Learning from the past

Matthew Carr
17 August 2007

British and American intelligence agencies overwhelmingly conclude that al-Qaida and its offshoots are stronger and more powerful now than they were at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Insofar as the "war on terror" was intended to eliminate the networks responsible for those attacks, it has clearly failed to realise this objective.

Matthew Carr is a journalist and radio broadcaster.

He is the author of Unknown Soldiers (Profile, August 2006) and The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism (New Press, April 2007), which studies the breadth of terrorism and counterterrorism from imperial Russia to al-Qaida.The actions of the Bush administration and its allies have handed the strategic initiative to their enemies, tarnished the democratic credibility of the United States and established an authoritarian template that numerous governments have reproduced in their own "wars on terror". In attaching itself so closely - and apparently uncritically - to these policies, the British government in particular has contributed to this overall failure.

Much of this might have been avoided had both governments paid attention to the history of terrorism and counterterrorism in the 20th century. Among the key lessons that have not been learned are the following:

Do not give "terrorism" qualities it lacks

History is filled with examples of governments that engage in strident moral condemnation of "political violence" while simultaneously denying the political causes and context that underpin such violence. Often governments invoke a fantasy enemy of nihilistic death worshippers, "godfathers of terror" or homicidal maniacs intent on the destruction of civilisation.

In Kenya, the British government reduced a complex and chaotic insurgency centred amongst the Kikuyu tribe to an atavistic terrorist cult known as the "Mau Mau". Britain eventually recognized the political and nationalist dimensions of the insurgency, but only after a traumatic escalation of violence that included brutal measures by the British forces.

The Bush administration has similarly presented al-Qaida as a nihilistic death cult that hates the west because of its virtues. By obscuring the political grievances on which al-Qaida feeds, such fictions make it impossible to change or modify the policies that created and sustained such grievances.

Comparing al-Qaida to Nazism or Communism may make for good propaganda, but such parallels are not an effective basis for the more intelligent and nuanced responses required to deal with a very different enemy.

Do not declare open-ended "wars on terror"

The violence called terrorism is a technique of political combat directed against a state. This technique can never be eradicated, though some of the groups that use it can be isolated and defeated - particularly when these groups lack a fixed constituency.

In order to tackle terrorist networks and groups, it is necessary to set specific and achievable objectives. By categorizing virtually all its enemies (including Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps) as terrorist organizations and then declaring ‘war' on them, the Bush administration ignored crucial distinctions between organizations such as Hamas, Hizbollah and al-Qaida.

Such categorization paves the way for limitless military intervention, while establishing a benchmark of victory that can never be realised without an endless series of wars - all of which is exactly what al-Qaida hoped to provoke. The Reagan administration once embarked on a similarly fruitless offensive against "international terrorism" which eventually foundered on its own moral and political contradictions.

Do not use counterterrorism as a pretext for lawless violence

Governments that are serious about defending democracy cannot engage in practices that blatantly compromise the democratic ideals that they claim to represent. Restraint, due process and the rule of law is not always easy to apply in the face of atrocities such as those that rocked Madrid, New York and London. Yet, the exceptional evil of terrorism has often been invoked as a justification for exceptional measures, from torture and extra judicial executions, to "Black Operations" and assassinations.

Many of these methods were employed by the French army against the FLN in Algeria, but their short term successes were matched by France's long-term political and moral defeat. The Latin American "National Security" states of the 1970s successfully used such methods to crush leftist "urban guerrilla" organizations, but these regimes are hardly models for democratic societies to emulate.

Never discount the possibility of negotiation and political discussion

The use of "terrorism" by militant groups should not be an excuse to avoid entering into political discussions or negotiations with them. Not every terrorist group has political objectives that can or even should be met through negotiation. But even the most savage conflicts have been resolved through negotiations between governments and "terrorists".

For years, Israel and the United States claimed that it was impossible to talk to Yasser Arafat and Fatah. Now both governments arm Fatah and punish the Palestinian population because they voted for Hamas, while claiming that Hamas' "terrorism" renders negotiations impossible.

This devious and duplicitous game of isolating Hamas will not lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, it suggests to the global public that "terrorism" is used by western governments as an opportune label, designed to fulfil a wider political agenda, and that the promotion of democracy in west Asia is only desired in so far as it serves western interests. If western governments truly want to defeat the threat posed by Islamist terrorism (and not further alienate Arabs and Muslims around the world), their rhetoric and their actions must be in line.

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