How Ordinary People Talk About Terrorism

This blog was first published on the Politics blog here.

Since 9/11, terrorism has become a ubiquitous and seemingly permanent feature of our everyday lives, from news and media entertainment, to security measures when we travel or visit public venues. Our Politics article, “Talking about Terrorism: A Study of Vernacular Discourse” seeks to better understand the vernacular “everyday narratives” of lay members of the public in their everyday talk about terrorism. We argue that while there are a great many studies of how elites speak about terrorism, as well as a large number of public opinion studies, there are fewer studies which focus on how ordinary people speak about terrorism-related topics in their daily conversation. As a consequence, we don’t yet fully understand how ordinary people understand and conceptualise – or how they “know” – what terrorism is, how it manifests, what its causes are, and how it is most effectively dealt with.

It is important to study this systematically because it will enrich our understanding of public opinion – how important political discourses are articulated by different actors, how they are consumed by audiences, how they circulate in society, how they are resisted, how dominant they are in practice, and how they deal with questions of legitimacy and public policy. In this study, we employed a form of conversation analysis used in discursive psychology with groups of lay members of the public to try and gain a deeper, more dynamic description of the narratives, commonplaces, cultural repertoires, frames, and metaphors deployed in vernacular speech, as well as a deeper understanding of how such shared cultural resources are constructed inter-subjectively in social interaction.

Some of our findings from the study were unsurprising. For example, we found that many ordinary people speak about, and understand, terrorism in ways that closely mirror the primary messages about terrorism in the media and from elites – such as that terrorism poses a major threat to Western societies, and that terrorists are driven by religious extremism. It was also unsurprising to confirm that many ordinary people use popular films as a frame to interpret contemporary events relating to terrorism. On the other hand, we were surprised to discover that most ordinary people cannot distinguish between war and terrorism, and often consider that Western wars are a kind of terrorism that we impose on other societies. It was also interesting to find that most ordinary people do not have consistent views about terrorism, but evidence a lot of dissonance and contradiction, and, in contradiction to many academics, they accept that states can be terrorists too.

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Confessions of a terrorist sympathiser

I confess that I am a terrorist sympathiser. Of course, it is a profanity, a kind of blasphemy, to admit to such a thing, perhaps the greatest blasphemy in our society at the present time. Some may also consider that this is not the right time to make this confession and all that it entails. It will be said that in the immediate aftermath of an attack, condemnation and standing united against the enemies of freedom is the only ethically-defensible stance. But, for reasons I hope will become clear, I believe that this is exactly the right time to claim the ignominious label of terrorist sympathiser, and that sympathy for the terrorist is what is most needed right now if we are to break the current international cycle of violence and find more ethical and peaceful ways of responding to the challenge of contemporary political violence.

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I can understand how a young woman from Gaza might consider that she has no real future, nothing but daily humiliations, the continued threat of being shot by an Israeli soldier or firebombed by a settler, or being arrested and tortured by the police. I can understand that she might have had a family member, or a friend, killed in one of the periodic ritualised Israeli invasions of Palestinian territory. I can understand how living under a callous, apartheid-like regime could ignite into a smouldering sense of rage, humiliation, and powerlessness. I can understand how an intelligent, sensitive woman like that might feel that hitting back at her oppressor, that sacrificing her life for her community, that choosing the time and place of her own death, might seem like a way to reclaim her shattered sense of self-worth and self-respect, her agency, her sense of purpose, and in the end, advance the struggle for a free Palestinian state.

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I can understand how a young Sunni man from Bagdad might feel that his childhood had been ripped away from him in an illegal invasion and the civil war it precipitated. I can understand the trauma that comes from witnessing the destruction of his country and the deaths of more than a million fellow citizens. I can understand the process of brutalisation he would go through when as a young boy he sees bodies dismembered on the streets of his neighbourhood by coalition air strikes and the seemingly endless succession of insurgent car bombs. I can understand the rage he would feel at seeing pregnant women shot to death by nervous young American soldiers at a checkpoint.

I can understand his sense of utter horror when members of his family or friends and colleagues were abducted, tortured to death and their mutilated bodies dumped by the roadside by the Shia death squads operating out of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior – soldiers trained and armed by the occupying U.S. Military. I can understand his humiliation to have had friends swept up and tortured in Abu Ghraib, sexually violated and the photographs shown all over the world’s media.

I can understand how this traumatised, unemployed young man with few realistic prospects of gainful employment or marriage and a family, a young man witnessing his country, his society, his history, his family, his life, being systematically destroyed, chooses to join a powerful, wealthy, successful insurgent group who promise him revenge on his persecutors and the authors of his humiliation – a group which offers a purpose, a mission, a community of brothers, a way out of his sense of powerlessness, a well-paid job. I can understand that this young man might join ISIS.

I can understand a young Muslim woman in France who feels despised by the society she lives in; who is spat upon every day while she waits at the bus stop, and told to go home because she’s a foreigner and a terrorist; who is forced to live in an urban slum full of crime and generational hopelessness; who faces discrimination when she applies for a job; who is told what she is allowed to wear in public, and told that she cannot publicly protest against the oppression of Palestine. I can understand that she has also had to watch while her country and its allies invaded, bombed, and tortured millions of fellow Muslims in country after country across the Middle East, year after year for more than a decade. I can understand that she might feel utter powerlessness because there seems to be no way to influence her government’s policies. I can understand that she might look at the history of the Algerian FLN and how they fought back against French colonialism and think that a military campaign might have a chance to end the oppression she sees – that if people on the streets of Paris feel the same insecurity that people in the Middle East feel that maybe the public will demand that their leaders change course.

At another level, I am a terrorist sympathiser because I understand that the terrorists hold to the very same moral framework that our own leaders hold to and publically defend. That is, terrorists, just like our leaders, believe that violence can be an effective and legitimate method for achieving their political goals, and that in defence of some values – such as protecting the innocent, freedom, justice – the means justifies the ends – that bombing, even if it causes the collateral or deliberate deaths of the innocent, is sometimes necessary. I understand that soldiers and terrorists often have the same reasons for what they do – they believe they are fighting for their people; they want adventure; they fight for their comrades. Sometimes, the only difference between a terrorist and a soldier, an insurgent or a freedom fighter, is who is doing the labelling – and when the labelling takes place.

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I understand that terrorists are often reacting to the long history of violence our governments have wrought on their societies, through invasion, coups, bombing campaigns, support for dictatorships, arms transfers, interference – and that they want us to experience the terror and insecurity that they have had to live with. I understand that their violence and our violence is not separate or distinct, but part of the same phenomenon: we attack them with advanced military technology from a distance; they attack us with their bodies, close and personal. It is action-reaction, tit-for-tat, a coordinated dance of mutual killing. Ultimately, violence is relational. Despite the comforting myths we tell ourselves, “our” violence is no different from “their” violence.

In a recent article in the New York Times online, a Dutch IS member who documents his life on Tumblr, defended the attacks in Paris by calling them a fair response to the bombardment of Islamic State positions by the French Air Force. He had earlier stated that assaults on civilian targets in France by the Islamists were “fair game,” as, he said, he had “lost count of the hospitals, markets and mosques bombed by the enemies of Islam.”

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I can understand how a man like Nelson Mandela, after years of peaceful protests and reasonable requests for freedom and dignity, who, facing increasingly violent suppression by a racist authoritarian regime, felt that he had no real choice but to engage in an armed struggle for meaningful change.

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I understand the former IRA prisoner who guided me around Belfast, and explained how the insecurity and injustice faced by his Catholic community, and the failure of the police to protect them from Loyalist gangs, led him to volunteer to be a member of an army of community protection, as he described it, and later to join the prison protests.

In fact, the life-story of every terrorist I have read or heard directly – from the Basque country, to Italy, Germany, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Peru and elsewhere – has been completely understandable to me. I could not say any of them were inhuman, or nonhuman, or incomprehensible; none of them were the monsters terrorists they are naturally assumed to be.

And lest someone argues that my sympathy is selective, I am also a terrorist sympathiser because I can understand how a young woman, after watching the Twin Towers collapse, would volunteer to go to Iraq to serve as a prison guard, and how after being told that Iraqis were involved in 9/11, how they were the enemies of freedom, how they were killing American soldiers, and how it was essential for them to be ‘softened up’ for interrogation, might then beat and abuse the prisoners in her wing – might strip them naked and drag them around like a dog on a leash.

Of course, to be a terrorist sympathiser – to even attempt to understand the reasons why someone would make this kind of choice and commit this kind of violence – is to commit a great blasphemy at this time and place in history. This is never more true than in the moments following a terrorist attack when loud, ritual condemnation is the only socially acceptable response. In our current age, terrorism, along with paedophilia, is one of society’s greatest taboos; one of the worst forms of evil there is. In our political discourse, in our laws, in our cultural depictions, in our minds, terrorism is inherently inhuman, savage, demonic – and terrorists are the original bogeyman; the wild man in the woods; the stealer of children. Following the Paris attacks, Malcolm Turnbull claimed the attacks were “the work of the devil”. In such a culturally resonant framework, terrorism does not belong to our world, but exists outside of it in a separate metaphysical realm.

In some respects, this is completely understandable, because terrorism involves appalling, spectacular violence, frequently targeted at the innocent. When we see the images, the macabre theatre of terror, we are not equipped to comprehend the moral forces behind it, and as a result, we become mute. It is the same mute incomprehension when we contemplate what it took to enact the mass slaughter of the Jews in the holocaust or the mass slaughter by machete in the Rwandan genocide. In such a situation, faced with the stark cruelty of the organised, deliberate violation of human beings, it is tempting to try and expel the perceived perpetrators out of the realm of everyday human life and politics – to abstract them to a metaphysical plain in which their actions must surely be governed by some kind of inhuman, demonic forces.

At the same time, we have to also acknowledge that our sense of mute horror at the stark reality of political violence is culturally conditioned and determined in part by our own, limited experiences. We don’t know what it is really like to live under the shadow of drone warfare, for example. It seems likely that to some communities in Pakistan or Afghanistan, the invisible, infernal machines who stalk people from the skies, and then unleash hellfire missiles which dismember and burn their children and brothers, are the epitome of supernatural evil forces – and not at all the technological, clean machines of war our society believes them to be. The reality is that the difference between being blown apart by a suicide bomber and being blown apart by a missile launched from a billion dollar warship or a predator drone is not related to its real material effects: the same mutilated bodies result; the same horrified survivors must find a way to live with their loss. The only difference is our belief about the legitimacy, and to some degree, the aesthetics of the violence: a computer generated image of a smart bomb dropped on a village in Pakistan looks less barbarous to us than a suicide attack on the streets of Paris.

However, at the risk of being labelled a blasphemer and a traitor, I would argue that it does us no good at all to isolate and expel the terrorist from the human realm to the metaphysical realm. In fact, while it may provide a fleeting psychological comfort, the retreat to “evil” as a framework for understanding political violence is harmful, intellectually and morally. It is harmful to both ourselves and to others. Intellectually, it is harmful because it is at heart a delusion: there is no evidence that terrorists, or any other person who commits a horrible crime, is non-human, purely evil in a metaphysical sense. Even the worst of us – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden, the Rwandan genocidaires, the Paris attackers – were human beings with physical and social lives; with thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, fears and anxieties. They made choices, they suffered, they bled. Looking for the source of their actions outside of their humanity is an intellectual dead-end and of no practical use to anyone. We will never understand the roots and causes of human violence if we are unwilling to look for it in the socio-historical conditions of being a human being, and the political-economic conditions of twenty-first century life.

Locating the sources of violence in a non-human metaphysical realm – which includes laying responsibility on a kind of magical conception of the infectious role of wrong ideas – is tempting because it is simple and reassuring: we don’t have to look inside ourselves or admit that as human beings we are all capable of, and culpable in, violence. In particular, it allows us to maintain a series of comforting collective delusions about how we, the civilised, democratic West, have constructed the world we inhabit; it deludes us into thinking that the problem lies elsewhere, beyond the realm of our own politics, diplomacy, foreign policy, history, imperial decisions. It means we don’t have to take responsibility for making and maintaining a world order in which violence is acceptable, where force is used to settle disputes, where millions of young people are trained and equipped with weapons and flags to kill their fellow human beings, where the most powerful nations use technologically advanced death machines to maintain the global order that maintains their privilege. It means we don’t have to look at the conditions of the poor, the dispossessed, the persecuted, the under-privileged, the socially disadvantaged, the voiceless. It means we don’t have to recognise that terrorism most often emerges from situations where mass movements searching for social justice have been blocked or defeated.

Claire Veale, a French student writing in response to the Paris attacks, puts it this way:

It is important to recognize the attackers as human beings, capable of acting and thinking rationally, as it is a first step towards understanding the reasoning behind their actions. Religious fanaticism is simply a vector of violence, as has been the case for many other ideologies in the past, such as nationalism, fascism, or communism. These ideologies are not the root causes of violence. Although this may seem obvious, there is a need to stress that religious extremism is not the reason why a young man would take up a gun and shoot into a crowd, it is simply an instrument to channel their anger.

We must try to look at the very roots of these young men’s discontent. Debates should be opened about the school system, about the ghettoization of urban areas across France, about police violence and domestic anti-terror security measures, about the prison system, about structural racism, about our skewed justice system, about oppressive and strict secularism; and the list goes on. […] Amedy Coulibaly, another actor in the Paris shootings in January 2015, suffered the death of his friend in a police “slipup” when he was 18.

This kind of direct aggression perpetrated on a daily basis adds to the structural violence and discrimination young men from underprivileged backgrounds experience in European societies. War for them is not such a distant, disconnected reality, but closer to their everyday life. Every racist insult, act of police brutality, unfair trial, or discriminatory treatment brings them one step closer to carry out tragedies as the massacre in Paris. We must therefore question the very system we live in and the way of life we defend so defiantly…

Of course, the search for the origins of political violence cannot end here. Not all young Muslims in a Paris slum, or Baghdad, or Gaza, join militant groups or commit acts of terrorism; nor do all American young people become torturers in Iraq or drone operators in Nevada. This is not an argument for a kind of deterministic structuralism; I am not denying the role of individual agency or responsibility. Nevertheless, in the absence of an honest examination of the conditions which construct human subjectivity at this moment in history, we can never hope to understand the roots of contemporary political violence or the possibilities for peaceful alternatives.

Interestingly, a number of scholars have noted how the trope of the “evil” terrorist, as well as some aspects of contemporary counterterrorism, shares features with the medieval witch craze and European conceptions of “the devil”. Certainly, the similarities between the inquisition, the language of “evildoers”, and the tortuous, confessional interrogational practices seen in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are disturbingly obvious. In fact, the term “religious terrorism” and the attempt to lay the blame for terrorist violence at the feet of “violent extremism” or the mysterious process of “radicalisation” is part and parcel of this broader framework in which terrorism is expelled from the realm of the material-political world and instead relegated to the metaphysical, spiritual world.

In part, this cultural frame which stretches back over hundreds of years of Western history is one of the reasons why I would argue that sympathy for the terrorist – by way of understanding, and a minimal level of empathetic projection – is not only defensible as an intellectual exercise to better understand the roots and sources of violence. I would go so far as to argue that sympathy for the terrorist is greatly needed at this particular historical moment; it is necessary if we are to break out of the entrenched cycle of violence we are currently trapped in. We need sympathy for the terrorist if we are to find other more ethical, peaceful and effective ways of responding to terrorism.

Sympathy for the terrorist is also necessary if we are to recover our ethical values and our sense of collective morality. The fact is that the lack of sympathy – of basic human understanding – is deeply implicated in our willingness to send killer drones into far away countries to hunt down suspected terrorists and kill them (and those standing in proximity to them) without any compunction, mercilessly, without any process of weighing of the evidence or any semblance of justice – and without considering the consequences in terms of increased hatred, insecurity, the creation of more militants eager to attack us. The lack of sympathy allows drone operators to refer to children as “fun-size terrorists” and liken killing them to “cutting the grass before it grows too long”. It allows us to never know or acknowledge the names of any of the people killed in our name, and for them to have, as Judith Butler calls them, ungrievable lives.

The lack of sympathy for the terrorist other is implicated in our willingness to kidnap, render, disappear and detain people from the streets of Karachi, or Nairobi, or Aden into a secret system of so-called black sites, beyond the law, beyond ethics and the monitoring of any human rights organisations – and with the cooperation of dozens of Western countries and little outcry from Western publics. It is implicated in our willingness to torture and abuse thousands of prisoners and detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere – to refer to them as “animals”, “monsters”, the “faceless enemies of freedom”, as “a scourge” and a “cancer” in need of excising. It is implicated in the recent extension of the shoot-to-kill policy from the streets of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, to the streets of Europe. The lack of sympathy for the terrorist is also implicated in our targeting of all Muslims and those who fit the racist imaginary of what a Muslim looks like (such as a Sikh man in a coffee shop) for human rights restrictions, profiling, surveillance, and harassment. It is implicated in our uncaring, xenophobic response to the refugee crisis which we authored in large part by our interventionist foreign policies.

The reality is that since 9/11, in our lack of sympathy, in our dehumanising and demonising of a whole class of untouchable human beings – those labelled as ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorist sympathisers’ – we have opened the door to the worst kind of human rights abuses. After all, if terrorists are evil, monstrous beings outside of the human realm, then there is no reason why they should be protected from torture, from rendition, from extra-judicial assassination by drones or shoot-to-kill policies, from incarceration without trial, from surveillance, profiling, and everyday discrimination. Recovering our sympathy for our fellow human beings, no matter what they are alleged to have done or are suspected of, is a first step towards recovering a semblance of collective morality.

Finally, I want to argue that our complete lack of sympathy for the terrorist is dangerous because it blinds us to the possibilities inherent in the political – to the possibility that we can change how people act by the way in which we act towards them; to the possibility that underneath the violence and the posturing, they may want the same things all human societies do – security, self-determination, dignity, opportunity, freedom to live the way they choose. It blinds us to the power of dialogue, engagement, political contestation, as ways out of violence. It blinds us to the way in which violence itself can be a form of communication, a cry to be heard, to be listened to. There are enough examples to show that when individuals and political groups have genuine avenues for pursuing their goals and grievances, when they feel that they have a genuine voice, that this can change their political calculations away from the use of violence.

In this respect, in eliminating what has been described as “the grey zones” – those opportunities for dialogue, diplomacy, compromise, forms of accommodation, and those social, political and intellectual spaces of toleration and empathy – our lack of sympathy leaves us polarised, alienated, fearful; it leaves us in a world of sharp distinctions, of black and white crusaders and jihadists, heroes and villains, them and us; it leaves us trapped in an inevitable clash of civilisations. If we jettison our sympathy and understanding, if we expel the terrorist to the realm of the monstrous, inhuman other, we surrender to the violent logic of being either for or against, friend or enemy. And in the process of eliminating the grey zone, we simultaneously eliminate the possibility of imagining or discovering any nonviolent pathways out of the current intractable conflict, or indeed, imagining an alternative politics somewhere between the theocratic vision of ISIS and the neoliberal fundamentalism of the West.

I wrote my novel, Confessions of a Terrorist, in part to recover the kind of empathy and understanding we have lost in the past fourteen years since 9/11, before terrorists became the epitome of unfathomable evil. I wrote it so that the terrorist other could speak to us about his reasons and his humanity, so that we could have a dialogue with him about what he really wants, what he feels, what he hopes for. Until we can understand why a person, a human being, someone we might consider thoughtful and idealistic if we spoke to him, would choose to launch terrorist attacks against us, we have no hope of responding in a manner that doesn’t simply compound the current cycle of violence. The point here is that sympathy and understanding is at heart a process of imagining ourselves in the life-world of another. This is more easily achieved through the narrative voice than the academic voice.

Of course, as a final note, it is important to point out that sympathising with the terrorist – understanding their motivations, their hopes and dreams, their shared humanity – does not in any way imply condoning their actions, or excusing their moral responsibility for their actions. What terrorists of all kinds do – whether state terrorists or non-state terrorists – is deeply immoral and a violation of accepted ethical codes of behaviour. I am a pacifist by conviction. I view all forms of political violence – state violence and non-state violence, terrorism and counterterrorism – as morally problematic and empirically ineffective, capable only of creating the foundations for further violence. As Gandhi put it, “I oppose all violence because the good it does is always temporary but the harm it does is permanent”. Political violence is in essence the expression of a kind of necro-politics, or anti-politics, that drags us into a place without light or mercy. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

In conclusion, recovering sympathy for the terrorist, recognising their humanity, their politics, their suffering, their aspirations, their sense of self in this particular historical epoch, is essential for understanding the roots of their violent actions. It is also essential for reconstituting our own shattered sense of collective morality, and for recognising and acknowledging our own role in the constitutive violence of the current system. Finally, it is the basis on which we can begin to search for an alternative politics of response to contemporary political violence, perhaps even one based on the moral injunction to love your enemies.

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‘An act of war’ – and other unfortunate phrases

Watching the terrible events unfolding in Paris, I have a helpless sense of deja vu. It reminds me of the movie, Groundhog Day, only much more deadly and depressing. It feels like we have been here so many times before: the same anguished images, the same suffering, the same questions and sense of disbelief. Most depressingly, listening to the rhetoric coming from Western leaders, I can’t see any way we can avoid experiencing the same day again – whether in a few months or years time.

As I explained in my book Writing the War on Terrorism about the language of counterterrorism, when the 11 September 2001 attacks occurred, President Bush said that they were “an act of war”. This was a key rhetorical move and it led the US to launch the global war on terrorism which has caused so much suffering, violence and counter-violence. Today in Paris, exactly like all those years ago, French President Hollande said, the attack was “an act of war committed by a terrorist army”, and “faced with war, the country must take appropriate action”. Just like President Bush fourteen years ago, he similarly signalled his resolve: “we are going to fight and our fight will be merciless.” Former president Nicolas Sarkozy added to the war rhetoric: “The war we must wage should be total.”

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush said that the attacks were an attack on freedom and the civilised world. Today, President Obama said: “this is an attack not just on Paris, not just on the people of France, but an attack on all humanity and the universal values we share.” As Bush did so many years ago invoking the mythology of the Western frontier, Obama said that America will do “whatever it takes to bring these terrorists to justice”.

After the attacks back in 2001, we heard the Bush administration claim that al Qaeda represented an anti-modern form of totalitarianism. Following the same script, today US Secretary of State John Kerry said “we are witnessing a kind of medieval and modern fascism at the same time.” And similar to George Bush’s frequent invocation of the “evil” of terrorism and terrorist “evildoers”, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described yesterday’s attacks as “the work of the devil”.

As I and many others have argued, this kind of rhetoric is not without consequence; it functions to shape and structure the response which will inevitably come. It provides a powerful cognitive frame for thinking about the threat of political violence and how to respond. If the attacks are viewed and discussed as an act of “war”, for example, as opposed to a terrible “crime”, a military response then becomes the logical default option. And if the terrorists are conceived of as “evil” or “devils”, or even as “fascists” and “medieval”, then there is no place for anything except policies of eradication: there can be no compromise with “evil”.

After 9/11, presidential rhetoric about the terrorist attacks laid the foundation for a massive military-based “war on terrorism” which involved two major wars costing three trillion dollars and over a million lives, military strikes and a drone killing programme on at least three other countries, a global rendition and torture programme, profiling and mass surveillance, restrictions of human rights, the militarisation of the police, and many other restrictive measures in daily life. In turn, all this activity has contributed to violent instability across the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, the mass movement of refugees, the rise of Islamophobia, and much else besides. Arguably, in a self-fulfilling prophesy, or what is called “blowback” by the security services, it helped to create at least five new al Qaeda groups, and numerous other militant affiliates. In Iraq, it led directly to the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq which then morphed into ISIS, and the merger of the Syrian and Iraq civil wars. In response, the West has initiated a renewed military campaign to bomb areas of Syria and Iraq.

In other words, on the rhetorial basis of the “war” against “evil” frame, the West helped to create and sustain a deeply embedded cycle of violence. The Paris attacks, as well as the Beirut attack a few hours earlier and the killing of “Jihadi John”, are the latest acts in this by now quite intractable cycle of violence. The language of Western leaders, especially the words of the French leadership today, strongly suggest that we remain trapped in our own “war on terrorism” Groundhog Day. I think it’s safe to say that Western leaders will respond with more bombing of the Middle East, more military force, more war, more responding to terrorism with even greater violence and repression. After all, once the words are spoken, there is no choice but to eradicate “evil”.

This means that there will be future days like today, both in Western countries and in the countries of the Middle East rhetorically linked to terrorism. We will try and kill them with our military, and they will try and kill us with their militants. Of course, in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray eventually escapes his fate by learning from his mistakes and gaining a stronger sense of humanity. The message of the movie is that there is always hope that people can change and break the negative cycles of their actions. Today, there is no evidence that our leaders are ready to learn from their mistakes over fourteen years of the war on terror, and maybe it is not the day to insist they do. Let’s grieve first, and then consider carefully whether we want to keep on the same path. The problem is that the words our leaders speak today will shape the reflections and actions they choose in the coming days, and today, I can’t see anything else to come except more Groundhog Day.

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IS and the barbarism of war

The following is an op-ed I recently published in the Otago Daily Times about the barbarism of ISIS and how we might put it in context:

The latest atrocity by Islamic State forces in Iraq in which a captured Jordanian pilot was burned to death has provoked an understandable wave of commentary from around the world. The horrific spectacle created by the killing raises a number of crucial questions for us to consider. Is Islamic State (IS) a new, more brutal kind of rebel group? What purpose can such brutality serve? How should the world respond to the increasing brutality of the war in Iraq, and what does this latest development tell us about Western strategy in the region?

Sadly, this atrocity, and those previously committed by IS, are actually fairly banal in the history of warfare. Depraved cruelty and inhumanity is part and parcel of the very nature of war. To see the truth of this we need only recall what American GIs did to captured prisoners in Vietnam, what British troops did to communist insurgents in Malaya or to suspected Mau Mau in Kenya, or what the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the RUF in Sierra Leone, and the Interahamwe in Rwanda did to countless civilians in their conflicts. Or, consider the activities of the Latin American death squads during the cold war, the actions of Russian forces in Chechnya, or how state security officials in Uzbekistan boiled people to death in vats of oil. In South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle, it was commonplace for angry township residents to put a tire filled with petrol around the neck of a suspected informer and burn them to death. The truth is that history records innumerable atrocities by rebels and soldiers alike that in fact make the actions of IS pale into relative insignificance. In some respects, IS are still amateurs in the arts of violent cruelty during war.

In addition, we should also keep in mind that what counts as cruelty and barbarism in war is shaped by our cultural values and historical context. Objectively, it is perverse to insist that burning a man to death with petrol is a greater moral evil than using munitions like phosphorous bombs in military operations which we know will burn a great many innocent people to death, including children. It is the nature of every society however, to point out the cruelty of the enemy while obscuring the cruelty of one’s own actions.

From this perspective, and especially considering that this incident is part of a vicious war that has been going since 2003, the actions of IS should not really surprise us at all. The only difference is, that unlike the case of Rwanda in the 1990s, or Boko Haram in Nigeria right now, Western societies seem to be more aware of, and sensitised to, this particular conflict. We seem to care a great deal more about the handful of hostages in Iraq than we do about the hundreds currently dying in Nigeria. In part, this is also due to the successful use of social media by IS who have discovered how to effectively create maximum shock among Western publics.

So what gain does IS get from using such shocking methods?

Read the rest of the article here…

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Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

I am reblogging this because there’s been a lot of talk in the media about why people go over to Iraq to join Islamic State. Since the West started bombing them, thousands of new recruits have gone to join IS. Is this a sudden outbreak of religious extremism, or is there something else at work? Based on all the research which suggests that individuals join these groups for political reasons based on grievances, I suspect that IS’s popularity is due not to their extreme violence or the particular brand of religion they espouse, but because they are seen as successfully fighting against imperialism and oppression. They represent the most powerful and coherent anti-imperialist movement today. Just as young people joined left-wing movements in the 1960s and 1970s in order to fight imperialism, so they are joining IS today. In my novel, I try and explore this theme and explain why someone would choose to fight the West’s self-serving and imperialistic actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. I believe that if you want to better understand why people are joining IS, there might be some clues in my novel.


In 2011, I started writing a novel about terrorism. I did so because although I had read literally hundreds of novels about terrorism, I had yet to find one which I could in all good conscience recommend to my students as a useful supplement to the academic literature. There did not seem to be any novels which gave an authentic account of why someone would join a terrorist group or choose the life of militant. I also wrote it because I knew that Critical Terrorism Studies needed to find new ways to communicate its ideas to the public. It was not going to be enough to write more academic books and articles; we needed more affective and interesting ways of writing about terrorism.

I am happy to report that in May 2014 my novel, Confessions of a Terrorist, will be published by Zed Books. Below is an abridged version…

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Hey, mainstream media! Here are some pointers for doing your job

Dear Journalists of the Mainstream Media,

It is fair to say that, pretty much exactly as in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you have failed once again to fulfil your professional mandate and live up to even the minimal standards of journalism. For the most part, you have simply repeated the ridiculous speculations and hysterical statements of politicians, without any rigorous questioning or adequate investigation into their veracity. I know you work in a 24-7 news environment in which you feel like you don’t always have the time to find whether the things that officials say are not nonsense, and that most of you belong to a few large media conglomerates which impose a strict editorial line. But, come on! I know you can do better than ” Islamic state is an apocalyptic death cult and we’re all going to die! Launch the bombers now!” In the process of being so pathetically uncritical in the past few weeks, you have fuelled the moral panic that currently surrounds Islamic State, created an atmosphere of fear and Islamophobia, and offered almost no critical analysis of the patently pointless and counterproductive decision to bomb Iraq for the umpteenth time. As a consequence, you have utterly failed to provide a check on the politicians who are determined to roll back civil liberties, restrict protest and dissent, surveille the whole world, torture people and ironically, muzzle the freedom of the press. Yes, you didn’t even notice until it was too late that their plan to fight the purported existential threat of Islamic State included further restricting the activities of the press.

As a consequence of this pathetic failure, it is my duty to suggest a series of fairly simple and obvious questions which you, as professional journalists, can ask politicians and security officials during press conferences, or radio or television interviews on the subject of Islamic State, terrorism and/or bombing Muslim countries. Trust me, these will really help you to do your job properly, and may in the long run, bring back a little credibility to your profession. On the other hand, they may also get you banned from official press conferences or shunned by the hacks who are happy to act as paid government mouthpieces. In any case, by asking these questions, you’ll definitely feel better, reduce the shame you must feel for how you got sucked in again, and perhaps get a little bit of your dignity back.

So these are a few basic, random questions you might ask politicians. I’m sure you can simplify them further, as politicians are not always that bright:

  • How many plots have there actually been, and how many people have actually died in Western countries from terrorism by the Islamic State? And does zero actually constitute an existential threat, especially when in Australia, more people have been killed by kangaroos? Isn’t ebola, for example, an actual, real threat which ought to command more effort and resources than Islamic State?
  • Why are you saying that Islamic State is a major threat to Western countries when US intelligence officials (and scholarly experts) are saying that it’s not even clear that IS even wants to attack Western countries or has the capabilities to do so?
  • What evidence are you basing your assessment on that returned fighters will pose a terrorism threat? What examples can you give of any of the thousands of returned fighters from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria over the past four decades who have successfully launched terrorist attacks? What do you say to this study, this article, this article, and this article, which say that such a risk is really, really, small and certainly doesn’t represent an existential risk requiring throwing out our civil liberties? And what do you say to this article which suggests that IS doesn’t want foreign fighters to return home at all, and doesn’t want to conquer foreign lands but establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria?
  • What evidence do you have that bombing Iraq will help to defeat terrorism and bring peace and security after it failed from 2003 to 2010, and arguably failed from 1991 – 2003 when coalition forces bombed Iraq relentlessly? Why will it work now, when all the evidence (see here too) suggests that aerial bombing campaigns don’t actually work?
  • What do you say to all the evidence – including this study, and this study – which says that bombing Muslim countries creates more terrorists than it kills, as it is already doing with IS, and is likely to produce more attacks just like the Madrid, London, Fort Hood, Times Square and Boston attacks? Why do you think that bombing will make us safer, when all the evidence suggests it will make us more of a target?
  • Why do you insist that jihadist terrorism is driven by religious extremism when all the evidence suggests it is driven by political grievance over Western actions in the Middle East? Aren’t you giving people in the Middle East more reasons to hate us and try and attack us?
  • Given that the very same people who told us Saddam had WMD, and who failed to predict the invasion of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 9/11 attacks, and who gave the wrong intelligence which led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in the Kosovo campaign, and who arrested hundreds of innocent people and sent them to Guantanamo, and who have consistently provided intelligence which has lead to the bombing of wedding parties in Pakistan, and who said that Iraqis would welcome their Western liberators with open arms, are the same ones now telling us about the threat of Islamic State, why should we take it at face value? Why should we print your claims when you’ve told so many porkies, and provided so much misinformation, in the past?
  • What actual evidence do you have that mass surveillance actually works to reduce terrorism? (Hint: there is no actual evidence. It’s a huge invasion of privacy and waste of time for no measureable or logical benefit. In fact, the masses of data produced is actually an obstacle to finding useable intelligence.)
  • What actual evidence or data do you have that any of the measures currently being enacted – restrictions on the travel of foreign fighters, extended powers to hold people without charge, mass surveillance, enhanced interrogation, bombing – actually work or will have any effect at all on the risk of terrorism?
  • What actual evidence or data do you have that this bombing campaign won’t go on for years and draw us into a ground war with the same ineffectual and disastrous results as the ground wars we fought in for years in Afghanistan and Iraq?
  • Can you please demonstrate the cost-benefit analysis you did which shows that spending the billions of dollars which will be required for this war would not have saved more lives and been better spent on other things like health, domestic violence prevention, health and safety, diplomacy, etc?
  • Can you please explain exactly how the bombing campaign and other drastic measures you have recently enacted represent a final last resort after all other peaceful and more effective alternatives have been tried?
  • Can you please explain the legal basis for going to war on Iraq again?

So, there you have it. Not so hard, just a few simple questions we as a society definitely need some answers to, and which will help to restore your professional credibility. Now get out and do it on every available occasion. I feel annoyed that I have to help you like this, but given how mad everyone has gone in recent weeks, seemingly with no memory at all of what happened when it was Saddam’s WMD that he was going to launch in 45 minutes, I felt I better do something. Anyway, good luck. Do a better job. I’m counting on you.

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How not to tackle Islamic State

The current hysteria shown by both politicians and the mainstream media about Islamic State (IS) is so devoid of reason and factual evidence that it is difficult to know where to start in formulating a corrective. As a researcher who has studied terrorism and political violence since 1987, I can say with some confidence that virtually every single statement about the purported threat posed by IS, or the reasons why a small number of Muslims in Western countries want to travel to Iraq to fight with them, is mostly, if not completely, incorrect. More importantly, based on years of research, I can say with confidence that the recent actions taken by Western countries in response to the purported threat – particularly the decision to bomb IS and to arm groups opposed to it, as well as the decision to try and ban individuals from travelling to Iraq – will at best completely fail to bring peace and security to the region; at worst, these policies will lead directly to more terrorism and violence, worsen the situation greatly and create a predictable self-fulfilling prophesy.

In fact, any intelligent observer of events in the Middle East can work out that the rise of IS is, in the first instance, the direct result of years of reckless Western military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The invasion of Iraq, particularly the disbanding of the Iraqi army and Western support for the corrupt and brutal al-Maliki government, lead directly to the formation of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). For its part, over the years of brutal internecine conflict and insurgency in Iraq since 2003, AQI has more recently morphed into IS. At the same time, the West and its Gulf allies have covertly supported anti-Assad rebels in Syria with weapons and training funneled through Turkey. Some of these groups have now defected to IS. In effect, short-sighted, ill-informed Western policy has contributed directly to the political and strategic conditions that have allowed IS to grow into the force it is today. This is called ‘blowback’ in intelligence circles.

As if this disastrous recent history was not enough, the longer history of Western air campaigns shows that it is quite ineffective in winning wars or creating the conditions for peace, especially against rebel movements like IS. The truth is, bombing has an almost zero chance of defeating IS, as six weeks of intensive bombing already shows. In other words, Western countries have decided to adopt a strategy that has virtually no chance of succeeding, and which in the very recent past helped to create the very problem it is now trying to solve. If the definition of insanity, as Einstein put it, is undertaking the same action over and over again while expecting a different result, then the decision to bomb Iraq for the third time in three decades is a perfect example of insanity.

In addition to ignoring recent history and evidence in relation to the perils of military intervention in the region, Western countries have also decided that IS poses a direct threat to them, and have banned individuals from travelling to Iraq to fight for them. The logic here is that foreign fighters will be radicalized by IS and will return home to wage jihad on their home countries. This is more than a little ridiculous: if individuals have decided to make the dangerous journey to Iraq where they have a high chance of being killed in a brutal war, they are already well-radicalized. In fact, preventing potential fighters from going overseas risks aspiring jihadists turning their attention to targets closer to home. If a thwarted fighter launches an attack on London or Sydney in the next few months, it will be nothing more a completely predictable self-fulfilling prophesy.

In fact, the ignorance and short-sightedness of this policy is highlighted by the fact that out of the many thousands who have travelled to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, Syria and Iraq over previous decades, less than a handful of returned fighters have subsequently become engaged in terrorist activities. Instead, as Denmark is currently finding, many returned fighters are traumatized and disillusioned by their experiences. In effect, they have been de-radicalised after finding that the noble cause they thought they were fighting for was lost in the squalid brutality of internecine war. In other words, according to the best academic evidence available, the threat posed by returning fighters is extremely low. It certainly does not warrant the hysterical response we are currently seeing in the United Kingdom and other European countries. The Australian government’s reaction is particularly over-the-top: restricting press freedoms, confiscating passports and whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria will do nothing except create social conflict and disorder.

On the other hand, every major terrorist attack on Western targets since 2001, including the attacks in Bali, Madrid, London and Boston, has been claimed by the perpetrators to be revenge for Western military intervention in the Middle East. Even the beheadings of Western hostages were justified by IS captors as a response to US bombing. In fact, every major academic study of the past ten years has confirmed that Western military intervention and its policies in the Middle East, including support for the state of Israel, is the primary motivation for anti-Western terrorist attacks. In 1996, a major study by the CATO Institute concluded that U.S. military intervention overseas was the primary driver of anti-American terrorism. The Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism has drawn the same fundamental conclusion. In other words, the greater risk of terrorism comes not from returning fighters, but from the decision to bomb Iraq once again.

There is no doubt that IS is a brutal insurgent group. However, it is far from the worst such group we have seen in recent decades, and the current measures designed to tackle it will achieve nothing but further blowback. New Zealand has thus far not succumbed to the overreaction and hysteria of Australia, the UK, the US and other European countries. In considering whether to respond to IS, the New Zealand government would be well advised to pay due attention to the academic evidence, rather than ill-informed, knee-jerk reactions and ignorant media speculation. There is plenty of good research and information which could help to make reasonable and effective policies. However, the media and politicians need to take the time to consult it, instead of rushing headlong into another completely pointless and self-defeating war.

This article was originally published as an op-ed in the Otago Daily Times on Wednesday 1 October 2014. Originally, I had entitled it, ‘The Insanity of Western Foreign Policy’, but I presumed it would not get published under that heading.

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