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The legitimate grievances of terrorists

Middle EastEurope

Photo by Christiaan Triebert

With the despicable attacks that took place over the weekend in Paris there has been an uptick in bigoted narratives about why such violent acts occur, namely ones that target refugees, immigration, Islam and Muslims. To counter these bigoted narratives, I’d like to try and answer some basic questions.

Why did Daesh (ISIS) attack Paris?

“Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State … as long as they partake in the crusader campaign, as long as they dare to curse our Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), and as long as they boast about their war against Islam in France and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets” said a spokesperson.

Why did al Qaeda attack the World Trade Centre?

Because of “80 years of humiliation and disgrace” experienced by the “Islamic nation,” “a million innocent children” killed in Iraq—presumably a reference to the Clinton sanctions in the ‘90s which UNICEF estimated to have killed approximately 500,000 Iraqi children—“Israeli tanks rampag[ing] across Palestine,” and US occupation of holy lands, said Bin Laden in October 2001.

How come there is animosity towards the West in the Middle East?

Donald Rumsfeld, perhaps inadvertently, answered this question in 2004 when he commissioned a Defense Science Board task force to look into why America’s ‘information campaign,’ i.e. their campaign to ‘win hearts and minds,’ was not working in the Middle East. Their conclusion? American policy has backfired:

Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states. Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.… Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.


What causes people to blow themselves up?

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor, together with a team of researchers set out to produce a report investigating the occurrence of suicide terrorism, and essentially concluded that “the majority of suicide terrorism around the world since 1980 has had a common cause: military occupation.” According to Pape, who presented his findings to the American congress, “We have lots of evidence now that when you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns … and that when the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100 percent of the terrorist campaign.”

Does the Muslim world support terrorist violence?

A Gallup poll of the Muslim world that AFP reported on in 2008 found that:

“[O]nly seven percent of the billion Muslims surveyed – the radicals – condoned the attacks on the United States in 2001, the poll showed. Moderate Muslims interviewed for the poll condemned the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington because innocent lives were lost and civilians killed…. Meanwhile, radical Muslims gave political, not religious, reasons for condoning the attacks, the poll showed. The survey shows radicals to be neither more religious than their moderate counterparts, nor products of abject poverty or refugee camps” (emphasis mine).

That last point is particularly relevant given the xenophobic petitions and statements—which seem to have spawned in response to the Paris attacks and now pollute social media news feeds—that attempt to get governments to refuse refuge to desperate Syrian refugees who are, of course, running from both the violence that we have unleashed, and the violent response to it.

But what about the lone-wolf types—the ‘domestic terrorist’—what is their excuse?

As Glenn Greenwald put it in the Guardian, “in the last several years, there have been [five] serious attempted or successful attacks on US soil by Muslims, and in every case, they emphatically all say the same thing: that they were motivated by the continuous, horrific violence brought by the US and its allies to the Muslim world - violence which routinely kills and oppresses innocent men, women and children.” This was true for Canada’s Parliament Hill shooter as well.

Foolishly, the plots often appear to be viewed by their creators as a way to bring an end to the violence that the US and its allies continue to unleash on the Middle East. For example, Zarein Ahmedzay (the attempted NYC subway bomber) stated that “I personally believed that conducting an operation in the United States would be the best way to end the wars.”

If terrorists are motivated by political factors, then why do terrorists use religious rhetoric?

Also of note from that 2008 Gallup poll is that in “majority Muslim countries, overwhelming majorities said religion was a very important part of their lives – 99 percent in Indonesia, 98 percent in Egypt, 95 percent in Pakistan.” It is of little wonder, then, that ‘terrorist’ groups often use religious language, and even religious justifications for despicable acts of violence. It should be utterly unsurprising that the most common system of beliefs in a society is appealed to when justifying actions that the majority of people in that society find unpalatable.

It could also be pointed out that living under a despotic secular regime in the Middle East propped up by America (as Iran, Iraq and Syria once were) has often meant that the mosque was one of the only places where large gatherings of people, and the articulation of dissent, was possible.

Canadian journalist and author Linda McQuaig calls attention to this phenomenon in her 2004 book, It’s the Crude Dude when discussing the American overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leader—namely due to American Capital’s desire for unfettered access to Iran’s oil—and their subsequent support for a “ruthless dictatorship under the shah, who remained closely associated with Washington.”

In the humorously titled chapter, How Did Our Oil Get Under Their Sand?, she argues that “[w]ith all democratic avenues of protest shut down in Iran, opposition gravitated towards the mosques, where large gatherings were still permitted and where a hardened form of resistance began to emerge.” Furthermore, she argues, “[m]oderates came to be regarded among dissidents as naïve and hopelessly ineffective, unable to stand up to the rigours of seriously challenging the ruthless shah and his American backers.”

So, yes, religious rhetoric is employed to justify extreme acts of violence, but what do we expect? A justification that appeals to beliefs dominant in our society? We kill Muslims in the name of freedom, democracy and women’s rights, should we really expect them to kill us for those reasons as well? Ultimately, we have to keep in mind that religion in many Middle Eastern states has either not been privatized like it has been in the West, or has been only nominally relegated to the private sphere.

Does secularism make the West superior?

Ironically, Westerners forget that the interstate system we founded has religious origins; the treaties of Westphalia, which gave birth to the modern interstate system, were agreements between religious authorities, and they established not just state sovereignty, but also a greater degree of religious freedom. Since that time, however, religion in Western states has largely been relegated to the private sphere; yet the hierarchical institutions of the state remain, an elite run society remains, racism remains, patriarchy remains, the religion of the state—or national tribalism—remains. A secularized Christianity remains, and we appeal to it all the time when we justify our own acts of violence.

It is estimated that 1 million Iraqis have been left dead from 2003-2011 alone, a number that could exceed 2 million dead if one takes into consideration Afghani and Pakistani lives extinguished by Western, namely US, forces since 2001—of course, this toll continues to rise. Under the Obama administration alone, 8 countries have been, or are being, bombed; 7 are Muslim majority countries, and one is Muslim minority, namely the Philippines; since the 1980s, the US has invaded, occupied or bombed 14 predominantly Muslim countries. Where are the comparable figure for the other side of this ostensibly civilizational or religious conflict? A rhetorical question of course.

Then why is so much attention paid to the terrorist threat?

Largely because global Capital benefits from wars in the Middle East, and require a pretext to continue to do so.

Unfortunately, with the rise of Daesh, we seem to have forgotten how oil and (neo) liberal policies fit into the story, even in the alternative media circuit. Yet it is our quest for such ‘strategic assets,’ and for the implementation of such policy reforms, which fuels terrorist violence and fills corporate coffers.

Of course, the 2003 invasion of Iraq—which is pretty widely acknowledged to have sown the seed of Daesh—had something to do with oil. It certainly had little to do with Muslim extremists (whom, at best, had a nascent presence before the invasion). Nevertheless, the effort was made to disingenuously make that very connection; in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack, Donald Rumsfeld’s aide took the following note: “Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] …sweep it all up things related and not.”

The actions of the US military, however, should dispel all doubt: the only major facility protected by the US military in Iraq post-invasion was the oil ministry. Meanwhile, none of the twenty important sites, many of them historically and culturally significant, that the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA)—the organization tasked by the US administration to act as a caretaker government for Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—had told the US administration needed to be protected, received protection.

Oil remains a crucial factor in the renewed war in Iraq, and now Syria. Why else would the oil-rich Kurdish Iraqi city, Erbil—a city where “ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the many oil and gas firms … under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favourable terms”—be the decisive factor in Obama’s decision to re-enter Iraq in 2014? It’s still about the crude, dude.

Yet it is also about other forms of capital accumulation promoted by (neo) liberal economic policies. Indeed, other forms of capital accumulation abound in the ‘War on Terror’. Naomi Klein’s popular 2009 book, The Shock Doctrine, highlighted this well; for starters there was Paul Bremer—the presidential envoy to Iraq—who implemented what Klein calls ‘economic shock therapy’: “mass privatization, complete free trade, a 15 percent flat tax, [and] a dramatically downsized government.” All policies that facilitate enhanced capital accumulation.

Then there is the funneling of public money to private contractors: It is estimated that between 2001 and 2010 the U.S. Army spent nearly $5 billion USD per year on private contractors. According to a 2014 Defense Science Board report, private contractors have been deployed 1.2 times the rate that U.S. uniformed military personnel have been in Afghanistan, and 1.1 times the rate they have been deployed in Iraq.

As of 2015, however, there are over twice as many private contractors than there are U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, and there are three times as many private contractors than there are U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Critics, like Jeremy Scahill, have rightly pointed out that this shift towards deploying private contractors, many of whom amount to mercenaries, is tantamount to the mitigation of democratic control over ‘American forces.’

Isn’t contracting out the efficient thing to do?

Not really. Take Charles Ferguson’s 2007 documentary, No End in Sight, for example, which documented how the Coalition Provisional Authority (the body that replaced ORHA) led by Bremer favoured American contractors over Iraqi contractors, even though the former were often incompetent, and the latter were willing to work for less, were in more desperate need of the work, and were able to complete contracts in a shorter amount of time.

What does this have to with Daesh?

Ferguson’s documentary helps answer this question as well, for it inadvertently helps us to understand how American foreign policy led to the rise of Daesh. One of the first things that Bremer did upon arriving in Iraq was to reverse the actions taken to establish an interim Iraqi government; he also decided to ‘de-Baathify’ Iraq which amounted to a lay-off of most of Iraq’s public sector, despite protestations from his subordinates. Iraq’s professional bureaucracy, and the livelihood of many bureaucrats, was destroyed. This ultimately crippled Iraq’s educational system, government and economy.

Bremer’s most fateful decision, however, was to disband the entire Iraqi military; “overnight Bremer rendered unemployed, and thereby infuriated, half a million armed men,” says Ferguson. US military officials on the ground in Iraq had brought to Bremer’s attention that Iraqi army and police units were awaiting instructions, but none ever came. Ferguson concludes that, instead of helping to stem an insurgency, the Americans helped to fuel one. He may have had a point.

A 2013 investigative documentary commissioned by the BBC and the Guardian, titled Searching for Steele, also inadvertently helps us understand the origins of Daesh. It follows the story of an American agent named James Steele, who oversaw the removal of American and Iraqi police experts in Iraq, and subsequently incorporated Shia militias into a police force that set out to hunt down Sunni resistance and those who were sympathetic to it (the former Baathist regime was compiled mostly of members of Iraq’s Sunni minority).

The film documents how torture and murder became commonplace in Iraq, and how the US military and Steele were acutely aware of it; several witnesses claim that Steele would visit torture centres and sometimes oversee the torture. Ultimately, Steele established a brutal network of Shia death squads that stoked sectarian violence in Iraq by terrorizing Sunnis; perhaps the most damning evidence of this presented in the film is a quote from Steele himself in a memo to Donald Rumsfeld detailing the existence of “Shia death squads” under his command.

With this information in mind it should come as no surprise that a recent article in The Intercept details how “ISIS today is essentially a Baathist-organized amalgam of virtually every Sunni tribal and jihadist insurgent group the United States has fought since April 2003.” The article makes a pretty strong case that many of those among the ranks of Daesh were members of the former secular Baathist regime, which should lead us once again to question whether religion is the crucial factor behind these groups:

Recall that from the moment the U.S. Army entered Baghdad, the coming Sunni terror insurgency was manned by almost 100,000 [Former Regime Loyalist] officers from the most loyal organizations. This number included 30,000 commandos from Saddam’s Fedayeen; 26,000 Special Republican Guards; 31,000 spies, analysts and enforcers from five major intelligence agencies; as well as 6,000 seasoned combat officers — all freshly fired by Ambassador Bremer through his General Order #2. These people didn’t vanish into thin air after the invasion; they went underground, as had been planned long before the war, and formed the largest insurgent group in Iraq, the Army of the Mujahideen. They also took over others, such as Ansar al Sunna, giving them an Islamic patina to inspire resistance.


In retrospect, a Sunni uprising should have seemed inevitable. This becomes even more obvious when one considers what US forces did to Sunni-Iraqi cities like Fallujah: it is estimated that the US dropped anywhere from a “couple of hundred tons upwards to 800 tons” of a chemical weapon, namely depleted uranium, in Fallujah which has had hugely indiscriminate effects. Indeed, the rate of congenital malformations in newborns—which is a nice way to refer to mutated babies—in 2013, for example, was 14 times greater in Fallujah than it was in the aftermath areas following the nuclear bombings in Japan; unsurprisingly, the use of depleted uranium has led to a significant uptick of many illnesses and cancers as well.

But isn’t this just the unintended consequence of the US pursuing its interests?

The consequences may be undesired, but the evidence suggests that US administrations have been aware of their potentiality.

For starters, Rumsfeld’s task force’s findings and Pape’s presentation to the US Congress appear to have done little to change the course of American foreign policy.

More disturbingly, however, the US has a history of offering support to nascent radical groups (when it appeared to be in their short term interest to do so), even though it was surely known anti-American sentiment was present in these groups.

The Mujahedeen resistance to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, for example, which included Bin laden in its ranks, was trained and funded by the US, even though, as Steve Coll has pointed out, “there were people in the early 1980’s involved in the program who were aware that many of America’s favourite clients were fundamentally anti-American in their outlook.”

Moreover, “there were individuals inside the US bureaucracy, at the state department, elsewhere, who began to warn that the United States needed to change its political approach to this covert action program, that they needed now to start getting involved in the messy business of Afghan politics and to start to promote more centrist factions and to negotiate compromise with the Soviet-backed communist government in Kabul to prevent Islamist extremists from coming to power as the Soviets withdrew.” As we now know well, these individuals were ultimately ignored.

As for Daesh, it has become clear that the opposition to the Syrian government that the US has been supporting consisted of many of the same radicalized Sunnis that ultimately came to form Daesh; it also became clear, thanks to a declassified US intelligence report from 2012, that the US knew that these were the kind of people they were supporting at the time. As Seamus Milne summed it up at the Guardian:

A year into the Syrian rebellion, the US and its allies weren’t only supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups; they were prepared to countenance the creation of some sort of ‘Islamic state’ – despite the ‘grave danger’ to Iraq’s unity – as a Sunni buffer to weaken Syria.


Take, for another example, the international network of torture centres and black sites, maintained by the US, that many Western nations were complicit in sending people to via ‘extraordinary rendition.’ Torture continues at many of these sites, like Guantanamo Bay, even though it is clear that torture does not produce reliable information, and that it, instead, has inspired more terrorism.

Then there’s President Obama’s global assassination program which has been shown to target rescuers of drone strike victims, as well as the attendees of their funerals. In fact, extensive qualitative research has demonstrated that Obama’s drone policies actually “breed resentment and discontent toward the US, and there is evidence to suggest that the strikes have aided militant recruitment and motivated terrorist activity.”

Then there’s President Obama’s global assassination program which has been shown to target rescuers of drone strike victims, as well as the attendees of their funerals. In fact, extensive qualitative research has demonstrated that Obama’s drone policies actually “breed resentment and discontent toward the US, and there is evidence to suggest that the strikes have aided militant recruitment and motivated terrorist activity.”

Let’s not forget about that New York Times article that revealed that Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties [from drone strikes] that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

That was the same article that first revealed that the precision of America’s most ‘surgical’ weapon is analogous to a bent and blunted scalpel (something that has recently been substantiated by the ‘Drone Papers’ that were leaked to The Intercept); under Obama, drones have begun targeting unknown targets in what are called ‘signature strikes,’ i.e. strikes that target and kill people solely based on suspicious behaviour and location; this dubious criteria—essentially justifying the murder of someone for looking a certain way and being in a ‘bad neighbourhood’—is what led Cornel West to label Obama the “global George Zimmerman.”

So what can we do about Daesh now?

Perhaps the first thing we should do is become aware of the history of colonialism, and how those asymmetrical relationships continue to this day. In other words, the “80 years of humiliation and disgrace” that Bin Laden referred to. Daesh openly resents this history of colonialism too, but our corporate media has studiously avoided such narratives. Indeed, the famed Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk recently mentioned in an interview that Daesh’s first video was “a badly filmed sequence of a bulldozer pushing down a sand wall on the Iraqi-Syrian border. It was pushing it down, and on the ground beside it was a tiny piece of paper, ‘End of Sykes-Picot.’” Sykes and Picot were the two bureaucrats, the former English and the latter French, who signed the agreement at the end of WWI in which Britain and France, the two largest colonial powers at the time, carved up the Middle East into states that they would dominate.

When asked about what is to be done about the rise of Daesh, Fisk responded:

“Don’t ask what we can do now, ask how we screwed it up originally. I think then we can begin to understand what to do now. What was specific about Sykes-Picot, aside from the fact that it was grotesque, unfair and colonialist, was that it assured people of the Middle East that they would live under the tutelage of the West, under one of our proxies. It was about possessing land. If you look at that, what did it do for people? It didn’t give them freedom. It certainly didn’t give them justice. It didn’t make them want to have democracy, because that was associated with the dictators.”

One of the crucial things we need to start doing, then, is to start forming a critical understanding of what British IPE scholar Susan Strange called the ‘Westfailure system’. We also need to realize that, although the extreme violence of so-called terrorists is completely indefensible, the stated grievances that motivate these actions are real and legitimate. Which is not to say that the organizational leadership of terrorist groups do not instrumentalize these grievances disingenuously—they certainly do. Nor is this to say that Daesh leadership would appreciate a more dovish foreign policy; indeed, it would appear that the opposite is a quite good recruiting tool for them.

What I am suggesting, however, is that we need to take away their constituency, their base of support, their ability to recruit. I believe we can do this through addressing grievances. Until then, the cycle of violence will continue. As Chris Hedges recently put it:

We fire missiles from the sky that incinerate families huddled in their houses. They incinerate a pilot cowering in a cage. We torture hostages in our black sites and choke them to death by stuffing rags down their throats. They torture hostages in squalid hovels and behead them. We organize Shiite death squads to kill Sunnis. They organize Sunni death squads to kill Shiites. We produce high-budget films such as ‘American Sniper’ to glorify our war crimes. They produce inspirational videos to glorify their twisted version of jihad.


To which we could now add: we bomb hospitals in Afghanistan. They shoot at and bomb civilians in Paris.

Miles Krauter is a Masters student at Carleton University in Ottawa where he studies Political Economy. He is also a union activist and is a Vice President of the union local that represents Carleton’s contract instructors, and teaching and research assistants. His writing has appeared at rabble.ca and CanadianDimension.com. He can be followed on Twitter at @MilesKrauter.

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