In this three-part article, Ramesh Thakur argues that the scale of the terrorist threat to Western societies must be kept in perspective, that Western actions in the Middle East may have fomented more terrorism than they have defeated, and that an attitude of denial regarding the potential for problems of large-scale Muslim immigration feeds mutual paranoia and hostility and is not conducive to social cohesion.
Part 2 – Are they coming here because we are there?
Unfortunately, long-term strategy is held hostage to denialism as the default policy setting for both the conservative and liberal side of politics in Western democracies, including Australia. All sides are reluctant to speak truth to evil. The evidence of testimony by the terrorists themselves or scholarly research are brushed aside as inconvenient facts, as in Dutton’s response.
Conservative governments have been in denial with respect to their foreign policies contributing to terrorism in two crucial respects. First, they have tended to point the finger of criminality on regimes that refuse to tow the Western line rather than countries that are the headquarters of fundamentalist ideology for export worldwide. Efforts to build effective defences against international terrorism should focus first on countries that harbour or host individuals and groups advocating, financing, arming and otherwise supporting international terrorism.
When was the last conscience-shocking terrorist attack on a Western target carried out by a Shiite non-Arab instead of an Arab Sunni fanatic? Is there any country that has been a greater enabler of export-only Islamic fundamentalism than Saudi Arabia? Al-Qaeda was nurtured in the Sunni heartlands and traces its beliefs and practices to Wahhabism, a regressive and virulent variant of Islam, whose spiritual home and capital is Saudi Arabia.
Yet bizarrely, President Donald Trump’s first overseas visit was to Saudi Arabia where he attacked Iran – Shiite, non-Arab, which has just had a genuine presidential election – for being the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, while inaugurating a new Global Centre for Combating Extremism. The reason of course is that Trump signed almost US$400bn worth of trade deals, including over $100bn in US military sales. Richard Butler rightly described ‘The spectacle in Riyadh’ as ‘one of mutually beneficial cynicism’.
Second, the protracted Western military presence in the Islamic countries in and around the Middle East, meant to fight terrorism, has instead fomented increasingly widespread and vicious international terrorism. In marked contrast to the kid glove treatment of the autocratic Sunni regimes that have financed and exported militant Islamism, Western powers have attacked, toppled and harassed the Middle East’s and North Africa’s three secular dictators who had been brutally effective in keeping a lid on sectarian killings and a check on radical Islam: Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The resulting destabilisation of the entire region and its descent into bloodbaths has produced the biggest mass population displacement, including into Western countries in Europe and afar. The instinct for intervention seems deeply embedded in Western governments’ DNA and as long as that lasts, anti-Western rage will be maintained. They hate us more for what we do to them there than what we stand for here.
We proclaim we have to fight them there to prevent them coming here. The reality seems the reverse: they are coming here in increasing numbers because we are there fighting in and over their lands for lengthening periods. Thus Patrick Cockburn argues in The Independent that the only way to stop atrocities like Manchester is to end the wars that spawn and sustain extremism.
In 2004 the British ambassador to Italy, Sir Ivor Roberts, famously called President George W. Bush al-Qaeda’s ‘best recruiting sergeant’. The leaked speech was dubbed a ‘gaffe’, thereby proving the saying that a gaffe is the truth spoken by mistake. On the evidence to date, Trump might best even Bush in his star recruitment quality. The Guardian reports that on Friday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will tell a campaign rally:
‘Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.
‘That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to account for their actions’.
Corbyn is right on both counts. The internationally respected Australian counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen wrote in 2014: ‘After 13 years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, we’re worse off today than before 9/11, with a stronger, more dangerous enemy than ever’.
Another major questionable practice in the US global war on terror is drone strikes that were greatly expanded by the Nobel Peace Laureate President Barack Obama and in which the so-called joint facilities in Australia may be involved. An efficient machine to kill terrorists, armed drones have proven to be equally proficient at making and multiplying enemies. ‘Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s former special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is … adamant that drone attacks are horribly counter-productive because of the hatred they have started to generate’. His conviction was shared by four former US air force officers, with more than twenty years of experience between them operating military drones, in an open letter to President Obama in November 2015.
They are a potent tool of terrorist recruitment because they anger entire communities, particularly in tribal societies with a payback ethos. The drone strikes in the Afghanistan–Pakistan frontier region, by killing civilians, create martyrs and act as a recruiting motor for fresh terrorists. Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber of May 2010, when asked about potential innocent victims of his plot, replied that US drone strikes ‘don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody … They’re killing all Muslims’.
Following the 9/11 attacks, University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape compiled the first complete dataset on worldwide suicide terrorists from 1980–2003. He was struck that 95 per cent of the attacks ‘were in response to a military occupation’ by foreign troops. Moreover, of the 350 suicide terrorist attacks in this 24-year period, just 15 per cent were aimed at American targets. In a 2010 follow-up study, Pape and James K. Feldman established that in the 2004–09 years, there were 1,833 suicide terrorist attacks, 87 per cent were accounted for by the stationing of foreign combat forces and 92 per cent were anti-American – many of them specifically inspired by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Far from declining, thus, anti-US suicide terrorism increased and intensified after and in direct response to the global war on terror.
When Russia escalated its military involvement in Syria in 2015, Western leaders warned of the risks of fuelling extremism. Prime Minister David Cameron said it would promote radicalisation and terrorism. Some drew a direct link between Moscow’s military intervention and the IS bombing of a civilian Russian plane that killed 244 people. In a BBC panel discussion, The Daily Telegraph’s Janet Daley speculated that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had possibly ‘incited’ this terrorist attack on Russian civilians. After Paris, she wrote it would be ‘wicked and irresponsible’ to suggest it was payback for recent French interventions in Africa and the Middle East.