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Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism$

Richard English

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265901

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265901.001.0001

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date: 03 June 2020

Secrets and Lies

Secrets and Lies

Misinformation and Counter-Terrorism

(p.95) 6 Secrets and Lies
Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism

Adrian Guelke

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The response of Western governments to the threat posed by mass-casualty terrorism has resulted in a widening gulf between their theory and practice of counter-terrorism and their proclaimed commitment to the maintenance of fundamental human rights. A shocking picture has emerged of wrongdoing perpetrated under the broad terms of counter-terrorist measures adopted since 9/11. This chapter seeks to explain this outcome, especially in the light of the episodic and limited nature of attacks by jihadis on Western societies since 2001. It also examines how President Barack Obama has grappled with the argument that some of the measures designed to protect the public from terrorism pose a threat to constitutional government and to the rule of law. It notes that his readiness to accept that such dangers do indeed exist has been exceptional among Western political leaders and that reliance on secrecy, misinformation, and denial has been the norm.

Keywords:   counter-terrorism, mass-casualty attack, suicide mission, rule of law, secret, jihadi

A SPATE OF RECENT books dealing with different aspects of Western counterterrorist policies and practice paint a shocking picture not just of disregard for basic principles of the rule of law but of cruelty and inhumanity.1 Their descriptions of the torture of suspects, murder by drone and the lengths to which the police in both the United States and the United Kingdom have been prepared to go to manufacture terrorist plots, where no threat to the public existed without the active encouragement of agents provocateur, constitute an indictment of those involved in this wrongdoing, as well as of political leaders who authorised these actions and then lied about it. The gulf between political rhetoric and events on the ground could scarcely be wider. The actions of whistleblowers of one kind or another have ensured that this gulf has not gone unnoticed. Most damaged as a consequence has been the reputation of President Barack Obama, particularly as he had raised hopes in his election of a change of course from the excesses of his predecessor. At the same time, almost alone of Western political leaders, President Obama has acknowledged the danger that the actions of Western liberal democracies in the name of counter-terrorism pose to constitutional government and the rule of law. His acknowledgement of this problem stands in marked contrast to other political leaders who have relied on secrets and lies to gloss over the conflict between their words and deeds. How has this state of affairs come about? Above all, why has it happened in societies in which respect for human rights has been widely proclaimed as a fundamental principle of (p.96) good governance? The trite answer is that terrorism tends to bring out the worst in any society. A fuller explanation is attempted below.

It is common to see the events of 11 September 2001 as a turning point in global politics, as well as in the practice of terrorism and responses to it in the form of counter-terrorism. But while the scale of the attack was indeed unprecedented in the number of deaths it caused, the challenge that 9/11 presented in security terms was by no means entirely new. The possibility that terrorism would cause destruction on the scale of natural disasters has been debated in the literature on terrorism in the 1990s, mainly under the rubric of new terrorism. Further, long before this debate, all manner of possibilities had been considered, in which wrongdoers of various kinds–whether conceived of then or later as terrorists–caused numerous deaths in a single incident, including during the anarchist wave of terrorism that an airship might be used as a flying bomb. While at this distance, this speculation might seem rather fanciful, consideration needs to be taken of some of the attacks that did occur during the anarchist wave, most notably the bomb attack on Wall Street in 1920 in which 30 people were killed instantly and many more wounded, eight of whom died as a consequence of their injuries. And though 9/11 was larger in scale than previous events, there had been a number of prior mass-casualty attacks, including the simultaneous bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

However, there is no gainsaying the huge impact that 9/11 had on the public throughout the Western industrialised world. That was compounded by the fact that people of many different nationalities worked in the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, which was a potent symbol of global capitalism in the post-Cold War world. The shock both to the public and to policy-makers was palpable. Prior to 9/11, terrorism had seemed to be of declining importance. This was partly because of peace processes in Israel/Palestine and Northern Ireland, conflicts that for decades had been associated with terrorism. Further, fresh horrors, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda, attracted greater attention than what appeared to be the waning problem of terrorism. Indeed, one way of interpreting the debate on new terrorism was as an attempt to revive fading interest of both the public and policy-makers in the subject.2 9/11 propelled terrorism to the top of the world’s political agenda and meant that for the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Global War on Terror became the dominant theme of the times.

(p.97) Reference has already been made to the concept of a terrorist wave. Though he was by no means the first person to apply the term wave to different periods of terrorism, this idea has been most fully expounded by David Rapoport.3 He identifies four waves of modern terrorism: the anarchist wave dating from the 1880s; an anti-colonial wave following the end of the Second World War; a New Left wave from the 1960s; and a religious wave going back to the Iranian revolution in 1979. By the same token, the story of counter-terrorism might readily be conceived as a series of reactions to these waves. Such a chronology broadly holds up, with 9/11 giving a major impetus to the adoption of fresh measures to tackle the threat posed by the mass-casualty attacks linked to the global jihad of al-Qaida.

The interpretation of 9/11 as part of a terrorist wave meant that it was viewed as just a part of a larger and ongoing assault on the West. In the light of subsequent attacks in Bali, Kenya, Madrid, London and Boston, this would seem a perfectly reasonable supposition. Indeed, one might go further and argue that being part of an ongoing campaign is practically speaking a defining characteristic of an act of terrorism. On this basis, one might contend that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald (assuming no larger conspiracy) does not meet this criterion of an act of terrorism, whereas that of Rajiv Gandhi in 1990 by the Tamil Tigers does. The distinction rests on the recognition that, however loose the term terrorism has become in common usage, by no means all murders, including even politically motivated assassinations, should be considered acts of terrorism. Indeed, one of the first questions that is asked after any violent event in which large numbers of people have been killed or which has attracted wide attention because of its shocking nature is whether the act in question is one of terrorism or not. The pressure from the media for an answer to the question is a common reason why the actions of individuals acting on their own acquire the label terrorism, which then sticks despite subsequent investigation of the case. At the same time, some reassurance is generally taken if the authorities are able to establish at an early stage that the act in question had no connection with terrorism.

The reason for that is primarily terrorism’s association with ongoing campaigns of political violence. Hence, the characterisation of an act as one of terrorism raises the spectre of further similar outrages. By the same token, the assumption commonly made is that a violent outrage without any link to (p.98) terrorism is likely to be a one-off. However, it is possible to give examples that contradict this assumption. In particular, the blow at the centre, as the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the terrorist group Narodnaya Volya was dubbed, was conceived as an act that on its own would have a transformative impact and be the ‘final blow’ to the system.4 By contrast, gang warfare provides many instances of ongoing campaigns of violence that tend not to be characterised as terrorism. In particular, violence between the gangs themselves is unlikely to be described as terrorism, even if it includes bombings. However, if the lives of innocent bystanders are frequently put at risk by gang warfare then it may attract the description of terrorism. While it is by no means easy to draw a water-tight distinction between terrorism and other forms of violence, the following are typically seen as characteristic of an act of terrorism:

  • it is part of a larger campaign with political objectives;

  • it is carried out by a group of people or, if by an individual then someone with links to a group;

  • it is normatively transgressive.

While the leaders of Narodnaya Volya were plainly mistaken in believing that the assassination of Tsar Alexander II would usher in a new society, at least their strategic thinking was evident. In the case of 9/11, it is by no means evident what Osama bin Laden expected the outcome of the assault on America to be. The most plausible explanation is that he hoped that America’s reaction to the assault would revive the fortunes in Muslim countries of the Islamic resurgence that was then on the wane. Of course, strategies do not remain static. They change in response to events. Indeed, they are commonly more flexible than the narrative used to legitimise the campaign. In the case of the Provisional IRA, for example, the organisation’s initial strategy had been directed at forcing the early withdrawal of British forces from Northern Ireland through maximising the level of violence, with the aim of victory within the year. Only after that approach had failed was the strategy of the long war adopted. It was based on sustaining the campaign of violence over many years, with the objective of securing a British declaration of intent to withdraw through a process of attrition. As any form of violence, including terrorism, is a means to an end, understanding the strategy of any group engaged in violence is at least as important as grasping (p.99) the appeal of their objectives. For people to be persuaded to risk their lives by participating in a campaign of violence, they need to be persuaded not merely of the rightness of its objectives but also, and just as importantly, the effectiveness of the means proposed. A major weakness of Western counterterrorism in relation to jihadi violence has been its focus on why people might be attracted to the political objectives of jihadi groups, as opposed to how they are persuaded that violent means will achieve these ends.

An advantage of characterising terrorism in terms of campaigns is that it facilitates comparison with violent political conflict more generally. Relevant in this context are the phases that are characteristic of the most intractable of such conflicts, including a stage of rapid escalation from small beginnings to a peak, followed by a flattening out of the violence over a long period of time, prior to the onset of negotiations and an eventual political settlement. These phases are commonly mirrored in the reaction of the authorities. State responses to violent challenges to political order can be characterised in terms of a simple typology of suppression, criminalisation and accommodation.5 The basis of the typology is how the state treats politically motivated violent offenders and suspects in comparison with those not so motivated or what in Northern Ireland parlance were known as ordinary decent criminals. Where the state treats those politically motivated much more harshly than ordinary decent criminals, this can be labelled suppression. During this phase, those suspected of any involvement in the campaign of violence threatening the society may be detained without trial and subjected to coercive interrogation methods that go far beyond what is normally permitted even in the investigation of the most heinous of crimes. Further, in the suppression phase, expressions of support for the actions of the terrorists or even their political objectives may be outlawed.

In the criminalisation phase, there is reliance on the normal processes of law enforcement to meet the challenge of those rebelling against the state and during this phase the state may seek to delegimitise the campaign by denying the political motivation of those involved, with the rebels being labelled mafias or bandits. The move away from a strategy of suppression to one of criminalisation is commonly a sign that the authorities are confident that they are capable of containing violence without the need for special methods. The attraction of this strategy in the context of an internal challenge to the state is the implication that the state is sufficiently legitimate that the problem can be (p.100) dealt with in the context of normal policing. If political violence does not fade away during this phase, but a stalemate develops in which those engaging in political violence are unable to advance their objectives but the state is also unable to prevent the continuance of the campaign of violence, then both sides may seek a negotiated end to the violence. The extent to which the terrorists or the men of violence, to use another Northern Irish expression, are able to advance their objectives will depend on circumstances. But during this phase of accommodation, concessions will commonly be made that mean that politically motivated violent offenders receive some form of special treatment that would not be accorded to ordinary criminals. This is usually premised on the organisation these offenders belong to ending its campaign of violence. In the past, amnesties were common that covered not just wrongdoing by insurgents but also that by the security forces. However, these tend to be out of fashion as contrary to the precepts of ‘no immunity’ and ‘no impunity’.

While the state responses of suppression, criminalisation and accommodation may correspond to the different phases of conflict from escalation, through flattening, to negotiation, there is no necessary link between them and state responses may at times be out of sync with the evolution of the conflict on the ground. Further, the state may adopt all three strategies simultaneously in addressing different challenges. An example is how the Tony Blair government in the UK addressed the simultaneous challenges presented by al-Qaida, animal liberation activists and the situation in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s and 2000s. It responded with suppressive measures to the challenge posed by global jihadis, with new legislation enacted to address the threat of international terrorism even before 9/11. By contrast, it adhered basically to the rule of law in addressing the violent actions of animal liberation activists, an approach that reflected the government’s recognition that there was considerable public sympathy for the issues that activists highlighted, though rarely for their methods. At the same time, the peace process in Northern Ireland required the altogether different approach of accommodation. The focus was on ensuring the durability of the paramilitary ceasefires, as well as ensuring that the number of defectors from the peace process remained as small as possible. In popular parlance, these became known as dissidents, though the government preferred the term residual terrorism to describe the continuation of political violence, albeit on a much reduced scale, after the achievement of a political settlement in the form of the Belfast Agreement of April 1998.

Justifying these different approaches presented difficulties when comparisons were made among them, especially because in the case of the Northern Ireland peace process the adoption of an accommodationist approach entailed (p.101) the repudiation of the previous approaches of suppression and of criminalisation. In particular, there was wide acceptance during the peace process that the government’s introduction of internment without trial had been a major error that had fuelled the conflict. Further, it was widely anticipated that the result of the setting up of the Saville inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday when 14 civilians had been killed by paratroopers during a civil rights demonstration in Londonderry in January 1972 would be the prelude to the government’s acceptance of wrongdoing by the army, as indeed it was, though conveniently without anyone in particular being held to account. In the case of criminalisation, what was repudiated was the denial of the political motivation of those engaged in paramilitary activities, whether as Loyalists or Republicans.

When pressed on the contrast between the government’s response to al-Qaida and to the IRA, Blair emphasised that there were huge differences between the two in the form of terrorism they employed. In particular, he argued that the IRA would never have sought to have killed 3,000 people as al-Qaida had on 9/11. He also contended that the aims of Irish Republicans were limited and amenable to negotiation, unlike the objectives he ascribed to al-Qaida.6 Yet, ironically, the assumption made by government ministers that Britain faced a generation of attacks by global jihadis seems to have had little other basis than simply the fact that the Provisional IRA’s terrorist campaign lasted roughly 25 years. For the United States, without the experience in the twentieth century of terrorism within its borders on the scale of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the most relevant precedents for 9/11 were the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 in which over 2,400 people were killed and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people died.

In part because of the sheer scale of the attacks on 9/11, the first of these precedents proved far more influential in how the United States responded to the challenge posed by al-Qaida, though in retrospect it is possible to argue that the approach taken in response to the Oklahoma City bombing would have proved much less costly. However, the notion of seeking punishment of the perpetrators through a legal process lacked credibility in the context of a suicide mission in which those directly involved were already dead. A lengthy process of holding to account anyone alive who could have been linked to the plot did not seem to meet the immediate need to deter any possible further mass-casualty attacks and thereby to reassure the public that their safety was not in jeopardy. At the same time, from the outset, (p.102) the Bush Administration was determined that its response to 9/11 would serve its pre-existing foreign policy agenda. From the beginning, neoconservatives pressed for the inclusion of regime change in Iraq as part of America’s Global War on Terror. And one of the driving forces behind the use of torture at the start of the war in Iraq in 2003 was the quest for evidence that could be used to make a plausible case for the existence of links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.7 As with the quest for evidence of the regime’s weapons of mass destruction, nothing was turned up to justify the confident assertions of Vice-President Cheney, among others, that were used to secure public support for the war. For the neo-conservatives, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was not an end in itself but rather part of a much larger project to use American power, especially the country’s military capacity, to secure American global hegemony. However, the neo-conservatives were not alone in pursuing this agenda. Liberal interventionists, too, sought to advance what had been dubbed the Washington consensus in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

In contrast to the controversy generated by the war in Iraq, there was wide international support for the military action that was taken by the United States, with the support of other Western states, against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. As the Taliban had provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, the justification for overthrowing the Taliban in order to root out al-Qaida was straightforward. And the ease and speed with which the regime was overthrown appeared to vindicate the actions taken. However, it became apparent relatively quickly that American assumptions about the nature of al-Qaida were mistaken. In particular, there was no vast terrorist fortress to be found in the caves of Tora Bora. Nothing like the den of a villain in a James Bond film had ever existed. At the same time, rooting out al-Qaida was to prove surprisingly difficult, with the interplay of regional geo-strategic interests acting as an obstacle to the achievement of American aims. Thus, it took the Americans nearly a decade following 9/11 to find and kill Osama bin Laden.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a number of measures were adopted to protect civilian airliners from being hijacked so as to be used as flying bombs or simply blown up in flight. And while civilian aviation continued to be a target of terrorist attacks, most of the attempts to interfere with passenger airlines failed. The main exception was the destruction of two Russian civilian airliners in 2004. It is worth noting in this context that since the start of civilian aviation, several planes have been blown up in bomb attacks during flight (p.103) in episodes unrelated to terrorism or the pursuit of any political objective. Notwithstanding the Global War on Terror, the pattern of international terrorism in the decade following 9/11 was much the same as it had been in the previous decade. Despite the lethality of some of the attacks, international terrorism of all kinds, however widely defined, accounts for a tiny proportion of the numbers who have been killed in civil wars and other forms of violence within states, including terrorism. Admittedly, it is not easy to draw a sharp line between international and domestic terrorism in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan that have been subjected to foreign occupation or in cases where the boundaries between states have become unclear.

Nevertheless, in one way or another, the vast majority of acts of international terrorism–at least from a Western perspective–in the last two decades could be characterised as part of the religious wave of terrorism, to use Rapoport’s taxonomy. The modus operandi most closely associated with this wave has been simultaneous suicide attacks designed to cause the maximum number of casualties. While this methodology now tends to be seen as a hallmark of al-Qaida, it dates back to the early 1980s, most notably to the attacks on American and French troops in Beirut in 1983. At the same time, while many of the attacks since 9/11, such as those in Bali, Madrid and London, have been attributed to al-Qaida or seen as inspired by Osama bin Laden’s message, it is open to question as to whether they should be considered part of the same terrorist campaign. Indeed, beyond the vague notion espoused by Osama bin Laden of attacking the far enemy, it is hard to discern a common strategic calculation behind the attacks. Further, it has been evident in the statements that perpetrators of these attacks have made that they were motivated for the most part by the pursuit of revenge for actions taken by the West in response to 9/11. The theme of revenge on society as a whole or a section of it has featured in a number of the cases of mass shootings in the United States that have occurred during the twenty-first century. Generally, these have been the acts of individuals, though there have also been cases of close friends or couples acting together. Very few of these cases have been described as acts of terrorism, notwithstanding their lethality. The exceptions have been where the perpetrator has been Muslim and wherever even the most tenuous association with jihadi groups has been found. However, it is arguable that a number of these episodes, which have received massive publicity in the media as proof of the continuing potency of the threat to the West of global jihadis and of terrorism with a global reach, properly belong in the realm of violent actions by the mentally disturbed.

Interpretation of attacks on the West or on Western tourists that have been carried out by jihadi groups since 9/11 is made difficult by the lack of a clear, (p.104) let alone common, purpose to these attacks, other than as a response to the Global War on Terror. However, it is important not to conflate this issue with nativist reaction to the West’s post-Cold War promotion of globalisation and the Washington consensus. In countries where a substantial proportion of the population are Muslims, such as Nigeria, Somalia and Mali, this has tended to take the form of support for religiously fundamentalist movements in which ethnic and regional identities also form part of the mix. A basis for linking these very different forms of violence has been attacks on tourists that have been carried out both by these movements and by much smaller groups linked in one way or another to global jihadi networks. Another complicating factor has been the recruitment of Muslims living in the West into movements such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Shabaab in Somalia and, more recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as ISIS) that has spread its control across large parts of both Syria and Iraq. The concern expressed in a number of Western countries has been that when these recruits return to the West, they will present a security threat on an analogy with the threat posed to a number of Arab countries in the 1990s by fighters returning from the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But the analogy is scarcely exact and any violence recruits engage in on their return home may not have the sanction of ISIS.

A notable feature of the interpretation of jihadi violence against the West or Westerners among both Western governments and in the media has been an unwillingness to accept the role that the West’s own actions have played in provoking the relatively small number of attacks that have taken place since 9/11. Instead, the authorities have deployed a model of radicalisation within Muslim communities to explain the attacks. The model assumes that individuals who turn to violence progress through a series of stages under the influence of propagandists in these communities or on the internet. In this account, alienation from Western foreign policy is seen as one of the warning signs that an individual may be susceptible to radicalisation. Given the surveillance to which Muslim minorities in the West have been subjected, this has had a chilling effect on debate on foreign policy in these communities. In the light of governments’ dislike of criticism of their policies, this effect perhaps enhances the appeal of the radicalisation model. Certainly, Western governments seem to go to absurd lengths to promote this model in the media and among researchers on terrorism, despite its very obvious flaws, including that nothing whatever can be learnt about the tiny number of individuals who engage in terrorism from the fact that they share certain views, when these views are also held by hundreds of thousands of people who have never broken the law.

(p.105) Fear of jihadi violence within Western societies has been out of all proportion to its occurrence since 9/11 as numerous scholars, including, most powerfully, John Mueller in voluminous writings on the subject, have pointed out.8 Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the exaggeration of the terrorist threat has been a number of cases in both the United States and the United Kingdom in which plots have been manufactured by the authorities through the entrapment in sting operations of suggestible individuals quite incapable of having acted on their own initiative.9 They have included situations in which police agents have sought to bribe individuals close to or below the poverty line with vast sums of money for participating in hare-brained schemes in which all the material for the proposed outrage has been provided by the authorities. Far from exposing these abuses, the media has largely been complicit in lending credibility to the claims of prosecutors that the victims of this entrapment were really dangerous terrorists. They have also been failed by a legal system in the two countries. In the case of the United Kingdom, there are similarities with how Irish suspects were treated at the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, when the Provisional IRA’s mainland bombing campaign led to a series of miscarriages of justice. As the Irish were treated then as a suspect community, so are Muslims today under the pervasive influence of Islamophobia, particularly in the press, including both tabloids and broadsheets.

To his credit, President Barack Obama has sought to extricate the United States from the wars launched by his predecessor as part of the Global War on Terror. During his first term of office, he sought, though without much success, to substitute the notion that the United States was engaged in ‘overseas contingency operations’ rather than a ‘Global War on Terror’.10 His objective was to move America away from the idea that it faced a never-ending threat from global jihadis that required the persistence of extraordinary measures. At the inauguration for his second term as President, he declared: ‘A decade of war is now ending. We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.’11 In terms of the approaches discussed above, President Obama has clearly been seeking to shift American counter-terrorism policy and practice from one of suppression to the rule-of-law model of criminalisation. However, formidable difficulties remain in his path, not least the opposition of neo-conservatives (p.106) and others who regard any constraints on American action as a threat to their project of ensuring the country’s global hegemony throughout the course of the twenty-first century.

President Obama spoke at length on his approach to counter-terrorism in a speech at the National Defense University on 23 May 2013. It is worth analysing this in some detail. At the outset, he sought to present a nuanced picture of the threats that America faces from terrorism. He argued that the core of al-Qaida no longer posed a major threat to America and he pointed out that al-Qaida had not carried out a single attack on the American homeland since 9/11. Thus, it had not been responsible for the attack on the Boston marathon in 2013. He accepted that al-Qaida affiliates, such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, had attempted to attack the American homeland, but that generally the threat that such groups posed were to Americans working in the countries where these affiliates were based. He added that the home-grown terrorism of ‘radicalised individuals’12 also presented a threat, but he included a range of cases under this heading, including hate crimes against minorities and not simply the actions of people who might have been influenced by the concept of a global jihad. While his account did not exclude the possibility of further mass-casualty attacks, he largely discounted the likelihood of another attack on the scale of 9/11 itself. He assessed these threats to America and Americans as being on a similar level to those that the country had faced before 9/11.

Obama then went on to discuss how these threats might be met by a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that did not rely solely on the use of force. In this context, he emphasised the importance of the battle of ideas to counter the ideology that underpinned much but by no means all of the terrorism that threatened America. He also underlined the importance of partnerships with other countries in tackling terrorism. However, he then went on to examine the difficult cases in which the United States could not achieve its preferred option of detaining, interrogating and prosecuting terrorists. In particular, he argued that there were parts of the world where ordinary processes of law enforcement were not possible and where even the option of using special operations forces to capture terrorists was not feasible. And even if feasible, the costs of a mission to capture a terrorist or terrorists through these means might not be justified by the risks to the members of the special operations forces or to the local population. Political damage to America’s relations with the country concerned might also rule (p.107) out this option. In these circumstances, he argued that the use of drones to kill particular individuals could be justified. However, he conceded that the deployment of this new technology raised ‘profound questions–about who is targeted and why, about civilian casualties and about the risk of creating new enemies, about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law, about accountability and morality’.13

He then sought to address these points. While he insisted that America’s response to 9/11 had been lawful, he accepted that the fight against terrorism had entered a different phase that required changes to the country’s counter-terrorism strategy. He also acknowledged that the use of drones to target individuals, which had increased sharply under his Presidency, had caused civilian casualties. He announced that he had signed guidelines the day before his speech to impose constraints on the use of drones. He set out their import as follows:

Beyond the Afghan theatre, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. And even then the use of drones is heavily constrained. American does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists, our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute. America cannot take strikes whenever we choose, our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.

America does not take strikes to punish individuals, we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured–the highest standard we can set.14

He went on to argue in the spirit of an accommodationist approach to counter-terrorist strategy that the underlying grievances that fuelled extremist views needed to be tackled.

Other issues that Obama addressed in his speech were his ongoing efforts to close the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba that Bush had established; the need ultimately to repeal the Authorisation to Use Military Force that underpinned the Global War on Terror; and, more briefly, spying and leaks of government secrets. In this context, he spoke of the need for a balance to be struck between the protecting of classified information and a free press and between security and citizens’ rights to privacy. (p.108) There were a lot of loose ends in Obama’s speech that reflected debate within the Administration over the content prior to its delivery. Inevitably, it fell far short of satisfying critics of American wrongdoing after 9/11. In particular, the manner in which the Administration interpreted ‘continuing and imminent threat’ went far beyond any reasonable understanding of those terms. Nonetheless, it was a much narrower criterion than the one that Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, had put forward of the individual posing a ‘significant threat to U.S. interests’.15

A number of factors undermined Obama’s hopes for a fresh start. Thanks to Wiki-Leaks, amongst others, practically the full extent of American wrongdoing–and its authorisation at the highest levels of government under his predecessor–had been laid bare, but the wars that Obama inherited meant that he had very little political room to repudiate this misconduct. At the same time, his own reputation was severely damaged by the revelations of spying by the National Security Agency, even though this was, in large part, the culmination of a long process that went back to the beginning of the Cold War of the growth of a secret state that operated with a minimum of political accountability. Much the same process had occurred in the other English-speaking states–the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand–that made up the so-called five eyes. Yet, until Snowden’s revelations, the idea of the Anglosphere had seemed a right-wing fantasy rather than a long-established geo-strategic alliance to advance these countries’ security and financial and commercial interests. Terrorism with a global reach provided a convenient justification for the further growth of these secret states, while technological change was in the process of massively increasing the capacity of the secret state to gather information on many millions of people.

Yet the political chaos around the world created by the interventionist policies the West has pursued since the end of the Cold War is testament to the fact that the possession of huge quantities of secretly obtained data of widely varying reliability has not conferred on the political leaders of the Anglosphere either control over events or the capacity to manage change. Secrets very commonly include misinformation. I have personal experience of this point. When I was a student in South Africa in the 1960s, I was involved in a project that had been initiated by an international charity to set up a third-level college of adult education and training in Botswana. However, the project’s acronym of CADET led the apartheid government to imagine that there was a sinister intent behind this wholly educational endeavour. This came to light as a result of the controversy generated by (p.109) the government’s banning under the Suppression of Communism Act of a student leader who had invited Senator Robert Kennedy to South Africa to deliver a speech on academic freedom. Commentators who think that Western intelligence agencies are incapable of making similar mistakes are deluding themselves. In this context, I should note that after I came to the United Kingdom in the 1970s, I became aware that material on my South African special branch file had been passed on to British intelligence and, it seems, without any correction of its entirely false assumptions.

Another factor that has thwarted Obama’s efforts to chart a new course for the United States in foreign policy has been blowback from the actions of the Bush Administration. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the Middle East. In the face of the advance of ISIS in Iraq in 2014, the Obama Administration deployed drones, even though the situation clearly did not meet the criteria he had set out for their use in 2013, not least because ISIS could hardly be labelled an affiliate of al-Qaida, even if ISIS is similarly based on Sunni fundamentalism and acts as ruthlessly as al-Qaida. The Administration justified its action as a limited humanitarian operation to protect American citizens and vulnerable ethnic minorities in Iraq. Throughout his Presidency, Obama has faced calls to extend the scope of American military intervention, despite the failure of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to create the basis for stable, constitutional government in either country. His critics have latched on to the fresh horrors in the arc of instability across the Middle East and Central Asia to argue for further military intervention, while portraying President Obama’s caution in the light of past failures of the use of American military power to effect constructive political change as weakness.

Obama’s thoughtful approach to counter-terrorism strategy has been the exception rather than the rule among the West’s political leaders since 9/11. Few other leaders have been willing even to acknowledge the dangers that the adoption of a suppressive approach to the threat of mass-casualty terrorism poses to democracy. Part of the explanation is the expectation that the public will blame them if they prove unable to prevent a fresh outrage on anything like the scale of 9/11 and avoiding that possibility has become their highest priority. Another part of the explanation is that those principally affected by surveillance and other measures that governments have adopted to meet the threat have been members of ethnic minorities with cultural practices that arouse considerable prejudice among significant sections of Western societies. Compounding the problem–and increasing the disposition of governments to sacrifice all manner of liberties in the quest to re-establish control over events–has been the transnational nature of the jihadi threat. At the same time, despite the moral panic within (p.110) Western societies over this threat, Western foreign policies have been influenced by a multitude of factors, including the pursuit of geo-strategic advantage over rivals. As a result, in a number of instances–even after 9/11–Western states have been de facto allies of jihadi groups, as in the ill-considered effort to overthrow the autocratic Assad regime in Syria. In these circumstances and especially in the light of the negative outcomes of their policies, it is hardly surprising that many government leaders have preferred to cover up or to lie about the actions they have authorised rather than provide a honest account of their motivation to a public generally indifferent to the complexities of foreign affairs.


(1) See, for example, Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror (London and New York, Verso, 2014); Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (London, Serpent’s Tail, 2013); Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (London and New York, Verso, 2013); andIan Cobain, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture (London, Portobello Books, 2013).

(2) The failure of the term ‘new terrorism’ to gain an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005) can be taken as one indication of the limited impact of this debate on public discourse.

(3) David C. Rapoport, ‘The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism’ in Audrey Cronin and James Ludes (eds), Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy (Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2004), pp. 46–73.

(4) Charles Townshend, Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 58.

(5) The author first constructed this typology for John Brewer, Adrian Guelke, Ian Hume, Edward Moxon-Browne and Rick Wilford, The Police, Public Order and the State (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 1996).

(6) Discussed in Adrian Guelke, Terrorism and Global Disorder (London, I. B. Tauris, 2006), pp. 212–214.

(8) See, for example, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, Terror, Security, and Money (New York, Oxford University Press, 2011).

(10) Peter Baker, ‘The Words have Changed, but have the Policies?’, New York Times, 3 April 2009.

(12) Remarks by the President at the National Defense University (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 23 May 2013)–http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-national-defense-university (accessed August 2014).

(13) Remarks of the President, May 2013.

(14) Remarks of the President, May 2013.

(15) Quoted in Peter Baker, ‘In Terror Shift, Obama Took a Long Path’, New York Times, 27 May 2013.