A flight from Istanbul to New York the day after Usama Bin Ladin was assassinated is an inopportune time to write about what it all means, but I would be thinking about little else anyway between the security checks, the turbulence and the guy at customs asking me what I was just doing in Iraq. Last night thousands of Americans took to the street waving flags to revel in what was both righteous justice and jingoism. That same day hundreds of thousands of communists, leftists and workers took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara to commemorate May Day and demand more rights. Some sang an old communist guerilla song about taking to the mountains to fight. Some saluted martyred student socialist leaders from the 1970s. Others shouted “long live the worker’s struggle!” and “hunger, poverty and us, this is your capitalist system.”
While taking isolated chance incidents in different countries to make deductions can make one sound like Thomas Friedman, to me the two demonstrations symbolized two different trajectories the East and the West are taking. On the one hand throughout the Middle East in what is being called an awakening, leaderless popular movements take to the streets to demand secular and leftist notions of universal rights, undermining dictatorships favored by the US, religious extremists opposed to the US as well as American hegemony. It turns out Arabs understand democracy better than we do in the stagnant west, they proved that leaders rule only with the consent of the governed and if the people demand their rights they cannot be stopped. On the other hand America, a nation in economic and political decline but perpetual war, was engrossed in right wing conspiracy theories about where President Obama was born only to receive a nationalist fillip by an assassination ten years and trillions of dollars in the making.
For the last ten years American foreign policy has been dominated by war with Muslims out of fear of a phantom threat. My own career has been entirely a result of these wars. Bin Ladin’s thousands of innocent victims will be happy to learn of his belated demise, but the industry the September 11 attacks spawned may come to miss him. Following those attacks Americans engaged in little introspection about its relationship with the third world and what it had done to provoke such resentment. Instead the nation embraced a self righteous narrative about a Muslim world that hated us for our freedoms and had to be taught a lesson, (“suck on this,” as Thomas Friedman explained). Americans sought revenge in Afghanistan and Iraq, they backed dictators and warlords, they abandoned the pretense of international law, declaring a global war, dispensing with civil liberties. America’s wars in the Muslim world killed tens of thousands of innocents. And still Americans clung to belief that they were the good guys fighting for freedom. The exaggerated American reaction to the killing of one man makes it seem as if a war was won, or a powerful enemy defeated, inflating the importance of one aging extremist hiding in Pakistan.
Thanks to an industry of overnight experts and celebrity pundits al Qaeda was viewed as a social movement with roots in the Arab world. They advocated a battle of ideas as if al Qaeda was a dominant phenomenon and not a marginal group of a few hundred men out of one billion Muslims. Others justified American support for compliant dictators because democracy in the Arab world would lead to religious extremists taking over. These so called experts mixed only with elites in the Arab world and all they knew of al Qaeda was translations of pro-jihadist websites or videos. They did not spend time living and working with normal people to know what their real concerns were. They viewed Muslims as robots programmed only by Islam without the same mundane concerns and aspirations as the rest of us. Some supported “deradicalization” programs so they could put install new programs into the robots’ minds. They worried about challenging al Qaeda’s narrative. They worried that if the U.S. acknowledged its war in Afghanistan was pointless and pulled out then “what would Bin Ladin say?” They spent more time watching al Qaeda videos than any Arab I ever met and worried about Bin Ladin’s victory video.
The truth is al Qaeda was a fringe organization without roots in the Arab world, and it has barely had any successes since it got lucky on September 11. The attacks on September 11, 2001 were tragic and criminal. They were painful for the victims and their families and a shock to a powerful, arrogant and proud nation blissfully unaware that it was so resented. But other than the murders the attacks had little real impact on the American economy or way of life. It was the American response, both at home and abroad, that changed everything. Al Qaeda used it’s “A team” on that day to attack a slumbering nation, and they got lucky. But could a few hundred angry and unsophisticated Muslim extremists really pose such a danger to a superpower, especially one that was now hyper alert to potential threats?
President Obama reproduced the pathologies of his predecessor, treating Muslims as if they were one entity and the world as if it was a battlefield. Under Obama the the US has expanded its operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. In all cases violence has increased. In al Qaeda’s world view Muslims are under attack by Christians and Jews who want to take Muslims’ resources, perhaps convert them too, and it adds a bit of leftist anti-imperialist rhetoric. Al Qaeda also privatized violence, urging individual Muslims to take violence into their own hands. This individual use of violence is anathema. Since the fall of the Soviet Union as the US has sought to rearrange the world under its hegemony there has been a strong bias against non state actors. Counter-terrorism discourse condemned any kind of violence that is not state sanctioned. This is combined with the extreme Western paranoia of Muslim barbarians invading, converting us all to Islam, imposing Sharia law on us. Responses to terrorism also depend on how the past is historicized. Did Spain see the Madrid train attacks of 2005 as a seminal event that defined everything that followed? The Bush administration had to transform its response to the 9/11 attacks into crusade because when looked at in purely security terms the United States, the most powerful nation the world has ever seen, went to war against two hundred unsophisticated extremists. Looking at it like that diminishes the enemy and the threat to the absurd, but many were nostalgic for a real enemy, like fascism or communism, and so they made the conflict about culture. The United States adopted al Qaeda’s view of the world and it too treated the entire world stage as a battlefield.
Al Qaeda was not a villainous bad guy out of a Bond film or a comic book, determined to do evil for the sake of evil. It was a movement that arose in response to America’s imperial excesses. Many of its grievances were legitimate, even if killing American civilians is not the proper means of addressing them. If America ceased supporting the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, and if America ceased coddling Middle Eastern dictators, and if America ceased bombing Muslims, there would be little reason for Muslims to resent America, or retaliate against American civilians. The resentments are not a result of al Qaeda’s ideology. The same grievances have existed for decades, but the discourse used by those who fought imperialism has changed from Marxism and nationalism to Jihadist, even if the causes have remained the same. The people of the Middle East just want to be left alone. Unfortunately a revolution in American foreign policy and America’s role in the world will not occur soon. Instead, force will remain the way America deals with the weaker nations of the world and it will prefer to support obedient dictators rather then risk the results of elections. And so it will continue to kill Muslims or back proxies who kill Muslims in the hope of killing enough of the right ones that the other ones wont seek revenge. Fortunately, it seems as though the popular Arab uprisings may wrest the Middle East from American hands and force a change in American policy. The policies that led to the al Qaeda phenomenon were not questioned and wont be now, it took hundreds of thousands of people putting their bodies on the streets to undermine the dangerous US policy.
While America’s militaristic imperialism will likely engender violent resistance movements regardless of the ideological environment, a major reason for the growth of al Qaeda is now something beyond anti-Americanism. It is the internal war between Sunnis and Shiites in places like Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda can no longer be seen as just a force against American imperialism. It is now part of these local phenomena. In this internal war in the Muslim world al Qaeda has become a major driving force of Sunni-Shiite hatred. Even secular Sunnis have become sectarian and are adopting the Salafi view of Shiites. They may not have been religious beforehand, but they view al Qaeda as an effective way to combat perceived Shiite expansion and as a potent symbol to reclaim their masculinity. Already sectarian Sunnis in Lebanese strongholds like Beirut`s Tariq al Jadida neighborhood and others hung dozens of posters of Bin Ladin on the streets declaring him a martyr of Islam, a lion of Islam and a hero of the `Umma. The American and Saudi backed Future Movement of Saad al Hariri is dominant in these areas.
In my travels from Mogadishu to slums or villages in Lebanon’s Sunni areas to Iraq to remote areas of Afghanistan I have indeed met some people who admired “Sheikh Osama.” But they were mostly young, few in number and comically unsophisticated. Perhaps they may seek revenge for the slaying of their hero, but among the masses there is no support for al Qaeda, even if there is a deep resentment of American policy. The threat from al Qaeda was always exaggerated. The group was largely destroyed during the American invasion of Afghanistan. Forced into hiding in Pakistan the remaining leadership was not able to run operations. Instead al Qaeda became a tactic for smaller groups to emulate. This can still be dangerous of course. While Sheikh Osama had some supporters I have never met anybody who admired his associate and presumed successor Ayman al Dhawahiri. There is no al Qaeda. It was not defeated by drones and “the quiet professionals” who can assassinate at will. It was defeated by its own excesses and by the millions of Arabs who have led a leaderless revolution, overthrowing dictators and ignoring al Qaeda’s view that a vanguard was needed.
There are now two dynamics at work in the Middle East and the US is unable to stop either one. On the one hand popular secular revolutions led by youth and workers are overthrowing calcified dictators. On the other hand strife between Sunnis and Shiites is at an all time high and will likely lead to further violence. Al Qaeda is now not an anti imperialist force, it is a Sunni group fighting Shiites in an internal civil war throughout the region. This is Bin Ladin’s legacy.
Some parallels to the Arab reaction to Bin Ladin’s assassination may be found with the Arab reaction to Saddam’s execution. Both men were reviled by the majority of Arabs. There were always a minority who romanticized Saddam and Bin Ladin after the fact, the vast majority of Arabs, even if they did not like them could not gloat after their deaths. They cannot celebrate an execution committed by the Americans because of the colonial implications inherent in the act. Just as the memory of Saddam was purified after the American occupation killed him so too will some purify the memory of Bin Ladin, and he too may become an anti-colonial icon and martyr. Only an American execution can rehabilitate such criminals. Even secular Muslims, even Shiites, will not gloat, because of the colonial act embedded in killing him and advertising his death. Americans complain when others celebrate the killing of Americans, but the world watched Americans grotesquely celebrating an execution. While the Americans keep trying to present their violent acts as somehow sanctioned by notions of law and right and the "international community", Muslim masses will continue to have the opposite view because of how ingrained their enmity to colonialism is. Decades of oppression, the recent occupation of Iraq and most recently with American support for Mubarak until the last minute mean that many Arabs will not trust the American account, they have been lied to before, and they will not sympathize with the American narrative, because Americans showed them only cruelty.
Just as al Qaeda’s excesses brought about its own destruction so too did the American response to al Qaeda narrow the gap between America and other global and regional power contenders, both politically and economically. America’s excessive use of force led to a weakening of its hegemony and now the Arab people are seizing their destiny. A revolt against Arab dictators is a revolt against their American sponsor too. American foreign policy in the Middle East was based on what it perceived to be good for America, not what was good for the region. But the region is fighting back and winning. America may have succeeded in killing one irrelevant extremist hiding in Pakistan, but it is losing its control of the Arab world. This was of course one of Bin Ladin’s goals, though he was opposed to democracy and sought a theocracy that will never come. While al Qaeda succeeded in killing 3,000 people in its September 11 attacks, America’s revenge operations were far more costly. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians were killed by Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. At least the US has one less pretext to kill them now. Bin Ladin’s victims can now feel avenged. America’s victims will not find such justice.
Finally, one reason to celebrate Bin Ladin’s death is that al Qaeda delegitimized legitimate resistance. Thanks to al Qaeda the US and Arab dictators were able to conflate opposition and resistance with terrorism. Al Qaeda may be irrelevant but resistance must continue and it must be disassociated from terrorism. Al Qaeda, both globally and in its local forms in places like Iraq tarnished legitimate forms of resistance that did not target innocent civilians. Terrorism is a normative term and not a descriptive concept. An empty word that means everything and nothing, it is used to describe what the Other does, not what we do. The powerful, whether Israel, America, Russia or China will always describe their victims’ struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow genocide of the remaining Palestinians, the continued wars against the civilian population of southern Lebanon, the NATO bombing of Belgrade, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed, these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorizing them was the purpose. Counterinsurgency, now popular again among imperialists, is another way of saying the suppression of national liberation struggles. Terror and intimidation are as essential to it as is winning hearts and minds.
Normative rules are determined by power relations. The powerful side gets to determine what is legal and illegal. The powerful side besieges the weak in legal prohibitions that serve to prevent the weak from resisting. For the weak to resist is illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used normatively as if a neutral court produced them instead of an oppressor. The danger in this excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the credibility of international institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely to preserve the power relations that serve them or to maintain their occupation and colonialism.
Not all causes are created equal, the Basques or Corsicans today cannot justify attacks on Spanish or French civilians the way Palestinians can. Attacking civilians is the most basic method of resistance when confronting overwhelming odds and imminent eradication. The Palestinians do not attack Israeli civilians with the expectation that they will destroy Israel. The land of Palestine is being stolen day after day, the Palestinian people are being eradicated day after day. As a result they respond in whatever way they can to apply pressure on Israel, and they are above censure. Colonial powers use humans as weapons, settling them to claim land and dispossess the native population, be they Indians in North America or Palestinians in what is now Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is legitimate to attack those former civilians who turned themselves into strategic weapons to settle occupied land, be they American colonists or Jewish settlers. When the native population sees that there is an irreversible dynamic that is taking away their land and identity that is supported by an overwhelming power then everything is justified. Apart from the causes of the Native Americans when America was still being colonized or the plight of Jews during the Holocaust, no cause better justifies attacks on civilians than the Palestinian struggle for existence.
There are limits to the argument and it is impossible to make a universal ethical claim or establish a Kantian principle justifying any act to resist colonialism or domination by overwhelming power. And there are other questions I have trouble answering. Can an Iraqi be justified in attacking the United States? After all, his country was attacked without provocation, and destroyed, with millions of refugees created, hundreds of thousands of dead. And this after 12 years of bombings and sanctions that killed many and destroyed the lives of many others. I could argue that all Americans are benefiting from their country`s exploits without having to pay the price and that in today`s world, the imperial machine is not merely the military but a military-civilian network. And I could also say that Americans elected the Bush administration twice and elected representatives who did nothing to stop the war and the American people themselves did nothing, and did not even care, and then elected a president who expanded America’s wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, so maybe they deserve to feel some of the pain too. From the perspective of an American, or an Israeli or a Russian, if you are strong everything you do is justifiable, and nothing the weak do is legitimate. Its merely a question of what side you choose, the side of the strong or the weak.
The notion of “terrorism” is analytically useless but it’s a good way to score points in an argument. In general we can agree that a terrorist uses terror to achieve his goal by terrorizing or frightening people, instead of just killing them, or killing them so that this effect terrorizes other people. Suicide bombers among a crowd of civilians, using artillery against an area populated by civilians, are examples of terrorism. Most organizations commonly described as “terrorist” by the American establishment are in fact political and service organizations like Hamas and Hizballah, who happen to have armed wings. Al Qaeda is among the few organizations that could properly be called a terrorist organization because terror was its fundamental tool.
Terrorists target civilians by causing them to act through the use of fear. Both state and non state actors can engage in such violence, but in the post cold war order only non state violence is typically viewed as terrorism. But since it is the intention and the means used that matter, then states should be included in the category of terrorist. A suicide bomber is not a terrorist, unless he blows himself up in a crowd of civilians. If he targets a Russian military patrol, or a bus stop full of Israeli soldiers then these are legitimate acts of war. International humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict) does not even recognize the concept of terrorism though it does recognize the concept of terrifying a population, and it prohibits it. One example of such terror used against a population would be the 1993 Israeli attack on Lebanese villagers during Operation Accountability. Or nearly every Israeli attack on Lebanon and certainly its 2008 war on Gaza.
When you drop bombs on populated areas knowing there will be some ‘collateral’ civilian damage, but accepting it as worth it, then it is deliberate. When you impose sanctions as the US did on Saddam era Iraq, that kill hundreds of thousands, and then say their deaths were worth it, as secretary of state Albright did, then you are deliberately killing people for a political goal. When you seek to “shock and awe,” as president Bush did, when he bombed Iraq, you are engaging in terrorism.