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Salon.com: Glenn Greenwald: The true definition of “Terrorist”

23 June 2011 Salon No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

Glenn Greenwald

In late May, two Iraqi nationals, who were in the U.S. legally, were arrested in Kentucky and indicted on a variety of Terrorism crimes.  In The Washington Post today, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — writing under the headline:  “Guantanamo is the place to try terrorists” –castigates Attorney General Eric Holder for planning to try the two defendants in a civilian court on U.S. soil rather than shipping them to Guantanamo.

To make his case, the war-loving-but-never-fighting McConnell waves the flag of cowardly manufactured fear that is both his hallmark and the hallmark of uniquely American political rhetoric on Terrorism (“my constituents do not think that civilian judges and jurors in their community should be subjected to the risk of reprisal for participating in a terrorist trial“); relies on the ignoble example of Chuck Schumer and other New York Democrats who demanded that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not be tried in Manhattan; and, as usual, issues vacant cries of war-uber-alles to justify abandonment of basic legal safeguards (“our top priority in battling terrorism should be to find, capture and detain or kill those who would do us harm”).  Along the way, McConnell — as most right-wing politicians are now forced to do given the continuity with Bush 43 — praises Obama’s overall national security approach:

The administration has shown admirable flexibility in making decisions concerning national security and has shown that it is willing, on occasion, to put safety over ideology. President Obama launched a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, ignored calls to hastily withdraw from Iraq and recently agreed to extend the Patriot Act without weakening its provisions or making them harder to use.

Indeed, the Kentucky Republican ends his Op-Ed with an appeal to Obama’s “flexibility”; the President, he urges, should “let Holder know that our civilian courts are off-limits to foreign fighters captured in the war on terrorism.”

McConnell’s criticism of Holder is patently absurd; the very idea that we should start rounding up people who are legally on U.S. soil and shipping them to Guantanamo — rather than trying them in a real court — is menacing, and the fear he invokes (they’ll kill us if we put them on trial) is as fictitious as it is cowardly.  But far more interesting than McConnell’s trite fear-mongering is the notion that these two individuals are “Terrorists.”  Just as McConnell’s Op-Ed did, in all the reporting thus far on this case, the fact that their alleged acts constitutes Terrorism has been tacitly assumed (AP: ”2 Iraqis charged in Ky. with terrorism plotting”; ABC News: “Kentucky Terror Case”; PoliticoMcConnell:  Get Terror Case out of Kentucky”).

But look at what they’re actually accused of doing.  Those above-linked news reports as well as the unsealed indictment make clear that there are two separate categories of acts forming the basis for these allegations.  The first is that one of the men, Waad Ramadan Alwan, admitted to working with the “Iraqi insurgency” to attack American troops during the first three years of the war.  From the indictment:

It was that activity which the FBI trumpeted when announcing the indictments:

WASHINGTON—An Iraqi citizen who allegedly carried out numerous improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and another Iraqi national alleged to have participated in the insurgency in Iraq have been arrested and indicted on federal terrorism charges in the Western District of Kentucky. . . .

According to the charging documents, the FBI has been able to identify two latent fingerprints belonging to Alwan on acomponent of an unexploded IED that was recovered by U.S. forces near Bayji, Iraq. . . . Alwan had also allegedly told the CHS how he had used a particular brand of cordless telephone base station in IEDs. Alwan’s fingerprints were allegedly found on this particular brand of cordless base station in the IED that was recovered in Iraq.

The second set of acts involves a plot apparently concocted by the FBI, and then presented to Alwan through the use of an informant, to ship weapons and money to “Al Qaeda in Iraq.”  I realize that the very mention of the phrase “Al Qaeda” is supposed to stop the brain of all Decent People, but as even AP acknowledges, that group is little more than an insurgency group specific to Iraq, devoted to attacking foreign troops in their country:

Neither is charged with plotting attacks within the United States . . . . Their arrests come after FBI Director Robert Mueller said in February that his agency was taking a fresh look at Iraqi nationals in the U.S. who had ties to al-Qaida’s offshoot in Iraq. The group had not previously been considered a threat in the U.S.

Indeed, the FBI — in touting the plot they created and induced Alwan to become part of — acknowledged that the plot was devoted exclusively to attacking U.S. troops in Iraq, not civilians:

Over the course of roughly eight years, Waad Ramadan Alwan allegedly supported efforts to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, first by participating in the construction and placement of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and, more recently, by attempting to ship money and weapons from the United States to insurgents in Iraq. His co-defendant, Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, is accused of many of the same activities, said Todd Hinnen, Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security.

According to the charging documents, beginning in September 2010, Alwan expressed interest in helping the [confidential human source] CHS provide support to terrorists in Iraq. The CHS explained that he shipped money and weapons to the mujahidin in Iraq by secreting them in vehicles sent from the United States. Thereafter, Alwan allegedly participated in operations with the CHS to provide money, weapons — including machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Stinger missiles, and C4 plastic explosives — as well as IED diagrams and advice on the construction of IEDs to what he believed were the mujahidin attacking U.S. troops in Iraq.

There is no suggestion in any of these reports or documents, not even a hint, that either of the accused ever tried to stage any attacks in the U.S. or target civilians either in the U.S. or Iraq.  Leaving aside the fact that this seems to be yet another case where the FBI manufacturers its own plotswhich they entrap people into joining, and then praises itself for stopping them, the alleged crimes here are confined entirely to past attacks on U.S. invading forces in their country and current efforts to aid those waging such attacks now.

One can have a range of views about the morality and justifiability of Iraqi nationals attacking U.S. troops in their country.  One could say that it is the right of Iraqis to attack a foreign army brutally invading and occupying their nation, just as Americans would presumably do against a foreign army invading their country (at least those who don’t share Mitch McConnell’s paralyzing fears and cowardice).  Or one could say that it is inherently wrong and evil to attack U.S. troops no matter what they’re doing or where they are in the world, even when waging war in a foreign country that is killing large numbers of innocent civilians.  Or one could say that the American war in Iraq in particular was such a noble effort to spread Freedom and Democracy that only an evil person would fight against it.  Or one could say that it’s always wrong for a non-state actor to engage in violence (a very convenient standard for the U.S., given that very few nations around the world could resist U.S. force without reliance on such unconventional means).  And one can recognize that most nations, not only the U.S., would apprehend those engaged in attacks against their troops.

But whatever one’s views are on those moral questions, in what conceivable sense can it be called “Terrorism” for a citizen of a country to fight against foreign invading troops by attacking purely military targets?  This is hardly the first case where we have condemned as Terrorists citizens of countries we invaded for fighting back against invading American troops.  The U.S. shipped numerous people to Guantanamo, branded them Terrorists, and put them in cages for years without charges for doing exactly that (indeed, the Obama administration prosecuted at Guantanamo the first child soldier tried for war crimes, Omar Khadr, for throwing a grenade at U.S. troops in Afghanistan).

I’ve often written that Terrorism is the most meaningless, and thus most manipulated, term in American political discourse.  But while it lacks any objective meaning, it does have a functional one.  It means:  anyone — especially of the Muslim religion and/or Arab nationality — who fights against the United States and its allies or tries to impede their will.  That’s what “Terrorism” is; that’s all it means.  And it’s just extraordinary how we’ve created what we call ”law” that is intended to do nothing other than justify all acts of American violence while delegitimizing, criminalizing, and converting into Terrorism any acts of resistance to that violence.

Just consider:  in American political discourse, it’s not remotely criminal that the U.S. attacked Iraq, spent 7 years destroying the country, and left at least 100,000 people dead.  To even suggest that American officials responsible for that attack should be held criminally liable is to marginalize oneself as a fringe and unSerious radical.  It’s not an idea that’s even heard, let alone accepted.  After all, all Good Patriotic Americans were horrified that an Iraqi citizen would so much as throw a shoe at George Bush; what did he do to deserve such treatment?  The U.S. is endowed with the inalienable right to commit violence against anyone it wants without any consequences of any kind.

By contrast, any Iraqi who fights back in any way against the U.S. invasion — even by fighting against exclusively military targets — is not only a criminal, but a Terrorist: one who should be shipped to Guantanamo.  And this notion is so engrained that no media account discussing this case would dare question the application of the “Terrorism” label to what they’ve done, even though it applies in no conceivable way.

One sees the same manipulative dynamic at play in how the U.S. freely tries to kill foreign leaders of countries it attacks.  The U.S. repeatedly tried to kill Saddam at the start of the Iraq War, and — contrary to Obama’s early pledges — has done the same to Gadaffi in Libya. NATO has explicitly declared Gadaffi to be a “legitimate target.”  But just imagine if an Iraqi had come to the U.S. and attempted to bomb the White House or kill George Bush, or if a Libyan (or Afghan, Pakistani, or Yemeni) did the same to Obama.  Would anyone in American political circles be allowed to suggest that this was a legitimate act of war?  Of course not:  screaming “Terrorism!” would be the only acceptable reaction.

It’s hardly unusual that an empire declares that its violence and aggression are inherently legitimate, and that any resistance to it — or the very same acts aimed at it — are inherently illegitimate.  That double-standard decree, more or less, is a defining feature of an empire.  But the nationalistic conceit that all of that is justified by coherent, consistent principles of “law” — or can be resolved by meaningful application of terms such as “Terrorism” – is really too ludicrous to endure.

UPDATE:  Bolstering the definition of Terrorism I provided above, Jonathan Schwarz several years ago documented how establishment political and media circles in the U.S. routinely referred to the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon as “Terrorism.”   As Schwarz wrote:

Whatever else you might say about those bombings, they weren’t terrorism, at least if words have any meaning. They were attacks on military targets.

But this goes really, really deep in U.S. political culture. The basic idea is: we are allowed to send our military anywhere on earth to do anything to anyone. And if someone tries to fight back—even by targeting our military when it’s stationed in their country and killing them—that is fundamentally AGAINST THE RULES.

Propping up that warped mindset is the central purpose of the term Terrorism.

Original post: Salon.com: Glenn Greenwald: The true definition of “Terrorist”

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