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Terrorism: Theirs and Ours -
WHAT IS TERRORISM?
Terrorism: Theirs and Ours
(A Presentation at the University of Colorado, Boulder, October 12,
"If you are not going to be consistent, you’re
not going to define. I have examined at least twenty official
documents on terrorism. Not one defines the word. All of them
explain it, express it emotively, polemically, to arouse our
emotions rather than exercise our intelligence.... the absence
of definition does not prevent officials from being globalistic.
We may not define terrorism, but it is a menace to the moral
values of Western civilization. It is a menace also to mankind."
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish underground in Palestine was described as “TERRORIST.” Then new things happened.
By 1942, the Holocaust was occurring, and a certain liberal sympathy
with the Jewish people had built up in the Western world. At that
point, the terrorists of Palestine, who were Zionists, suddenly
started to be described, by 1944-45, as “freedom fighters.” At least
two Israeli Prime Ministers, including Menachem Begin, have
actually, you can find in the books and posters with their pictures,
saying “Terrorists, Reward This Much.” The highest reward I have
noted so far was 100,000 British pounds on the head of Menachem
Begin, the terrorist.
Then from 1969 to 1990 the PLO, the Palestine Liberation
Organization, occupied the center stage as the terrorist
organization. Yasir Arafat has been described repeatedly by the
great sage of American journalism, William Safire of the New York
Times, as the “Chief of Terrorism.” That’s Yasir Arafat.
Now, on September 29, 1998, I was rather amused to notice a picture
of Yasir Arafat to the right of President Bill Clinton. To his left
is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Clinton is looking
towards Arafat and Arafat is looking literally like a meek mouse.
Just a few years earlier he used to appear with this very menacing
look around him, with a gun appearing menacing from his belt. You
remember those pictures, and you remember the next one.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan received a group of bearded men.
These bearded men I was writing about in those days in The New
Yorker, actually did. They were very ferocious-looking bearded men
with turbans looking like they came from another century. President
Reagan received them in the White House. After receiving them he
spoke to the press. He pointed towards them, I’m sure some of you
will recall that moment, and said, “These are the moral equivalent
of America’s founding fathers”. These were the Afghan Mujahiddin.
They were at the time, guns in hand, battling the Evil Empire. They
were the moral equivalent of our founding fathers!
In August 1998, another American President ordered missile strikes
from the American navy based in the Indian Ocean to kill Osama Bin
Laden and his men in the camps in Afghanistan. I do not wish to
embarrass you with the reminder that Mr. Bin Laden, whom fifteen
American missiles were fired to hit in Afghanistan, was only a few
years ago the moral equivalent of George Washington and Thomas
Jefferson! He got angry over the fact that he has been demoted from
‘Moral Equivalent’ of your ‘Founding Fathers’. So he is taking out
his anger in different ways. I’ll come back to that subject more
seriously in a moment.
You see, why I have recalled all these stories is to point out to
you that the matter of terrorism is rather complicated. Terrorists
change. The terrorist of yesterday is the hero of today, and the
hero of yesterday becomes the terrorist of today. This is a serious
matter of the constantly changing world of images in which we have
to keep our heads straight to know what is terrorism and what is
not. But more importantly, to know what causes it, and how to stop
The next point about our terrorism is that posture of inconsistency
necessarily evades definition. If you are not going to be
consistent, you’re not going to define. I have examined at least
twenty official documents on terrorism. Not one defines the word.
All of them explain it, express it emotively, polemically, to arouse
our emotions rather than exercise our intelligence. I give you only
one example, which is representative. October 25, 1984. George
Shultz, then Secretary of State of the U.S., is speaking at the New
York Park Avenue Synagogue. It’s a long speech on terrorism. In the
State Department Bulletin of seven single-spaced pages, there is not
a single definition of terrorism. What we get is the following:
Definition number one: “Terrorism is a modern barbarism that we call
Definition number two is even more brilliant: “Terrorism is a form
of political violence.” Aren’t you surprised? It is a form of
political violence, says George Shultz, Secretary of State of the
Number three: “Terrorism is a threat to Western civilization.”
Number four: “Terrorism is a menace to Western moral values.”
Did you notice, does it tell you anything other than arouse your
emotions? This is typical. They don’t define terrorism because
definitions involve a commitment to analysis, comprehension and
adherence to some norms of consistency. That’s the second
characteristic of the official literature on terrorism.
The third characteristic is that the absence of definition does not
prevent officials from being globalistic. We may not define
terrorism, but it is a menace to the moral values of Western
civilization. It is a menace also to mankind. It’s a menace to good
order. Therefore, you must stamp it out worldwide. Our reach has to
be global. You need a global reach to kill it. Anti-terrorist
policies therefore have to be global. Same speech of George Shultz:
“There is no question about our ability to use force where and when
it is needed to counter terrorism.” There is no geographical limit.
On a single day the missiles hit Afghanistan and Sudan. Those two
countries are 2,300 miles apart, and they were hit by missiles
belonging to a country roughly 8,000 miles away. Reach is global.
A fourth characteristic: claims of power are not only globalist they
are also omniscient. We know where they are; therefore we know where
to hit. We have the means to know. We have the instruments of
knowledge. We are omniscient. Shultz: “We know the difference
between terrorists and freedom fighters, and as we look around, we
have no trouble telling one from the other.”
Only Osama Bin Laden doesn’t know that he was an ally one day and an
enemy another. That’s very confusing for Osama Bin Laden. I’ll come
back to his story towards the end. It’s a real story.
Five. The official approach eschews causation. You don’t look at
causes of anybody becoming terrorist. Cause? What cause? They ask us
to be looking, to be sympathetic to these people.
Another example. The New York Times, December 18, 1985, reported
that the foreign minister of Yugoslavia, you remember the days when
there was a Yugoslavia, requested the Secretary of State of the U.S.
to consider the causes of Palestinian terrorism. The Secretary of
State, George Shultz, and I am quoting from the New York Times,
“went a bit red in the face. He pounded the table and told the
visiting foreign minister, there is no connection with any cause.
Period.” Why look for causes?
Number six. The moral revulsion that we must feel against terrorism
is selective. We are to feel the terror of those groups, which are
officially disapproved. We are to applaud the terror of those groups
of whom officials do approve. Hence, President Reagan, “I am a
contra.” He actually said that. We know the contras of Nicaragua
were anything, by any definition, but terrorists. The media, to move
away from the officials, heed the dominant view of terrorism.
The dominant approach also excludes from consideration, more
importantly to me, the terror of friendly governments. To that
question I will return because it excused among others the terror of
Pinochet (who killed one of my closest friends) and Orlando
Letelier; and it excused the terror of Zia ul-Haq, who killed many
of my friends in Pakistan. All I want to tell you is that according
to my ignorant calculations, the ratio of people killed by the state
terror of Zia ul-Haq, Pinochet, Argentinian, Brazilian, Indonesian
type, versus the killing of the PLO and other terrorist types is
literally, conservatively, one to one hundred thousand. That’s the
History unfortunately recognizes and accords visibility to power and
not to weakness. Therefore, visibility has been accorded
historically to dominant groups. In our time, the time that began
with this day, Columbus Day.
The time that begins with Columbus Day is a time of extraordinary
unrecorded holocausts. Great civilizations have been wiped out. The
Mayas, the Incas, the Aztecs, the American Indians, the Canadian
Indians were all wiped out. Their voices have not been heard, even
to this day fully. Now they are beginning to be heard, but not
fully. They are heard, yes, but only when the dominant power
suffers, only when resistance has a semblance of costing, of
exacting a price. When a Custer is killed or when a Gordon is
besieged. That’s when you know that they were Indians fighting,
Arabs fighting and dying.
My last point of this section – U.S. policy in the Cold War period
has sponsored terrorist regimes one after another. Somoza, Batista,
all kinds of tyrants have been America’s friends. You know that.
There was a reason for that. I or you are not guilty. Nicaragua,
contra. Afghanistan, mujahiddin. El Salvador, etc.
Now the second side. You’ve suffered enough. So suffer more.
There ain’t much good on the other side either. You shouldn’t
imagine that I have come to praise the other side. But keep the
balance in mind. Keep the imbalance in mind and first ask ourselves,
What is terrorism?
Our first job should be to define the damn thing, name it, give it a
description of some kind, other than “moral equivalent of founding
fathers” or “a moral outrage to Western civilization”. I will stay
with you with Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “Terror is an
intense, overpowering fear.” He uses terrorizing, terrorism, “the
use of terrorizing methods of governing or resisting a government.”
This simple definition has one great virtue, that of fairness. It’s
fair. It focuses on the use of coercive violence, violence that is
used illegally, extra-constitutionally, to coerce. And this
definition is correct because it treats terror for what it is,
whether the government or private people commit it.
Have you noticed something? Motivation is left out of it. We’re not
talking about whether the cause is just or unjust. We’re talking
about consensus, consent, absence of consent, legality, absence of
legality, constitutionality, absence of constitutionality. Why do we
keep motives out? Because motives differ. Motives differ and make no
I have identified in my work five types of terrorism.
First, state terrorism. Second, religious terrorism; terrorism
inspired by religion, Catholics killing Protestants, Sunnis killing
Shiites, Shiites killing Sunnis, God, religion, sacred terror, you
can call it if you wish. State, church. Crime. Mafia. All kinds of
crimes commit terror. There is pathology. You’re pathological.
You’re sick. You want the attention of the whole world. You’ve got
to kill a president. You will. You terrorize. You hold up a bus.
Fifth, there is political terror of the private group; be they
Indian, Vietnamese, Algerian, Palestinian, Baader-Meinhof, the Red
Brigade. Political terror of the private group. Oppositional terror.
Keep these five in mind. Keep in mind one more thing. Sometimes
these five can converge on each other. You start with protest
terror. You go crazy. You become pathological. You continue. They
converge. State terror can take the form of private terror. For
example, we’re all familiar with the death squads in Latin America
or in Pakistan. Government has employed private people to kill its
opponents. It’s not quite official. It’s privatized. Convergence. Or
the political terrorist who goes crazy and becomes pathological. Or
the criminal who joins politics. In Afghanistan, in Central America,
the CIA employed in its covert operations drug pushers. Drugs and
guns often go together. Smuggling of all things often go together.
Of the five types of terror, the focus is on only one, the least
important in terms of cost to human lives and human property
[Political Terror of those who want to be heard]. The highest cost
is state terror. The second highest cost is religious terror,
although in the twentieth century religious terror has, relatively
speaking, declined. If you are looking historically, massive costs.
The next highest cost is crime. Next highest, pathology. A Rand
Corporation study by Brian Jenkins, for a ten-year period up to
1988, showed 50% of terror was committed without any political cause
at all. No politics. Simply crime and pathology.
So the focus is on only one, the political terrorist, the PLO, the
Bin Laden, whoever you want to take. Why do they do it? What makes
the terrorist tick?
I would like to knock them out quickly to you. First, the need to be
heard. Imagine, we are dealing with a minority group, the political,
private terrorist. First, the need to be heard. Normally, and there
are exceptions, there is an effort to be heard, to get your
grievances heard by people. They’re not hearing it. A minority acts.
The majority applauds.
The Palestinians, for example, the superterrorists of our time, were
dispossessed in 1948. From 1948 to 1968 they went to every court in
the world. They knocked at every door in the world. They were told
that they became dispossessed because some radio told them to go
away - an Arab radio, which was a lie. Nobody was listening to the
truth. Finally, they invented a new form of terror, literally their
invention: the airplane hijacking. Between 1968 and 1975 they pulled
the world up by its ears. They dragged us out and said, Listen,
Listen. We listened. We still haven’t done them justice, but at
least we all know. Even the Israelis acknowledge. Remember Golda
Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, saying in 1970, ‘There are no
Palestinians.’ They do not exist. They damn well exist now. We are
cheating them at Oslo. At least there are some people to cheat now.
We can’t just push them out. The need to be heard is essential. One
Mix of anger and helplessness produces an urge to strike out. You
are angry. You are feeling helpless. You want retribution. You want
to wreak retributive justice. The experience of violence by a
stronger party has historically turned victims into terrorists.
Battered children are known to become abusive parents and violent
adults. You know that. That’s what happens to peoples and nations.
When they are battered, they hit back. State terror very often
breeds collective terror.
Do you recall the fact that the Jews were never terrorists? By and
large Jews were not known to commit terror except during and after
the Holocaust. Most studies show that the majority of members of the
worst terrorist groups in Israel or in Palestine, the Stern and the
Irgun gangs, were people who were immigrants from the most
anti-Semitic countries of Eastern Europe and Germany. Similarly, the
young Shiites of Lebanon or the Palestinians from the refugee camps
are battered people. They become very violent. The ghettos are
violent internally. They become violent externally when there is a
clear, identifiable external target, an enemy where you can say,
‘Yes, this one did it to me’. Then they can strike back.
Example is a bad thing. Example spreads. There was a highly
publicized Beirut hijacking of the TWA plane. After that hijacking,
there were hijacking attempts at nine different American airports.
Pathological groups or individuals modeling on the others. Even more
serious are examples set by governments. When governments engage in
terror, they set very large examples. When they engage in supporting
terror, they engage in other sets of examples.
Absence of revolutionary ideology is central to victim terrorism.
Revolutionaries do not commit unthinking terror. Those of you who
are familiar with revolutionary theory know the debates, the
disputes, the quarrels, the fights within revolutionary groups of
Europe, the fight between anarchists and Marxists, for example. But
the Marxists have always argued that revolutionary terror, if ever
engaged in, must be sociologically and psychologically selective.
Don’t hijack a plane. Don’t hold hostages. Don’t kill children, for
God’s sake. Have you recalled also that the great revolutions, the
Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Algerian, the Cuban, never engaged in
hijacking type of terrorism? They did engage in terrorism, but it
was highly selective, highly sociological, still deplorable, but
there was an organized, highly limited, selective character to it.
So absence of revolutionary ideology that begins more or less in the
post-World War II period has been central to this phenomenon.
My final question is - These conditions have existed for a long
time. But why then this flurry of private political terrorism? Why
now so much of it and so visible? The answer is modern technology.
You have a cause. You can communicate it through radio and
television. They will all come swarming if you have taken an
aircraft and are holding 150 Americans hostage. They will all hear
your cause. You have a modern weapon through which you can shoot a
mile away. They can’t reach you. And you have the modern means of
communicating. When you put together the cause, the instrument of
coercion and the instrument of communication, politics is made. A
new kind of politics becomes possible.
To this challenge rulers from one country after another have been
responding with traditional methods. The traditional method of
shooting it out, whether it’s missiles or some other means. The
Israelis are very proud of it. The Americans are very proud of it.
The French became very proud of it. Now the Pakistanis are very
proud of it. The Pakistanis say, ‘Our commandos are the best.’
Frankly, it won’t work. A central problem of our time, political
minds, rooted in the past, and modern times, producing new
realities. Therefore in conclusion, what is my recommendation to
Quickly. First, avoid extremes of double standards. If you’re going
to practice double standards, you will be paid with double
standards. Don’t use it. Don’t condone Israeli terror, Pakistani
terror, Nicaraguan terror, El Salvadoran terror, on the one hand,
and then complain about Afghan terror or Palestinian terror. It
doesn’t work. Try to be even-handed. A superpower cannot promote
terror in one place and reasonably expect to discourage terrorism in
another place. It won’t work in this shrunken world.
Do not condone the terror of your allies. Condemn them. Fight them.
Punish them. Please eschew, avoid covert operations and
low-intensity warfare. These are breeding grounds of terror and
drugs. Violence and drugs are bred there. The structure of covert
operations, I’ve made a film about it, which has been very popular
in Europe, called Dealing with the Demon. I have shown that wherever
covert operations have been, there has been the central drug
problem. That has been also the center of the drug trade. Because
the structure of covert operations, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Nicaragua,
Central America, is very hospitable to drug trade. Avoid it. Give it
up. It doesn’t help.
Please focus on causes and help ameliorate causes. Try to look at
causes and solve problems. Do not concentrate on military solutions.
Do not seek military solutions. Terrorism is a political problem.
Seek political solutions. Diplomacy works.
Take the example of the last attack on Bin Laden. You don’t know
what you’re attacking. They say they know, but they don’t know. They
were trying to kill Qadaffi. They killed his four-year-old daughter.
The poor baby hadn’t done anything. Qadaffi is still alive. They
tried to kill Saddam Hussein. They killed Laila Bin Attar, a
prominent artist, an innocent woman. They tried to kill Bin Laden
and his men. Not one but twenty-five other people died. They tried
to destroy a chemical factory in Sudan. Now they are admitting that
they destroyed an innocent factory, one-half of the production of
medicine in Sudan has been destroyed, not a chemical factory. You
don’t know. You think you know.
Four of your missiles fell in Pakistan. One was slightly damaged.
Two were totally damaged. One was totally intact. For ten years the
American government has kept an embargo on Pakistan because Pakistan
is trying, stupidly, to build nuclear weapons and missiles. So we
have a technology embargo on my country. One of the missiles was
intact. What do you think a Pakistani official told the Washington
Post? He said it was a gift from Allah. We wanted U.S. technology.
Now we have got the technology, and our scientists are examining
this missile very carefully. It fell into the wrong hands. So don’t
do that. Look for political solutions. Do not look for military
solutions. They cause more problems than they solve.
Please help reinforce, strengthen the framework of international
law. There was a criminal court in Rome. Why didn’t they go to it
first to get their warrant against Bin Laden, if they have some
evidence? Get a warrant, then go after him. Internationally. Enforce
the U.N. Enforce the International Court of Justice, this
unilateralism makes us look very stupid and them relatively smaller.
The question here is that I mentioned that I would go somewhat into
the story of Bin Laden, the Saudi in Afghanistan and didn’t do so,
could I go into some detail? The point about Bin Laden would be
roughly the same as the point between Sheikh Abdul Rahman, who was
accused and convicted of encouraging the blowing up of the World
Trade Center in New York City. The New Yorker did a long story on
him. It’s the same as that of Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani Baluch who
was also convicted of the murder of two CIA agents. Let me see if I
can be very short on this. Jihad, which has been translated a
thousand times as “holy war,” is not quite just that. Jihad is an
Arabic word that means, “to struggle.” It could be struggle by
violence or struggle by non-violent means. There are two forms, the
small jihad and the big jihad. The small jihad involves violence.
The big jihad involves the struggles with self. Those are the
concepts. The reason I mention it is that in Islamic history, jihad
as an international violent phenomenon had disappeared in the last
four hundred years, for all practical purposes. It was revived
suddenly with American help in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union
intervened in Afghanistan, Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator of
Pakistan, which borders on Afghanistan, saw an opportunity and
launched a jihad there against godless communism. The U.S. saw a
God-sent opportunity to mobilize one billion Muslims against what
Reagan called the Evil Empire. Money started pouring in. CIA agents
starting going all over the Muslim world recruiting people to fight
in the great jihad. Bin Laden was one of the early prize recruits.
He was not only an Arab. He was also a Saudi. He was not only a
Saudi. He was also a multimillionaire, willing to put his own money
into the matter. Bin Laden went around recruiting people for the
jihad against communism.
I first met him in 1986. He was recommended to me by an American
official of whom I do not know whether he was or was not an agent. I
was talking to him and said, ‘Who are the Arabs here who would be
very interesting?’ By here I meant in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He
said, ‘You must meet Osama.’ I went to see Osama. There he was,
rich, bringing in recruits from Algeria, from Sudan, from Egypt,
just like Sheikh Abdul Rahman. This fellow was an ally. He remained
an ally. He turns at a particular moment. In 1990 the U.S. goes into
Saudi Arabia with forces. Saudi Arabia is the holy place of Muslims,
Mecca and Medina. There had never been foreign troops there. In
1990, during the Gulf War, they went in, in the name of helping
Saudi Arabia defeat Saddam Hussein. Osama Bin Laden remained quiet.
Saddam was defeated, but the American troops stayed on in the land
of the kaba (the sacred site of Islam in Mecca), foreign troops. He
wrote letter after letter saying, Why are you here? Get out! You
came to help but you have stayed on. Finally he started a jihad
against the other occupiers. His mission is to get American troops
out of Saudi Arabia. His earlier mission was to get Russian troops
out of Afghanistan. See what I was saying earlier about covert
A second point to be made about him is these are tribal people,
people who are really tribal. Being a millionaire doesn’t matter.
Their code of ethics is tribal. The tribal code of ethics consists
of two words: loyalty and revenge. You are my friend. You keep your
word. I am loyal to you. You break your word, I go on my path of
revenge. For him, America has broken its word. The loyal friend has
betrayed. The one to whom you swore blood loyalty has betrayed you.
They’re going to go for you. They’re going to do a lot more.
These are the chickens of the Afghanistan war coming home to roost.
This is why I said to stop covert operations. There is a price
attached to those that the American people cannot calculate and
Kissinger type of people do not know, don’t have the history to
Eqbal Ahmad, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and
Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst,
Massachusetts, also served as a managing editor of the quarterly
Race and Class. A prolific writer, his articles and essays have
been published in The Nation, Dawn (Pakistan), among several
other journals throughout the world. He died in 1999.
Courtesy: University of Colorado