News & Politics

Who Are the Real Terrorists?

Bush's muddled definition of 'terrorist' has had chilling consequences for the Middle East.
President Bush's Monday press conference made two things clear: He's not about to withdraw troops from Iraq, and he's locked into a definition of "terrorist" so general that it's meaningless and, therefore, dangerous. It's time to reconsider: Who are the terrorists: Why are we fighting them? How can we defeat them?

Bush began his "war on terror" with a deliberately vague definition of America's new enemy: a "terrorist" was any group the Administration attached that label to. On 9/20/01 the President said, "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

Bush's "war" initially centered on Al Qaeda. The U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan. In the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly James Fallows persuasively argues that Al Qaeda has, for the most part, been defeated. He suggests that it's time to declare "victory" in the war on terror, because the U.S. has diminished the effectiveness of Al Qaeda: "Their command structure is gone, their Afghan sanctuary is gone, their financial and communications networks have been hit hard." He notes there has been "a shift from a coherent Al-Qaeda Central to a global proliferation of 'self-starter' terrorist groups."

Rather than stay focused on Al Qaeda, and their malignant offspring, Bush expanded the scope of his "war." In the 2002 State-of-the-Union address, he denounced Iraq and Syria as state "sponsors" of terrorism. Implied there could be terrorist states.

Subsequently, the Administration convinced Congress and much of the American public that his war on terror necessitated an invasion of Iraq. Bush conflated Al-Qaeda-trained Iraq-based terrorists, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, members of Iraq's Baath party, any Iraqi who resisted the occupation, "insurgents", and, ultimately, Sunni Muslims. Bush confused those who fight the U.S. because we are occupying their country -- "resistance" fighters -- with those who are operatives of Al Qaeda and have pledged to destroy America. In his press conference, Bush referred to them all as "terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy." Anyone who opposes the occupation is a "terrorist."

Fallows' Atlantic Monthly article argues that the war in Iraq has greatly hampered Bush's war on terror: "The war in Iraq advanced the jihadist cause because it generates a steady supply of Islamic victims, or martyrs; because it seems to prove Osama bin Laden's contention that America lusts to occupy Islam's sacred sites, abuse Muslim people, and steal Muslim resources; and because it raises the tantalizing possibility that humble Muslim insurgents, with cheap, primitive weapons, can once more hobble and ultimately destroy a superpower..." Nonetheless, Bush stubbornly defends the occupation: "We leave before the mission is done, the terrorists will follow us here."

In his 2002 speech, Bush defined "Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Jaish-i-Mohammed" as terrorist organizations. Of these, only "Jaish-i-Mohammed" has direct links to Al Qaeda. "Islamic Jihad" is an umbrella term used by groups in Egypt, Iran, and Syria among others. Hamas and Hezbollah are resistance groups in Palestine and Lebanon, respectively. Whether they deserve the label "terrorist" is debatable.

In 1988, the U.S. deemed Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Nonetheless, the group has little in common with Al Qaeda. Professor Stephen Zunes argues that Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shiite socio-political organization. Where Al Qaeda is Sunni and stateless, Hezbollah is part of Lebanese society -- holding fourteen seats in Lebanon's National Assembly. Where Al Qaeda has repeatedly threatened the United States, Hezbollah has not. Where Al Qaeda has a long history of terrorist attacks, Hezbollah does not -- Zunes notes that the U.S. accuses Hezbollah of two bombings of Jewish targets in Argentina, attacks most independent experts do not attribute to Hezbollah. Nonetheless, in his news conference Bush referred to Hezbollah as "terrorists." Blamed them for the recent war in Lebanon.

Bush's muddled definition of "terrorist" has had four chilling consequences: It's shifted attention away the eradication of Al Qaeda. It's largely ignored the threat posed by a secondary wave of 'self-starter' terrorist groups; those spawned by the ideology of Al Qaeda. Bush's sloppy thinking produced the debacle in Iraq and led to a mindset where the Administration labels any Middle Eastern "resistance fighter" as a terrorist. Finally, the White House's sweeping, ideological driven definition of terrorist led the Administration to condemn Hamas and Hezbollah, lump them with Al Qaeda; an action that contributed to Israel's decision to invade Palestine and South Lebanon.

American foreign policy needs a fresh start. Rather than continue the Bush approach -- define a terrorist group as anyone we don't like -- it makes more sense to be pragmatic. Let's begin with a more focused definition: A "terrorist" organization is Al Qaeda, or any group that adopts Al Qaeda' objectives and advocates attacks on the U.S. mainland or U.S. citizens. The first step towards real security is for America to be clear about who our enemies are.
Bob Burnett is a writer and activist in Berkeley, Calif.
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