“The Tobruk-led Libyan Government, which is not recognized by the United Nations but controls a large swathe of eastern Libya, said Manchester-born bomber Salman Abedi was part of a group that operated with the ‘prior knowledge and consent’ of successive British governments.  

“In statement released on Wednesday, the government accused Britain and other Western powers of backing jihadist extremist groups in the country trying to install a government that would turn the country into an ‘exporter of terror.’”

The Telegraph then quotes from the Libyan government statement:

“This cowardly attack was an imminent result of terrorist groups’ actions that have been operating for years in the UK, that include the Libyan (Islamic) Fighting Group which has been recruiting Libyan and Muslim youth in the UK and Europe and sending them to Libya and other countries to deliver terrorism and death.  

“The previous British government has been pressuring in every way possible the prevalence of these groups and their control of Libya, while these groups have been destroying our cities and towns in an attempt to shape Libya into an exporter of terror to the whole planet.”

** Daniel McAdams at summarizes it well:

While the mainstream media and opportunistic politicians will argue that the only solution is more western intervention in the Middle East, the plain truth is that at least partial responsibility for this attack lies at the feet of those who pushed and pursued western intervention in Libya and Syria.

“There would have been no jihadist training camps in Libya had Gaddafi not been overthrown by the US/UK and allies. There would have been no explosion of ISIS or al-Qaeda in Syria had it not been for the US/UK and allied policy of ‘regime change’ in that country.”