Tom Mills of the New Left Project recently interviewed me about terrorism, the ‘war on terror’, critical terrorism studies and the challenges of being a critical scholar. This is what I told him…
The ‘War on Terror’ after bin Laden
It is now almost a decade since the Bush Administration declared its ‘War on Terror’. Is this supposed war ongoing? What changes have taken place at the levels of policy and political rhetoric?
The ongoing war on terror is as strong as ever. In fact, if one considers that it began as a military campaign against terrorist groups in Afghanistan in October 2001, then it has continued to grow over the years into the five-front war it is in mid-2011. The US military are conducting fairly major operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Smaller operations have also taken place in the Philippines and Georgia, among others. We must also remember that the war on terror involves a great many other dimensions, apart from military operations. It also involves an intelligence-led terrorist interdiction programme involving numerous countries, the construction of an international regime to prevent the financing of terrorism, global WMD counter-proliferation efforts, military training programmes for dozens of cooperating states, military base expansion into several new regions like central Asia and Africa, a global public diplomacy and propaganda effort, involvement in counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation programmes in the Middle East and North Africa, homeland security protection, domestic surveillance programmes, and many more. All these activities are continuing and have developed their own internal dynamics and interests. In other words, the war on terror is now a materially and politically embedded structure of world politics that reproduces itself. From this perspective, it is likely to endure for some time yet. At the level of policy and rhetoric, while the exact phrase ‘war on terror’ has been retired by the Obama administration, the broader ‘war’ framework has not been abandoned in rhetoric or policy, and strategies like targeted killing of terrorist suspects have actually been greatly accelerated in recent years. The notion that the US was ‘at war with the al Qaeda’ network still informs its defence of the legality of the operation which killed bin Laden, for example.
How significant is the recent death of bin Laden?
In terms of the ongoing global campaign against terrorism, the death of bin Laden is fairly insignificant in real strategic terms. Despite claims by the Obama administration, bin Laden was not the active head of an effective or powerful terrorist organization and his death will not affect the activities of any actual groups or the threat posed by them. It is doubtful that he was still connected to the Taliban in Afghanistan or any of the major groups operating elsewhere, such as Yemen or Somalia. He may have continued to inspire a few amateur self-starters, but he was already dead in the sense of being a major player in the broader jihadist movement. The significance of his death lies largely in the morale-boost it gives to certain sections of US and Western opinion, and in the extent to which his mythology as a martyr who defied the US for over a decade inspires and encourages new groups and individuals. Certainly, it will not result in the end of the war on terror or the continued extension of counter-terrorism measures domestically, largely because all these processes are now structurally embedded, self-perpetuating and functional to politics; as such, they are relatively autonomous from actual events. And politicians are happy to confirm that it does not mean the end of vigilant action against terrorism. The death of bin Laden may possibly provide an opening in which the US could declare its goals achieved in Afghanistan and start to plan a withdrawal, although this is unlikely, but even such a withdrawal would not end the broader campaign against terrorism.
You’ve noted that ‘terrorism’ as a political discourse emerged relatively recently. Could you talk about when, where, and why this occurred?
It’s hard to imagine today, but before 9/11 terrorism was a fairly minor concern of international and national policy, there were few specific counter-terrorism laws or counter-terrorism agencies, very few films or novels about it, and there were only a handful of scholars who studied it. And before the early 1970s, it was almost invisible in public discourse, except occasionally as a way of demonizing anti-colonial forces. Since the end of the cold war, and 9/11 in particular, it has become a major global discourse which has permeated politics, security, law, education, religion, popular entertainment, and many other aspects of modern life. The reasons why this occurred are complex, and involve the interplay between political elites, violent non-state groups and the media. All three actors benefit directly from the terrorism obsession: violent groups are taken more seriously and get greater international coverage by engaging in acts of terrorism; the media sell more newspapers and get higher ratings when they cover dramatic violent events like terrorism; and political elites can more easily legitimize measures and policies by claiming to be fighting the evil of terrorism. From this perspective, there is a kind of functional collusion between all three actors in the social production of terrorism today.
This theatre of violent spectacle was enabled broadly by the end of the cold war and the sudden lack of an evil enemy against which security and foreign policy could be organized. It provided a purpose and set of goals for the foreign policy establishment, one which had been missing for the years after the fall of communism. More specifically, it was the result of the 9/11 attacks, particularly their visual element, which were so shocking and spectacular that they provided a set of culturally imprinted images about the threat terrorism posed and what it was. In this sense, 9/11 was a godsend for foreign policy establishments, as they could now re-focus their energies on a common threat.
To what extent has the post 9/11 period been unique? What have been the continuities and discontinuities?
The post-9/11 period has many more continuities with the pre-9/11 period than most people realize. Apart from the similarities between the global jihadist movement and the anarchist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, the current war on terrorism was built upon the first ‘war on terrorism’ originally constructed by the Reagan administration. If you go back and look at both the rhetoric of the first war on terrorism, and the measures and military approach of Reagan against Libya and Grenada (which was justified in large part by a claim that it would be used as a communist training ground for terrorists), it is virtually identical to the current war on terrorism. Similarly, Clinton’s response to several spectacular acts of terrorism in the 1990s followed a similar path: bombing Sudan and Afghanistan, trying to hunt down and kill bin Laden, and increasingly intrusive forms of domestic counter-terrorism. The only real difference is the scale of counter-terrorism measures in the post-9/11 period, which is unprecedented. The changes currently under way as a result of counter-terrorism are radically transforming our societies and the international system in significant ways. The point is that these transformations began in the earlier period and have only been accelerated since 9/11; they are not necessarily new in themselves. The key point is that there is a kind of permanent, reflexive response to terrorism built into Western states which is also feeding into forms of risk management and risk culture which were present long before 9/11.
Is ‘terrorism’ anything more than political rhetoric and given its highly contentious nature why do you think it is still a useful term?
This is a difficult question which I have tried to wrestle with in my latest article. It is true that the term ‘terrorism’ is horribly misused and has so many inherent connotations that it is extremely difficult to employ as an academic category. It probably would be better if it was abandoned or if we could find an alternative term; it should certainly be avoided wherever possible. At the same time, it is now more than just an academic term. It is also a category of law, a permanent part of political rhetoric and policymaking, a major field of academic study and teaching, and a central element of popular culture. The danger of choosing not to use the term at all is that one becomes marginalized within a powerful field, and that one abandons the term to other actors who will continue to use it in dangerous and abusive ways. I also think that there is some normative value in retaining the term, especially when states use violence which clearly fits common understandings of terrorism. The term can then be deployed against them as a way of trying to prevent such violence. My preferred option therefore, is to engage with the term but try to deconstruct and challenge it, and to only use it very carefully and in precisely defined ways. For example, by insisting at every possible opportunity that the term be used consistently, it is possible to show that many states use violence which is identical to terrorism. This can then be a powerful tool to try and get states to stop using both those specific kinds of violence and the terrorism label which they deploy against their enemies.
You’ve pointed out that the assumptions that underline mainstream scholarship on terrorism are at best highly contestable. Could you briefly describe and critique this set of assumptions?
Some of the assumptions at the heart of mainstream scholarship on terrorism include the notion that terrorism can be defined and studied as an empirical phenomenon, in a largely objective way. It is also assumed that terrorism is primarily a problem of illegitimate non-state actors, and a major threat to national security, which states (and scholars) are duty-bound to solve. Perhaps the most common but unacknowledged assumption at the heart of this kind of research is that terrorism is a kind of exceptional violence which lies outside of politics and other kinds of political violence such as war or capital punishment. It is obvious that on closer inspection, all these assumptions are highly problematic and function to skew research in ideological ways. This is partly why the traditional field tends to produce research which focuses on groups which are currently opposed to Western policies, and assumes that the ‘cause’ of their violence lies in reasons beyond opposition to Western policies or genuine political grievance. The current obsession with ‘radicalisation’ is an example of the attempt to find a reason outside of normal politics and political struggles for anti-Western terrorism.
You’re one of the founders of what has been called Critical Terrorism Studies. Could you describe the background to this initiative?
Critical Terrorism Studies (CTS) grew out of a profound dissatisfaction with the state of terrorism studies and the kind of policies it seemed to engender or at least endorse, after the 9/11 attacks. There had always been critics of the traditional field, such as Chomsky, Herman, George and others in the 1980s, and anthropologists like Zulaika in the 1990s. But these criticisms of the field had largely been ignored and had occurred outside of the main academic arenas in which terrorism studies operated. They had also often taken a quite polemical tone which allowed the traditional scholars to dismiss and ignore them as being ideologically motivated. Those of us who started CTS were anxious to avoid being ignored and took a stance which involved trying to initiate a respectful dialogue with traditional scholars and intervening in a way which would lead to recognition for our concerns. We also set out to carve a space within the field of terrorism studies itself that would allow scholars working on such issues to publish and engage without necessarily being associated with the traditional side of the field. I think, with a few bumps along the way, we have largely achieved this, and CTS is now recognized as a genuine set of approaches and concerns which any serious terrorism scholar must engage with.
Clearly you and others involved in Critical Terrorism Studies have rejected the assumptions shared by the majority of scholars of security and terrorism. What do you think led you personally towards taking a more critical stance?
My critical stance towards to the study of terrorism grew out of my PhD research in conflict resolution and peace studies, and the work of anthropologists like Joseba Zulaika who had actually talked to terrorists. These two fields and their insights convinced me that terrorism was not an exceptional form of political violence, and that it could be resolved in non-violent ways, such as through ensuring political and social justice. Certainly, when one studies reconciliation following genocide it is difficult to maintain the fiction that terrorists are uniquely evil and so incorrigible that exterminating them is the only real option. This insight alone destabilizes the entire terrorism discourse, and opens up the possibility that many decades of peace studies research could probably tell us all we need to know about why groups and individuals choose to pursue their goals violently, and how we could reconcile with them in ways that build positive peace and create conflict transformation.
What has been your experience of trying to maintain a critical perspective as a scholar? Have you ever felt pressurised to take a more conventional stance on these issues?
The main challenge of being a critical scholar is simply that you are constantly fighting against a dominant form of commonsense which makes your views sound irrational and nonsensical. In other words, within the terms of the debate and the assumptions underpinning it, critical views are almost impossible to articulate without sounding like a crazy person or an ideological extremist. In addition, critical views sound like a dangerous heresy, which means that some people try to censor you and demonise you for being subversive or disloyal. It is no surprise to me, but is an indication of how the orthodoxy functions to construct conformity, that a prominent criticism of an edited book on CTS I published was that the book did not spend enough time denouncing the evils of non-state terrorism. I have also been criticized in far more personal attacks than this, but I actually view it as being much better than being completely ignored. The fact that people would take the time to publicly attack CTS means that they view it as a real threat to the orthodoxy; otherwise, they would pay it no mind at all. It also virtually always functions to give greater publicity to what CTS is trying to achieve. The challenge therefore, is to try and be critical in a way that can be understood within, and resonates with, the dominant discourse, but which also challenges and deconstructs the status quo.
Do you feel that political activism should play any role in academic life?
I think there are different kinds of academics and different paths that academics can choose to go down; I wouldn’t want to generalize or imply that all academics should do exactly the same thing. At the same time, I think that it is impossible to be an academic and not be political in some way, even if it is that one implicitly legitimizes the status quo by not taking a stance against it. On the whole, and especially in the UK, I do believe that academics should be far more politically active, even though it is becoming more and more difficult to do so. Actually, because it is becoming more difficult, this would seem like a good reason for academics to fight harder for the freedoms they appear to be slowly losing. The real difficulties lie in choosing what forms of activism to engage in, and choosing strategies which will be effective and have an impact. There seems little point in choosing forms of activism that deliberately marginalize and paralyze oneself; this is itself a form of surrender to the status quo – a safe passivity in which no hard decisions have to be made.
Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London and a doctoral candidate at the University of Strathclyde. He is a contributing editor of the New Left Project.
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