Redefining the poor as “terrorists”

Most so-called “terrorist” activity is a by-product of neoliberalism’s on-going crisis and its marginalisation of a growing proportion of the world’s population. 

Jeremy H. Keenan
16 December 2014

Two camel-mounted Tuareg men. Image credit: Jeremy H. Keenan. Some rights reserved.In 1997, a group of American neo-conservatives (neocons) established a think-tank known as the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Its goal was world dominance by the USA. Its members formed the rump of the Bush administration that came to power in 2000, with at least 18 of them being appointed to key positions in the George W. Bush administration.

In September 2000, just four months before Bush took office as President, the PNAC published a report called Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a new Century. It was devoted to matters of maintaining US pre-eminence, thwarting rival powers and shaping the global security system according to US interests. Section V of the report, entitled “Creating Tomorrow's Dominant Force”, included the clumsily-written sentence: “Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor”.

There are many theories regarding 9/11. What is certain is that it amply served the function of this “new Pearl Harbour”, presenting the neocons, who now effectively controlled the Pentagon and many of the other high reaches of the US Administration, with the opportunity that they sought. The launch of a Global War on Terror (GWOT) was the ideological means necessary to secure the militarization of those regions, such as Africa, that US imperial interests required. Indeed, Deepak Lal, Economic Advisor to the World Bank, and an economist closely associated with US conservative think-tanks, said that the GWOT could be seen as “merely an extension of defending the capitalist market”.

Within two weeks of taking office, President Bush established the National Energy Policy Development Group, under the chairmanship of Dick Cheney. Its report, published in May 2001, four months before 9/11, highlighted that African oil would soon be supplying 25% of US energy requirements.

The importance of African oil to the US at that time was such that Senator Ed Royce, Chairman of the US Congress African sub-committee, called for African oil to “be treated as a priority for US national security post-9/11”, while President Bush defined African oil as a “strategic national interest” and thus a resource that the US might choose military force to control.

Thanks to the US’s production of shale oil, the US’s dependency on foreign energy supplies has become a thing of the past, but too late to save much of Africa from the fate that was to befall it.

Rather than acknowledge that US military intervention in Africa was about resource control, the Bush administration used the pretext of the recently launched GWOT for justifying its militarization of Africa. However, with so little terrorism in Africa, in the conventional (post 9/11) sense of the term, this was to prove tricky. The solution was to fabricate it.

In 2002, Defense Secretarey Donald Rumsfeld created a “Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group” (P2OG), a covert organisation designed to carry out secret missions to “stimulate reactions” among terrorist groups, including duping them into conducting terrorist activities.

The first P2OG operation, in early 2003, resulted in 32 European tourists being taken hostage in the Algerian Sahara by “Bin Laden’s man in the Sahara”, as George Bush dubbed him. The man was, in fact, an officer belonging to Algeria’s secret intelligence service, which was now working alongside the US in the GWOT. The “false flag” operation was used to justify the launch of a new, African (Saharan-Sahelian) front in the GWOT.

At the same time, the Pentagon produced a series of maps of Africa, depicting the whole Sahara-Sahelian region as an “uncontrolled space”, a “Terrorist Corridor” and “Terrorist Area”.

Prior to the P2OG operation, there was no terrorism in the Sahel. Although poverty-ridden, it was one of Africa’s safest regions.

Today, after 10 years of Washington’s duplicitous “counter-terrorism” policy in Africa, the Pentagon’s prophecy is fulfilled. The Sahel is now a war zone. Some 4,000 French Special Forces are “fighting terrorism” across Mali, Niger and Chad. Altogether, France now has 10,000 troops in Africa. Approximately 8,000 UN peacekeeping troops are in Mali. Some 1,000 European and US “instructors” are providing intelligence-backup and “training”. Approximately 10,000 national troops are on alert. Several thousand people have now been killed.

Even before the turn of the millennium, the limits of neoliberalism had been exposed. “Globalisation”, the buzz-word of the 1990s, was not being characterised by a further expansion of world capitalism, but its implosion. Majority segments of humanity, Manuel Castells’ “Fourth World”, were being excluded from the world markets, both as producers and consumers. Ankie Hoogvelt’s seminal work on Globalization and the Postcolonial World, posited that at least 50% of the world’s population had become effectively excluded from the global system.

The current millennium is about the politics of exclusion and containment. Mark Duffield, for example, theorized that the “new aid agenda” (for Africa) reverses earlier developmentalist goals of “incorporation” of peripheral areas into the world system, and instead now serves as a policy of management and containment of politically insecure territories on the edge of the global economy. On the military front, AFRICOM, the new US combatant Command for Africa, lapped up the language of the new “security-development” discourse of Tony Blair’s 2005 Commission for Africa, enabling us to now talk about the “militarisation of development”.

In the colonial and early pre-colonial period, the remnants of pre-capitalist modes of production provided some security for those sections of the population excluded from the capitalist system. However, as the extractive industries and agribusiness have expanded and bitten deeper into these traditional reserves, through what is nothing more than “primitive accumulation”, so the survival of the excluded has become even more precarious.

People, however, do not roll over and die. They have that fundamental human quality of resistance. They organise themselves, usually most democratically, in their fights for human rights, indigenous rights, land rights and their right to good governance. Their governments, proxies for the neoliberal system, and invariably repressive authoritarian regimes preoccupied with their own survival, serve to contain them. In this, they are aided by being able to turn to the west’s GWOT, which serves to “de-legitimise” civil society organisations, with the consequent undermining of civil society’s “empowerment” and demands for “democratic governance’”.

A feature of the GWOT has been that many of these governments have become even more repressive in the knowledge that they have the Americans and the “West” behind them. Hence the Arab Spring. Governments, such as those of the Sahel, Algeria and elsewhere, have sought “terrorism rents” in the form of US financial and military largesse. Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad, amongst others, stand accused of having provoked ethnic minorities and civil society groups working for social justice into taking up arms, or otherwise “criminalizing” them, and then rebranding them, not as “rebels”, which is a term of dignity, but as “terrorists”, or, in the parlance of the US State Department, as “putative terrorists”.

In the same way as many western countries’ have amended highly controversial terrorism legislation to use against almost anyone opposed to “the system”, so more and more of the Fourth World’s people, the marginalised and excluded, are now being branded through the ubiquitous GWOT as “terrorists”, although without the niceties of legislation.

As the latest global economic crisis has further exposed the limits of neoliberalism and dramatically deepened social polarization, especially in the “Global South” and “Fourth World”, we only have to dig down into the myriad of highly contentious statistics on “terrorism” that are produced by western government agencies and the new, burgeoning  “terrorism-security” industry, to see what is going on.

Most of this data is shot through with methodological shortcomings, not least of which is what is meant by “terrorism” and what distinguishes “terrorism” from “armed conflicts” of one sort or another.

The data contains two big clues to what is happening. In spite of the 43% increase in terrorism attacks in 2013, as reported by the US State Department, or 61% if we take the Global Terrorism Index, most attacks, as the State Department admits, were local and regional, not international. Indeed, western countries fared well. Of 17,891 persons killed, only 16 were US citizens, while of the 32,577 wounded, only 12 were Americans. Of the almost 3,000 people kidnapped, only 12 were Americans. European countries fared similarly well.

The second clue is that these figures take on a completely different complexion if we remove “armed conflicts” and then further remove selected countries such as Iraq. According to Wikipedia data, which exclude some 40 recognised, on-going “armed conflicts”, there were only 3,348 deaths from terrorist attacks in the first half of 2013, giving an estimated 6,696 for the full year. Of those, 50% were in Iraq 32% in Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan.

In other words, nearly two thirds of the terrorist incidents cited by the US State Department and similar sources stem from “armed conflicts”, most of which relate to local ethnic conflicts, local insurgencies, lands dispossession, etc., and are legitimate forms of resistance, but which, thanks to the prevailing ideology of the GWOT, are now labeled as “terrorism” when most of them are a by-product of neoliberalism’s on-going crisis and its marginalisation of a growing proportion of the world’s population. 

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