Why doesn’t the West understand the term terrorism?

THE war in Iraq continues to be a disaster and can only get worse. The general war on terror — sorry, it’s not called that any more and is now, by order of President Bush, known as "the global struggle against violent extremists" — fares little better. True, since 9/11 no American has died from a terrorist attack on the mainland of the United States. They die instead in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By Phillip Knightley

Published: Sat 21 Apr 2007, 8:22 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair says that terrorism has nevertheless been growing into an international force that threatens all who stand with the United States. If he is right then he has to accept also that this growth has occurred during the West’s colossal war against it, using all the military, political and intelligence powers at its disposal.

So as Saad al-Fagih, director of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, points out, "The logical conclusion must be that the so-called war on terror in its present form, including the war in Iraq, is yielding precisely the opposite results to those intended." As Howard Inn, professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, says, "War is itself terrorism... Invading and bombing other countries does not give us more security but less." The United States appears to be refusing to face up to the facts.

The fighters in Iraq have shown extraordinary regenerative powers —the more of them the US forces kill, the greater the supply of recruits. And it is an uncomfortable fact that under Saddam Hussein suicide bombing in Iraq was almost unheard of, but since the US invasion, suicide attacks have become a daily event.

The hawks in Washington blame Iran for sponsoring and supplying the insurgents in Iraq and urge an attack on Iran. But the Pentagon’s old boast that it could fight major wars on more than one front seems a little thin these days. Some want an even greater increase in troops in Iraq, forgetting that General Westmoreland had a million soldiers in Vietnam but said he needed a million more in order to win. The Anholt-GMI Nations Brand Index ranks nations in a sort of world popularity contest. The United States comes in at No. 11 and is falling. "America is a cause for concern," says the poll’s organisers. Unless the slide is stopped soon it could be irreversible.

And it is not just Iraq; America has produced unpopular foreign policy on and off for many years. People are coming to the conclusion that America is not a very nice place." Some astute Americans recognise the danger. Robert Baer, a former high-ranking CIA officer with wide experience of the Middle East, believes that the Iraq invasion has turned out a disaster which has stimulated terrorism. "Every time you kill a Muslim, whether it is an Israeli killing them, or an American or a Brit, there is humiliation, and anger and bombs go off somewhere." He sees no cause for optimism in a world increasingly hostile to the United States. "I’ve moved to Colorado and have installed a wood-burning stove."

But at least America’s Homeland Security and the British police and anti-terrorism forces are having some success in catching terrorists before they can mount attacks? Not really. According to a Washington Post investigation, fewer than ten per cent of the people prosecuted for terrorism in the United States ended up being convicted for crimes relating to terrorism or national security. Of those, few had any connection to al-Qaeda while the remaining ninety per cent were acquitted or else convicted of lesser crimes like immigration violations or making false statements.

It looks as if the West is fighting an unwinnable war against an unidentifiable enemy. How can it fight terrorism when it cannot even agree on what terrorism is? A definition is hopeless, says Richard Rubenstein of the Centre for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. "Terrorism is just violence you don’t like." British author Phil Rees, in his controversial book "Dining with Terrorists", writes, "By being unable to explain exactly who is a terrorist, the ‘war on terror’ can mutate into a war against any ideology that challenges America. ‘Terror’ can become a code name for any opponent who questions the status quo and a catch-all for ideologies as diverse as Islamic militancy, emerging nationalism, or anti-globalisation."

I believe that one reason why the West is wary of defining terrorism is that any workable definition would sweep them into the net too. Most definitions would include the statement that one factor that is common to terrorists is that they attack civilians. But the forces of the USA, Britain and Israel also attack civilians. So why don’t journalists describe them as terrorists, too? Rees says that if we don’t want to describe these countries as terrorist nations, then the only principled alternative is to purge the word from the lexicon of journalism. I would agree with that.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist based in London

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