Exploding the Myths of Terrorism

“Lethal Shadow Across the Globe”?

Colin Powell prefaced a report to Congress on international terrorism with these chilling words. And the war of words has not abated since 11 September, or more precisely since George W Bush came to power. Americans and Europeans are now in a state of shear terror of terrorism from abroad.

Laws have been enacted that come very close to infringing traditional civil liberties. Moreover, governments have embarked on a campaign that in the words of Francis X Taylor, the State Department’s Coordinator of Counterterrorism, has “a long way to go to assure final victory in the global war against terrorism.” George W Bush declared on 20 September 2001 “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Given an offer they could not refuse, many governments have sensibly flocked to join the coalition against terrorism! Whether their nations are similarly minded is far from certain.

Without question, terrorism is the topic of the hour. It remains to be seen how long this preoccupation will last, but in the meantime decisions and actions are being taken that will have long-term unpredictable consequences. An objective look at the terrorism phenomenon is, therefore, sorely needed. The aim is obvious: to ascertain the real nature and magnitude of the problem.

Nature or Nurture?

The above overall aim has a number of subsidiary objectives. Conventional wisdom these days decrees that terrorists are evil by nature; an innate condition that certain religious and ethnic groups are imbued with more than others. The villains of choice these days are Muslims in general, and Arabs in particular. Curiously, right wing Christian fundamentalists and Jewish extremists in the USA agree on this one score, although they differ on most other matters. It is critically important to establish the facts behind these beliefs.

The ‘nature’ concept is now highly marketable. Several ‘pens for hire’ have come forward with what can only be described as racist and Islamophobic ‘literary’ contributions that are then given pride of place by the mass media. And the contagion is spreading fast. Zbigniew Brzezinski, US national security advisor in president Carter’s administration, observed (www.nytimes.com: September 2002):

“President Bush has wisely eschewed identifying terrorism with Islam as a whole… But some supporters of the administration have been less careful…, arguing that Islamic culture in general is so hostile to the West, and especially to democracy, that it has created a fertile soil for terrorist hatred of America.”

Others have jumped on the bandwagon with alacrity. Brzezinski continued:

“The rather narrow, almost one-dimensional definition of the terrorist threat favored by the Bush administration poses the special risk that foreign powers will also seize upon the word “terrorism” to promote their own agendas, as President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India and President Jiang Zemin of China are doing. For each of them the disembodied American definition of the terrorist challenge has been both expedient and convenient.”

Bush avoided branding all Muslims as potential terrorists but he added his own spin on events when he assured his fellow Americans that the terrorists hate the USA because it is free and democratic. Astonishingly, this viewpoint is taken quite seriously, although it would suggest that Iceland, with a record of democracy that goes back a thousand years, should have been the prime target for terrorists! Nonetheless, this is another claim that merits a closer look.

Policy-making Amid Myths and Half-truths

Undeniably, some governments find it more convenient in explaining the terrorism phenomenon to blame creed and ethnic background or inbred hatred of democracy, than to consider the multifarious circumstances that turn ordinary human beings into ruthless killers. They also find it helpful to conduct the debate on terrorism in a fog of innuendos and half-truths. Seen from Slobodan Milosevic’s point of view, this disingenuous philosophy has come a few years too late. Instead of facing a United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, he could have been the hero that battled against Islamic terror. Such are the fortunes of political life!

Deception and obfuscation come at a price though. Lasting solutions to the problem of terrorism could not be found within an environment built on self-delusion, falsehoods, and misinformation. And for as long as these malpractices continue, the ills brought about by that abhorrent activity will grow and resolution will become more and more difficult to achieve.

This article is published to shed light on the terrorism phenomenon. The broader aim of the article is to reveal the complex nature of an activity in which unexpected outcomes regularly emerge from simplistic assumptions, ill-considered policies, and knee-jerk reactions.

The key conclusions presented at the end of the article bring into question the assumptions on which present policies and actions are founded. First, international terrorism has not increased in recent years. In fact, there has been a slow decline. Second, the Middle East and Islam are minor sources of terror. Latin America is a more significant region on that score. Third, domestic terrorism is at the very least as prevalent as international terrorism. Moreover, other dangers that threaten civil society in the USA and Europe, such as the ownership and ready use of guns, are infinitely more damaging than anything terrorists have managed to do so far. And finally, mainland USA has been virtually free from the effects of international terrorism, until 11 September 2001, and has remained so since that date.

Alarming Change in Attitudes and Behaviour

Objective analysis of the terrorism topic is not simply an interesting academic exercise. The threat posed by international terrorism, whether genuine or otherwise, has brought about some fundamental changes in the way the leading countries conduct themselves. Civil liberties that have been won over centuries have been eroded overnight in the name of this holy war. The impact on civil liberties, especially in relation to foreigners, was readily accepted by no less an authority than Lord Irvine, the British Lord Chancellor, (BBC Radio 4, Today, 6 January 2003). The Archbishop of Canterbury declared, on 2 February 2003, that he is in support of the idea put forward by the Conservative Party that all asylum seekers should be detained on entry to Britain to make sure they have no links to terrorism. And Tony Blair is not certain about some provisions of the Geneva Convention.

The American response is even more robust. Soon after 11 September, the USA formally adopted two alarming doctrines. First, America will seek to maintain its military superiority indefinitely, and second, it will preemptively attack nations that it considers threatening to its interests. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, published a year later left no doubt on the global power intentions of the Bush adminstration:

“Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States.” Clearly, the US government is not referring here to Iraq or North Korea. They do not qualify as serious contenders.

And justification for the expected war on Iraq, scheduled for late February/ early March 2003, has been extended to cover links between the Iraqi regime and terrorist organisations in addition to the need to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. In short, the impact of the present focus on terror seems to be all-consuming.

One Event on a Longer Journey?

There are indications that the present preoccupation with terrorism is only the latest twist in a longer journey. America’s position as the undisputed hegemonic power has been under threat since the late-1960s (see for example Lake, 1991). This reflects relative, rather than absolute, decline resulting from the emergence of competing regional alliances; in Asia and Europe. As was the case when hegemonic power was transferred from Britain to the USA, the process is lengthy and convoluted. Scholars have argued, moreover, that a hegemonic power on its way down tends to adopt increasingly aggressive nationalist policies (see for instance Krasner, 1982). John le Carré described this feature in his inimitable manner in an article in The Times of London in January 2003 when he wrote, “America has entered one of its periods of historic madness, but this is the worst I can remember.”

The policies and actions of the Bush presidency are not prompted by madness of course. They reflect the behaviour of a hegemonic power intent on keeping its place at the top of the global hierarchy for as long as possible. This is one plausible explanation for the increasingly belligerent foreign policies adopted by successive US governments in recent decades, including the so-called ‘war on terrorism’. Other explanations, such as the wish to control Middle Eastern oil, can be seen as forming part of this broader philosophy.

But aggressive policies run a distinct risk of making matters infinitely worse for all concerned, encouraging growth in conflict and terror. Specifically, such policies create a world in which US interests abroad, as well as ordinary Americans, would have to be promoted, and protected, by vast standing armies and an elaborate security apparatus overseas. It is virtually impossible to reconcile that setup with having amicable relations with other governments and nations. Terrorism has now become a cause and an effect: America cites terrorism as the reason for its aggressive actions abroad, and the terrorists describe their actions as the natural outcomes of America’s foreign policies.

This paradox lies at the heart of the terrorism debate that is slowly gathering momentum. On the one hand, we have US, and other Western, corporate interests that are nowadays closely intermeshed with political interests. This bloc wishes to keep the issue simple: ‘some people do not like us, because we are free, democratic, wealthy, or whatever, but we will go in and sort them out’. On the other hand, the facts, as argued below, reveal an entirely different scenario: ‘terrorism is a multi-dimensional complex phenomenon that has many causes and effects, and one that requires careful analysis and sensitive handling’.

One View of the Priorities

The presumed threat from terrorism has affected domestic priorities as well. Judged by media output and political pronouncements, it would seem that the terrorism problem is by far the most pressing issue facing the USA, Britain and some other leading countries. The prices of shares continue to plummet, taking with them peoples life-savings and pensions. Levels of public debt have soared and personal savings, crucial for investment, have dwindled to almost nothing. But the world’s leaders remain focused on fighting terrorists and ‘rogue regimes’.

Events in Britain illustrate this perception of priorities. Rail services are in a dangerous state of disarray, but plans to put matters right have been shelved or postponed due to shortage of funds (Guardian 31 January 2003). Health and other public services are not much better. Cash is a problem, but loss of trained professionals, especially doctors and nurses, is just as damaging. And now there is also unrest amongst public service workers. But at the same time Tony Blair is willing and able to devote billions of pounds to the war on terrorism and to the struggle to disarm Iraq of its reputed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

This balance of priorities is curious to say the least, and hardly in the public interest of the nations who have entrusted their affairs to these leaders unless it could be shown that the problem is of truly critical importance.

But Are The Leaders Justified in Their View of Priorities?

It is patently obvious that terrorism poses a threat that needs to be properly managed, but is it sensible to elevate that to the top of the agenda? What is the scale of the problem? These are elementary questions that demand convincing answers. At this initial stage I will simply consider the overall scale of international terrorism.

Key point: in an average year, including 2001, there are about 5,000 international casualties attributable to terrorism worldwide. Needless to say that one casualty is one too many, but these issues could not be discussed in absolute terms. So where does terrorism fit in comparative terms? Nowhere is not an unreasonable answer.

Terrorism would not feature on the list if a risk assessment exercise (now common practice in the public and private sectors) were undertaken. The most urgent global needs were defined at the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, as being: nutrition, primary healthcare, clean water and safe sanitation, basic education, and family planning (UNICEF 1997: 63). Measured by any standard, these are today the biggest threats to life and well-being.

One billion people, or one in six of the Earth’s population, suffer from debilitating malnutrition. The effect on children is simply cataclysmic. UNICEF (1998: 9) reported that malnutrition is “implicated in more than half of all child deaths worldwide, a proportion unmatched by any infectious disease since the Black Death.” Put starkly, about 100 million people die from hunger and hunger-related, and easily prevented and treated, diseases annually (Rihani 2001:186). This feature itself has been cited by many observers as a main catalyst in the growth of terrorist activity.

Given a cause to fight for, poverty, especially when allied with absence of basic democratic norms, is also an effective incentive for young persons to turn to terrorism. With Over a billion people living on less than $1 a day the pool of recruits is large. The ‘base case’ scenario still envisages some three quarter of a billion people being in that situation by the year 2015 (World Bank, 2001). The worst case scenario is worse!

Naturally, war is another efficient killer: from 1914 to 1991, “over 180 million people were killed or allowed to die by human decision” (Stephens 1995: 46). That is an average of well over two million people every year! Landmines are still the most cost effective means of killing and maiming people, almost exclusively civilians; about two thousand people are affected in that way each month. Landmines cost $10 apiece, and there are over 100 million of these devices strewn over past battlefields, and some 2.5 million new landmines are still being laid each year (UNICEF 1997: 57).

The bombing in largely rural Afghanistan killed about 5,000 civilians directly, and up to 20,000 indirectly (Guardian 28 January 2003). In the Gulf war, it was reported that 22,000 died in air raids on Baghdad alone (Heikal 1992: 296). A UN document dated 10 December 2002 on ‘Likely Humanitarian Scenarios’ relating to the anticipated war on Iraq reiterated earlier World Health Organisation estimates of 100,000 direct and 400,000 indirect causalities (www.casi.org.uk). The document gave estimates also of epidemics and refugees to be expected when the actual war had run its course.

Yearbooks published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, leave little doubt about the mayhem caused by war and the trade in weapons. Significantly, the permanent members of the UN Security Council are the main suppliers of weapons; the USA being by far the most dominant trader in this commodity. American and European firms provided most of Iraq’s weapons up to the end of the Gulf war, including the weapons of mass destruction that later became a ‘massive threat to regional and world peace’. And America continues to militarise the Middle East: US aid to the Middle East in 2003 US is split into 72 percent for military and 28 percent for all other purposes.

Entering into the spirit of things, Middle Eastern countries allocate, in effect squander, over 50 percent of their combined government to military expenditure; mostly on purchases from the USA. As Zunes (2003: 46) expressed it: “The more more weapons and the more sophisticated weaponry the United States has sent to the region, the more threatened the United States and its interests have become.” However, America’s weapons manufacturers, and the few who have invested heavily in this industry, are not complaining.

At a less alarming, and more familiar level, the havoc wreaked by other causes of death, injury and disruption is also impressive in comparison to the harm resulting from terrorism. For instance, there were 16,526 deaths from injury and poisoning in England and Wales alone in 2000 (www.statistics.gov.uk). Deaths and injuries caused by easy availability of guns do not require elaboration, but more than 15 people per 100,000 of the population in the USA died also in traffic accidents in 2000 (International Road Traffic and Accident Database, OECD).

Key point: in comparative terms there are other more urgent priorities that deserve the mobilisation of the sort of financial and manpower resources now devoted to the ‘war against terrorism’.

Admittedly, it is necessary to keep in mind the unpalatable truth that by tradition one death in Europe or the USA is considered as significant as the deaths of a thousand or more people in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. Nonetheless, even on the basis of that perverted logic the comparative insignificance of terrorism is patently obvious. Moreover, charts presented later will show clearly that the USA and Europe have been reasonably free from the impact of international terror.

Terrorism Is Not a New Phenomenon

A natural response to the above comments might be that we are entering a new era of increasing violence from terrorism and that the threat is escalating in absolute as well as comparative terms. As explained later, this is an incorrect viewpoint: terrorism is an ancient phenomenon, and incidents and deaths associated with modern terrorism have been steadily decreasing since the mid-1990s. The declining trends will be discussed later, but a word or two at this point will shed light on the history of terrorism.

The average American, aided and abetted by the US government, would date the emergence of the terrorist threat as 11 September 2001. If pushed hard, he or she might go as far back as the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993.

There are good reasons for this lack of historic perspective. First, until recently mainland America has been almost free from the impact of international terrorism, although US interests abroad have been a longstanding target (see charts below). Second, the 11 September events were unique and overwhelming by any standard. Third, for diverse reasons the movers and shakers on the world stage now find this foreshortened version of the history of terrorism convenient. Under this umbrella, the pursuit of dubious objectives, and even outright racism and xenophobia, have become permissible. In fact, they have acquired the status of sacred duties. The messianic message, as articulated by Bush, is simple: you are with us or you are with the terrorists.

But what is the true picture? In sum, terrorism is an activity that has ancient roots. In the early stages, religion was the primary trigger; including 1st century Jewish Zealots and 12th century Muslim Assassins (Shiites against Sunnis). Terrorism continued unabated, but in later centuries the causes widened to embrace social, political, and economic grievances in addition to religion.

Few countries escaped the specter of, mainly domestic, terrorism. Europe and Latin America experienced a noticeable upsurge in the 1970s and 1980s; the Red Army Faction in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Basque separatists in Spain, and terrorism in Northern Ireland are notable examples. Although there were a number of terrorist attacks in the USA early in the 20th century, the activity only became significant from the late-1960s onwards; the ‘patriot movement’ with which Timothy McVeigh (of Oklahoma bombing fame) identified is an example.

Diverse factors came together to cause this increase in the USA, Latin America, and Europe such as the Vietnam war, the cold war, varied concerns about the environment and growth in government and corporate power, and of course a sack load of political, ethnic and religious grievances.

Key point: terrorism, as discussed in more detail later, is not a simple problem that could be managed simply.

Middle Eastern Terrorism Is Not New Either

The Middle East has had its fair share of terrorism throughout the twentieth century. Originally acts of terror were perpetrated by Zionist groups, such as the Stern Gang, Hagana, and the Irgun, against Palestinians as part of the effort to create the state of Israel. One example is sufficient to describe the scale of terror at that time: the bombing of the British government offices at King David hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 caused more than 100 deaths. Interestingly, many of Israel’s political leaders were prominent figures in these terror groups. For instance, the Stern gang that assassinated Count Bernadotte (a UN envoy who was trying to negotiate a truce between Arabs and Jews) in September 1948 was led by Yitzhak Shamir.

Jews did not escape Zionist acts of terror! When propaganda and persuasion failed to encourage some Jews to move to Israel from the Arab countries, agents were sent in to bomb their homes and businesses. These events were described by Naeim Giladi (1992: 261) and by Wilbur Crane Eveland (1980: 48-49), who was a senior officer in the American Central Intelligence Agency.

Undeniably, many states indulge in terrorism as a form of ‘diplomacy’. Israel is no exception. In 1954, relations between the West and Egypt were becoming too cordial for Israel’s taste. On cue, several bombs exploded at a number of American and British establishments in Cairo and Alexandria. It was found eventually that the terrorists were not Egyptian nationalists but Israeli intelligence officers sent to Egypt for the purpose. The agents were executed and their remains were later returned to Israel in 1967 to be buried with full military honours (Heikal, 1992: 127-128).

The Palestinians have waged a campaign of terror against Israel in the hope of setting up an independent state of their own. Their exploits have been covered copiously in the media to an extent that makes further comment unnecessary. For the sake of accuracy, however, it must be said that Christian Arabs have been and are just as active as their Muslin counterparts in the ranks of those fighting against Israel.

Arabs and Jews are not the only participants in Middle Eastern terrorism. The Kurds also adopted terrorist methods for over a century against what they saw as their oppressors; Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian governments (Zunes 2003: 20-21).

It is perhaps useful to point out that Arab terrorism is not exclusively located in the Middle East and targeted against Israel. In 1992 a military coup in Algeria nullified the first democratic elections in the history of Algeria since it gained its independence in 1962 when early polls suggested the Islamic Salvation Front would win decisively. The coup was strongly supported by the French government and was welcomed by the US government (New York Times, 24 July 1992). As expected, the aggrieved groups went underground and resorted to terror that has claimed thousands of lives in Algeria alone. Europe and the USA have not escaped the anger of these groups either, as seen for example in the arrests of Algerians suspected of terrorist links in Britain in early 2003.

A key point: it is patently evident that terrorism is not new and it is not limited to any particular creed, race or geographic location. When conditions are right any people of any religion could turn into ‘vicious killers’. By the same token, no people are beyond redemption, as happened in Israel and as seen more recently in Britain in the acceptance of past IRA ‘terrorists’ as partners in government!

But What About Al-Qaeda?

Now there is something new, or is it? The US began to recruit and arm Mujahideen, to fight in Afghanistan more than six months before the Russian entered the country in 1979. This was done with the full knowledge, and possibly the hope, the presence of the Mujahideen would prompt the Russians to move in. Over the next ten years the USA, with some help from certain Gulf states and the so-called Safari Club, gave these Islamic fighters training, arms and facilities at a cost that exceeded three billion dollars. This includes the bases bombed by the USA and its allies in 1998 and, more intensively, in 2001.

It was not enough to recruit just any Muslims. They had to belong to the ultra conservative sect known as the Wahabi tradition, dominant in Saudi Arabia. The Taliban (roughly translated, students) were the product of Islamic schools (madrassas) funded mainly by Saudi Arabia. Most of the thousands of recruits came from that country, including Osama Bin Laden. He was a businessman who harboured broader political ambitions; mainly concerned with the need to topple the Saudi royal family. To that end, he developed a network in the early-1990s that became known in time as Al-Qaeda. It is useful to quote in full what Zunes said about this organisation’s aims:

“Al-Qaeda believes that the Saudi regime is corrupt and evil in large part because the royal family has squandered its wealth for personal consumption and exotic weaponry while most Arabs suffer in poverty. They are further angered by the regime’s tendency to persecute those who advocate for more ethical priorities. They are angry with the United States, therefore, for propping up such a regime. The US-Saudi alliance, in Al-Qaeda’s view, further illustrates the depravity of the Saudi rulers in their decision to allow American troops on what they see as sacred Saudi soil in order to keep the regime in power. Such a regime is anti-Islamic, from their perspective, and therefore, needs to be overthrown.”

It is difficult to conjecture as to what is worse from the viewpoint of the US elite, Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation, or A-Qaeda as a revolutionary group intent on regime change in Saudi Arabia! In the event, 11 September made that speculation irrelevant.

Where Could One Obtain Reliable Facts About Terrorism?

Having set the general background, it is now appropriate to move into the present concern about international terrorism. Where could one obtain reliable facts about the topic? This is a fundamental question, and one that has a surprising answer. The US Secretary of State is obliged to submit an annual ‘Patterns of Global Terrorism’ report to Congress in compliance with Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(a). Reports going back to the early-1980s are available on the State Department’s website: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2003/ (just change the year fro previous reports).

These comprehensive annual reports are significant because they have the seal of approval of the US government. They are also useful because they tell it as it is: in some instances the facts seem to be at odds with policy statements and public utterances by US government officials!

There are other excellent sources of information on terrorism, notably Stephen Zunes’ (2003) Tinderbox. Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and the chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. This article, however, is based in the main on the Patterns of Global Terrorism reports. Focus is put in particular on the latest report published in May 2002 as it relates to the year that includes the tragic events of 11 September.

So What Are the Facts Behind the Headlines?

Scale of International Terrorism

The threat from terrorism in all its formats warrants careful attention, but do the facts included in the State Department’s report justify the official frenzy, and the antagonism that it inevitably generates, intentionally or otherwise, against certain ethnic or religious groups and nations?

The report answers this question eloquently:

“Despite the horrific events of September 11, the number of international terrorist attacks in 2001 declined to 346, down from 426 the previous year.” (Review of Terrorism in 2001) This decline was not a new phenomenon. As the chart below reveals there has been a slow but steady decline from the high levels of the mid-1980s. (This and other charts presented below are taken from Appendix 1, Statistical Review, pages 171-176 of the report.)

Domestic Terrorism

The report candidly states that:

“Domestic terrorism is probably a more widespread phenomenon than international terrorism.” (Page xvi)

So why the preoccupation with international terrorism? Again, the State Department’s report provides an honest answer:

“Because international terrorism has a direct effect on US interests.” (xvi)

The world, meaning in effect the US as the reigning hegemonic power, only became energised when the American mainland became a target. But surely the scale of the human loss suffered in the 11 September horrific events was exceptional. This is undeniably the case, but equally there were 5,379 international casualties resulting from terrorism in Africa in 1998 (see chart below) and the world was unmoved! The chart also shows that the USA was virtually free from the impact of international terrorism up to 11 September 2001.

US and Other Corporate Interests

The US government is rightly concerned about the threat to US interests at home and abroad: American business activities are by far the most consistent target for terrorists. The chart below provides a clear indication that the terrorists’ attention is focused on businesses, American and otherwise. Plainly, they perceive corporate interests as the direct or indirect enemy.

As mentioned above, US businesses seem to be a major target, but then American corporate interests are statically dominant. Out of 397 attacks against businesses worldwide in 2001 there were 204 attacks against US businesses (see chart below). Significantly, the ‘war’ against corporate America is at its worst not in the Middle East; only 8 attacks, but in Latin America; with a staggering 191 hits! Other targets, including government offices, hardly feature on the terrorists’ hit list.

Key point: in the main, the terrorists seem to be at war with corporate interests around the world, and naturally America looms large in that sector. Political leaders and business and media moguls in the West find it difficult to acknowledge this conclusion, despite the fact that it is drawn from the State Department’s own reports on international terrorism.

The Middle Eastern and Islamic Threat in Perspective

The State Department’s report on international terrorism is uncomfortable about mention of specific ethnic, religious and national groups. Having given a disclaimer (page xv), the main body of the report then proceeds to suggest indirectly that Islamic groups (including the Palestinians) are the most significant offenders. This reflects the elite’s sponsored view, which is gradually spilling into the popular consciousness, that Arabs and Muslims present the largest threat. But do the facts given in the report support that view?

The Statistical Review again reveals a more balanced picture. Latin America comes at the top of the list by a long way when international attacks are grouped by region for all years within the period 1996 to 2001, as shown in the chart below.

The same feature was highlighted earlier in relation to specific anti-US attacks in 2001. The Middle East seems to be about average as a significant threat, especially when compared to the situation in Latin America.

The ‘Latin America Overview’ section of the State Department’s report is a document that should be made compulsory reading for media commentators. Put plainly, the US needs to clear its own backyard before it focuses its might on the Middle East and other Islamic countries. This is not said in defence of the terror exercised by Islamic and Arabic groups, and there are too many of these. However, as numerous observers have already speculated, there is more to ‘the coalition against terror’ than straightforward concern about terrorism.

Aggressive US Hegemony: Globalisation and Liberalisation of Trade

There are reasonably obvious reasons for the tendency to target businesses in general and American businesses in particular. The world, meaning the leading industrialised economies, went through what became known as a ‘golden age’ that lasted from the end of World War II to the 1960s. There was exceptionally good economic growth and consistent annual increases in profits. At that time, Americans, and American companies and products, were welcomed rather than shunned or attacked.

But then events took a turn for the worse. From the 1970s to the present economic growth and profits have been modest in comparison with the situation during the golden age. Essentially, both resumed their historic trends after the abnormal conditions that existed in the two decades after the war (Shutt 2001: 25). But business leaders had become accustomed to the large growth and profits and sought ways to go back to the golden age. Corporate America and the US government, therefore, decided to go global and to adopt highly aggressive policies abroad.

The push for globalisation and liberalisation became the primary aim of American foreign policies and actions. More to the point, transforming the world overnight to suit America’s presumed needs was sought without any heed to the burdens placed on countries subjected to the ‘shock therapy’ of ‘structural adjustment’. Mexico is just one example amongst many of what that strategy entailed for those at the receiving end. In 1983, a basket of basic goods for a family of five cost 46 per cent of the minimum wage, but by 1992 the same basket absorbed 161 per cent (Brown et al. 1997: 123). The whole of Latin America was put through a similar upheaval the consequences of which continue to reverberate; as seen nowadays in Argentina and Brazil.

In effect, there is no shortage of reasons for terrorists to attack businesses in Latin America. But the same factors were, and are, evident elsewhere. Opening the world to businesses fanning out from the leading industrialised economies, led by America, had to be promoted and protected worldwide by all available means, including political and military power. Vassal regimes had to installed and ‘unfriendly’ regimes had to be ‘changed’ throughout the so-called developing world.

These efforts were brought into sharp focus in the cold war against the USSR, but the more serious threats posed by South East Asia and a united Europe could not be ignored either. However, the battlefields for these conflicts remained the same: poorer and weaker countries deemed to be strategically important; principally Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.

This ruthless posture revealed itself in a number of ways, but the ready use of the veto by the USA at the UN Security Council to frustrate proposals aimed at “furthering human rights, peace, nuclear disarmament, economic justice,…apartheid and Israeli lawlessness…” provides a good illustration (Blum, 2001: 182-199). This stance led gradually to the current state of American led skewed ‘globalisation’ that suits few and penalises many others.

Things Will Get Worse

The world is slowly moving towards a model that presents a triad of ‘regional’ hegemonic powers: the USA, Europe, and South East Asia (Stallings, 1995: 361, and Rihani, 2002: 256). No matter how one looks at this shift in global structure, it is highly unattractive to the USA. Coming at a time of economic difficulties associated with long-term trends of lower growth and profits the prospects could not be more gloomy. Response within the American elite is becoming clearer by the day. First, the demarcation line between ‘corporate power’ and ‘state power’ has virtually disappeared. A revolving door form of capitalism has emerged in which a number of individuals oscillate between senior positions in the public and private sectors. Second, a few powerful business and media corporations have emerged with interests throughout the world.

The US elite, straddling the business and political spheres, have a much bigger ‘enemy’ in sight. There is currently a seemingly sporting and civilised economic and political war between the USA and the rising regional powers (especially the ‘United States of Europe’). As mentioned earlier, the game turns nasty in the poorer and weaker regions of the globe. Those affected occasionally turn to terrorism as the only feasible means of resistance.

Key point: The issue here is not whether economic liberalism is good or bad, but the speed and manner by which that shift is being forced through. The same transformations in Europe and the USA took centuries of small, hesitant, and at time painful adjustments. Is it any wonder that a backlash has appeared, peaceful at times and violent at others. To a large extent, international terrorism can be traced directly to this American remodeling of the globe. Different groups are affected differently, and they express their displeasure in their distinctive ways. Domestic terrorism, which could spill over into other countries, is just as complex, only more so as the causes and practices depend largely on local conditions.

UN: a Toothless Tiger

There is no independent international authority that could consider and resolve disputes. This is a significant weakness makes it necessary for at least a few groups with a grievance to resort to terrorism. The United Nations hardly fits the bill. When Boutros-Ghali, the sixth secretary general of the UN, failed to please the US government his days in that post were numbered (Meisler 1995: 180). This overbearing attitude to the UN and its agencies continues. Mary Robinson, previous head of the UN Human Rights Commission, was not given a second term because she offended the USA by criticising Israel (Zunes 2003: 32). The hapless state of the UN became humiliatingly obvious when the US State Department seized the Iraqi document on weapons of mass destruction in late-2002 in order to undertake ‘minor editing’ that reduced it by a third! It is now clear that the present secretary general of the UN, and any successor, is little more than a figurehead.

The situation with regard to the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is simply dire. They are seen, quite accurately, as vehicles for the hegemonic power to regulate the world to meet with its wishes. Their actions over the years have had, at best, an indifferent effect on the poverty and the development prospects of the majority of earth’s population. I have described elsewhere why, irrespective of US domination and interference, these agencies could not succeed without a radical shift in their assumptions and practices (Rihani 2002). It comes as no surprise that their meetings are now held at locations that offer remoteness and security; hardly the image of global bodies dedicated to development and the eradication of poverty!

Fundamentally, they perceive national and international affairs as simple mechanistic systems that respond well to command-and-control management techniques. This is of course not the case. The affairs of humankind, from individuals to the whole global community, unfold along an uncertain evolutionary path that could not be directed by commands from the top. Change takes time, links between causes and effects are not readily obvious, trial and error and copious diversity are at a premium, and outcomes are full of surprises. In short, political, economic and social phenomena behave as complex adaptive systems (Rihani 2002). This applies equally to terrorism, which means that the USA and its allies are sure to meet with lack of success, even if they were sincere in their concern about the threat from terrorism.

Sensible Vigilance or a War on Terror?

The threat from terrorism could not, and should not, be dismissed lightly, but it should be managed sensibly. International terrorism did not appear out of the blue on 11 September 2001. UN Conventions on Terrorism began to appear back in the early-1970s. There are now twelve such conventions covering the full spectrum of terrorism.

More to the point, other conventions have been adopted by regional groupings, again well before 11 September. Notably the Arab League approved a Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism in April 1998, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference agreed a Convention on Combating Terrorism in July 1999. In short, the world was aware of the problem and measured actions were being taken to tackle it in practical ways that seemed to be working.

The dispatch of vast armies to pacify, typically diverse and small, terrorist groups is almost certain to fail. On the contrary, whole populations would be antagonised creating fertile ground for new recruits. How do we know that terrorists operate in diverse and small groups? Yet again, the State Department’s 2001 report answers this question unambiguously:

“Terrorists represent a small minority of dedicated, often fanatical, individuals in most such groups [ethnic, religious and national groups].”

And yet that is how the Israeli government hopes to win the war against Palestinian so-called “terrorists”. Ariel Sharon explained his philosophy to the Israeli Knesset: “The aim is to increase the number of losses on the other side. Only after they have been battered will we be able to conduct talks.” (Zunes, 2003: ii). In short, state terrorism is the only answer to terrorism. America and Israel are at one on that issue, as on all others!

If terrorism were shown to be a simple one dimensional phenomenon with clear and limited causes and effects then the mechanistic solutions adopted by the USA and others might stand a good chance of being effective. But the examples given above reveal a complex multidimensional activity that has numerous causes and effects, and unpredictable inputs and outputs.

The example of Osama bin-Laden is instructive. He was recruited by the American’s with thousands of other Muslims, mainly from Saudi Arabia, to wage a terrorist war against the Russians in Afghanistan. The might of the Russian army could not defeat him and his other fighters. Later, the Americans and their allies decided to wipe him and Al Qaeda by overwhelming fire power. Thousands died but he is still at large and according to the CIA he continues to pose a serious threat to the US and its businesses and allies. Equally alarming, some 15,000 trained fighters have returned to Saudi Arabia. They now present a major threat to US oil and other strategic interests in the Gulf. So much for a simple and predictable activity that could be kept under control.

Key point: terrorism is a complex phenomenon that does not offer easy or universal answers. The phenomenon has to be analysed and handled with a great deal or finesse and delicacy. Brute force will cause more harm than good.

The Time Is Right for the US to Re-evaluate Its Policies

Assuming that the various American agencies concerned with terrorism have read the State Department’s annual reports on the subject, one is left with an intriguing question: what is the present terrorism frenzy about?

Put simply, the Bush administration is trying desperately to play down the broader perspective described in this article. At the same time the administration is seeking to exploit the fear of terrorism to achieve other, less wholesome objectives. References to ‘envy’, ‘forces of evil’, and an ‘attack on civilised societies’ intentionally trivialise the issue. Other explanations raise too many inconvenient questions that are best left untouched.

But these fundamental questions cannot be left untouched if the world were to find a way out of the present dangerous slide towards brutal anarchy where the powerful set out to stamp out all resistance by sheer force. Right or wrong, such a policy is doomed to fail, and a heavy price will be paid by ordinary people from all nations until this truism becomes all too evident even for the meanest intelligences to grasp.

Fundamentally, there are two interlinked triggers to terrorism: the push by the USA to keep its hegemonic hold on world affairs, and diverse grievances that affect significant groups of people that have no other means of redress but to resort to violence. When associated with poverty, despair and lack of justice, the mixture becomes explosive. Eminently justified, lamentations that no cause could possibly excuse the murder of innocent people are in practice a waste of time. The use of terror, usually as a last resort, to achieve cherished aspirations or to rectify grievances is not new and will not disappear simply because we disapprove of the practice. The US government, especially, need only ask whether a state of Israel would be in existence today without the exercise of appalling terror methods. The answer is too obvious for further discussion.

Oil, and other sources of raw materials and minerals, are strategic assets the control of which sets a hegemonic power apart from other competitors. As George Bush declared in January 1990, the 20th century “had proved to be an American century.” It was so because the US was the first: to extract oil in large quantities, to see its wide applications, to have unlimited supplies during war, to dominate world markets as producer, and to see the importance of Saudi Arabia’s oil (Heikal, 1992: 112).

The US State Department considers the Middle East as “a stupendous source of strategic power…probably the richest economic prize in the world…” This is not a new vision. President Eisenhower described the region as the most “strategically important area in the world” (Zunes, 2003: 2).

Control of oil is still seen today by the US elite as the most important component in retaining credibility as the undisputed hegemonic power. The stationing of American forces in Georgia, as one example, has little to do with fear of a Russian attack. And the war in Afghanistan, in which American forces attacked military bases and installations build and paid for by the USA, was not merely undertaken to teach Taliban and Osama bin Laden a lesson. With the war on, and the subsequent occupation of, Iraq the US would threaten Iran and Saudi Arabia in one swoop and would have almost total control of the richest oil deposits in the world.

America’s most significant competitors; Europe, and particularly Japan with no alternative access to oil, will have to play ball or else! That at least is the theory, and the policy it prompted is not new. Chomsky (1982: 97-98) called it a ‘new cold war’ in which oil would be used as a weapon before the USSR had departed the scene.

Oil is a key factor that has coloured US policies for decades. In fact, it has dominated American thinking to such an extent that it has become en enshrined doctrine that is beyond discussion as a sensible strategy. The considerable harm it had done to the US image abroad, and to its long-term business interests, has not been assessed to any appreciable extent. It is time that omission was rectified.

One can see the same paradox in relation to US implacable support for Israel: policies that have acquired the status of an inviolable doctrine despite their evident shortcomings. After over half a century, Israel is still a state confronted by a whole host of seemingly insurmountable economic, social, political, and security problems. Nonetheless, Israeli leaders, with unquestioning American backing, continue to intimidate, insult, goad and demonise the Palestinians; people with whom they will ultimately, and inevitably, have to reach an initial accommodation that must turn in time to normal neighborly relations.

Over the decades, successive US administrations have gone along with (or encouraged?) cockeyed Israeli policies despite the obvious harm, and cost, that these practices imposed on the USA. The overall cost is worth another look. David R. Francis, staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor, reported that since 1973, Israel has cost the United States about $1.6 trillion. Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid; about $3 billion every year. Adjusting the official aid to 2001 dollars in purchasing power, Israel has been given $240 billion since 1973, (see http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1209/p16s01-wmgn.html ).

It would seem that turmoil in a region that is strategically important to American interests, military costs, and the continuous threat of terrorist action are considered worthwhile as a price for unquestioning support for Israel. This is an intriguing paradox. In the end there will be an independent Palestinian state. Why the delay? The USA would have saved itself a great deal of money, and its image would have also remain reasonably positive in the Arab and Muslim world if it had adopted a more even-handed policy in the Middle east. And to cap it all a niggling source of international terrorism would have been practically eliminated. At heart, present policies simply do not make sense and we need to look at alternative explanations as to why they are given precedence over other more sensible actions.


The US government is in denial, and it is conditioning US citizens to adopt the same self-deceiving attitude. When asked to explain why the terrorists seem to target the USA, Richard Haass, head of the foreign policy department at the Brookings Institution, replied: “…it’s not what anything we’re simply doing. It is who we are.” (Blum, 2001: 29). Little progress could be made unless and until it was accepted that it takes two to create enough hatred to ignite the terrorism spark. Equally, over-exaggeration of the scale of the threat is unhelpful.

Terrorism is not a vice imprinted on particular creeds or ethnic groups. The phenomenon has ancient roots that touch all people. Under the rights conditions, some people turn to terrorism when they feel they have little to lose and something to gain.

Evidently, terrorism is a repugnant practice that in the main, and almost by definition, hurts innocent people. It is instructive to conjecture about the proportion of people killed on 11 September who had little sympathy with America’s political and corporate policies and aspirations. The need to do something about this evil is not in dispute here.

However, ordinary people do not turn into terrorists out of the blue or on a passing whim. Despite the rhetoric of those who do not want the general public to look too deeply into the matter, young persons do not explode bombs strapped to their bodies and they do not kill themselves and others by crashing planes into buildings simply because they are unhappy, jealous, or bigoted. It takes a great deal of provocation for anyone to get to that stage of anger and desperation.

The key question is what should we do about terrorism. Clearly, we must take sensible precautions without heeding the manufactured paranoia that characterises public announcements in the USA and Europe these days. But that simply deals with the symptoms. How does one address the disease?

For a start, we must keep in mind that the international terrorism phenomenon is not as significant as it is painted out. It is also one that is in slow decline. Second, whatever actions are taken should not turn whole populations into recruiting grounds for potential terrorists. Astonishingly, and apart from failing to deliver the desired results, this is precisely what current American pronouncements and actions will reap.

Insults, lethal weapons, and media campaigns to demonise ethnic groups and religions (never mind protestations to the contrary) will do nothing to reduce the impact of terrorism. These actions will make it worse. And the fact that they give vent to fundamentalist views, of the Christian and Jewish variety this time, makes matters infinitely worse. Their extreme aspirations have been given new legitimacy and what has been totally unacceptable in the past has now become fashionably patriotic.

What could be more effectively done to confront the menace of terrorism? As always, the process must begin with democratisation, at both the global and local levels. Little can be achieved when people feel their voice could not be heard and their grievances could be considered by an independent authority that is able to rectify matters when right and proper. In this respect, the tendency to sideline the United Nations by the US and its close allies has to be resisted and then reversed. This is not an easy task, but then little is easy when it comes to convincing a hegemonic power to behave sensibly on its way down.

Although the UN is a key piece in the jigsaw, local democracy is equally necessary. There is little prospect of peace in Israel, the Middle East and the world without a Palestinian State with secure borders and a democratically elected government that draws a line under the bloody past. Genuine democracy is also sorely needed in other Arab countries. This is not easy either. For a start, the extremists in Israel would not approve. And it is not certain that Arafat and his cohorts would approve either. In addition, a peaceful Middle East hardly requires thousands of American soldiers, vassal and unpopular Arab governments, and the constant coming and going of American ‘envoys’. The task is difficult, but if the world means business then that is what needs to be done.

We now come to the biggest hurdle: the project to convert the whole world overnight to America’s version of the liberal free-market on the basis of ‘shock therapy’ needs to be identified as a major trigger for terrorist acts. The intention here is not to argue against the virtues of capitalism or neoliberal economics. In the long-term there is little doubt that the world will move to that end. The question is the speed of the transformation.

America should keep its own past in mind: for most of its history America was not economically liberal. Alexander Hamilton, US Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795 submitted his Report on Manufactures to Congress, in 1791 when the American economy was in its infancy. He was critical of the push by Britain at that time to convert the world to its vision of capitalism. Friedrich List (1789-1846) expressed similar views on behalf of Germany in the 19th century.

Hamilton and List, and others like them, were not against capitalism. They were not out to challenge the ‘world order’. Their message was simple: our country needs time to evolve. Many countries today are saying the same thing. Transformations of this order, and the human and economic development of nations could not be hurried along just because that serves US interests now (see Rihani, 2002) .

Leaders in richer and poorer countries need to recognise this simple fact and then stand up and be counted when the issue is debated at the World Trade Organisation and other venues. More progress towards liberalisation could be made by example and help than by coercion through economic, political or military force. Undoubtedly there might be a small impact on US trade (a very small fraction of which involves the so-called developing world), but present policies are also costly. Recent economic difficulties in the USA and Europe suggest that these policies are bankrupt and bankrupting. Their abandonment would have many positive aspects including a reduction in terrorism and global unrest. But would the myopic corporate interests in the USA allow such a change? Should they be allowed to decide?