Terrorism as Foreign Policy

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, terrorism is the “use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.”

When George W. Bush gave the CIA a green light to ‘to topple or capture’ the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, using violence and ‘deadly force’ if necessary,” he adopted terrorism as his official foreign policy regarding Iraq.

But terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy isn’t a recent innovation. It has long been used by great powers, not least by the United States, to achieve geopolitical goals.

In fact, the United States and other great power allies, like Britain, have been the most ardent, and destructive, practitioners of terrorism. But because Western governments present their acts of terrorism as legitimate, necessary and sometimes even humanitarian, we don’t see that the greatest terrorist acts of all haven’t been incubated in Afghan caves, or refugee camps in the West Bank, but in richly-appointed government offices in places like Washington, Tel Aviv and London.

After relentlessly bombing German cities in World War II, Winston Churchill drafted a memorandum to his chiefs of staff. “The moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed,” he wrote. “Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land.” [1]

The horrors of the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo would later be followed by the greatest single terrorist act in history, the atomic incineration of thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Frequent programs of terror would follow.

When the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua, ousting the US-backed dictator Samosa, Washington organized former members of Samosa’s dreaded National Guard to carry out terrorist attacks against civilian targets, such as schools and medical clinics. The hope was that the use of force against people and property would be sufficiently coercive and intimidating to topple the new government. The contra’s terrorism, on top of the economic terrorism of U.S. sanctions, eventually did topple the Sandinistas, but not before the World Court convicted the United States of….terrorism. Strange that the United States, which demonizes countries its calls sponsors of terrorism and sanctimoniously appoints itself to rid the world of the scourge, is the only state to be convicted of this reprehensible act.

Washington has also sponsored terrorist attacks against Cuba, the Bay of Pigs invasion being the most well known, but only one of dozens, if not hundreds, of attacks launched from the United States with either the government’s passive knowledge or active connivance. And these days at the centre of U.S. foreign policy in the Americas lurks Otto Reich, the Undersecretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs, a virulent anti-Castro Cuban exile, linked to terrorist attacks on the Caribbean country.

U.S. backed and supported death squads in Central and South America, which have actively terrorized civilian populations, have also served Washington’s political and ideological ends, intimidating and coercing movements and organizations that threaten U.S. hegemony. And a major training centre for death squad terrorists is the U.S. Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Georgia, known by its detractors as “the school of assassins”. The school trains Latin American soldiers in what it calls counterinsurgency, but what often amounts to terrorizing domestic populations for political and ideological reasons. Colombia, which has the worst human rights record in the Americas, has sent over 10,000 soldiers to the school.

In Afghanistan, the CIA organized the mujahideen, Islamist fanatics, to use violence against people and property — in other words, terrorism — to topple the Communist government. Zbigniew Brezinski, national security advisor to Jimmy Carter, told an interviewer in 1998 that the U.S. began funnelling aid to the mujahideen terrorists six months before the Soviet Union intervened, with the intention of drawing the Soviets into their own Vietnam. [2]

After the Soviets withdrew and Afghanistan’s Communist government fell, some mujahideen made their way to the Balkans, carrying out terrorist attacks in Bosnia and Kosovo. As late as 1998, the U.S. State Department listed the KLA, to which it would later provide aid, as a terrorist organization linked to the most notorious mujahideen terrorist of all, Osama bin Laden.

But while the United States record on sponsoring terrorists is bad enough, its record in directly using violence against people and property to achieve political ends is infamous.

Since World War II some 35 million people have died in wars, [3] many of them wars the United States has been at the centre of, in pursuit of political and ideological objectives. Ninety percent of the dead have been civilians, many killed in indiscriminate bombing raids by the U.S. Air Force.

“Air bombardment is state terrorism,” notes political scientist, C Douglas Lummis. “It is the terrorism of the rich. It has burned up and blasted apart more innocents in the past six decades than have all the anti-state terrorists who ever lived.” [4]

When a U.S.-led NATO bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days in the spring of 1999, killing hundreds, if not thousands of civilians, U.S. Air Force Lt. General Michael Short’s explanation of NATO’s strategy sounded exactly like the American Heritage Dictionary definition of terrorism. Said Short, “If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?'” [5]

And when British Defense Staff, Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, declared the bombing of Afghanistan, led by U.S. forces, would continue until “the country themselves recognize that this is going to go on until they get the leadership changed,” [6] it just seemed more of the same. Great powers are prepared to use violence on a massive scale to intimidate and coerce civilian populations, for political and ideological reasons.

So while terrorism may seem the preserve of men with exotic sounding Arabic names, it is hardly exotic, or uniquely Arabic. On the contrary, most of the terrorism practised during and since World War Two has either been sponsored, or directly carried out, by the United States, with far more murderous and destructive consequences than Palestinian suicide bombings or 9/11. Indeed, the number of Afghan civilians estimated to have died in U.S. bombing raids, to say nothing of those who have died of starvation and cold in refugee camps after being driven from their homes by U.S. bombs, exceeds the number of people who died as a result of the 9/11 attacks. [7] While one doesn’t justify the other, it does show that U.S. terrorism can be more destructive than even the most destructive al-Qaeda connected attack.

But apologists for U.S. terrorism argue that American acts of violence (which they call self-defense or humanitarian intervention) are justified because they’re aimed at stopping or pre-empting illegitimate, illegal or far worse acts of terror. Moreover, they claim the U.S. doesn’t deliberately target civilians, while terrorists, and terrorist states, do.

This is artful.

It can hardly be said a campaign of bombing doesn’t produce massive terror, or that the killing of civilians and the destruction of civilian property is not an inevitable outcome of the air wars the United States and its allies carry out.

And it’s hardly the case that recent American acts of terror were necessary. While Washington said it had to bomb Yugoslavia to stop what it claimed was a Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, almost all the Kosovo-related events of which former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is accused, happened after the bombing. And the deal NATO reached with the Yugoslav government after 78 days of terror bombing was almost identical to the deal Milosevic proposed before the bombing began. Why was the bombing campaign necessary?

Washington’s campaign of terror bombing over Afghanistan began, it will be recalled, after George W. Bush’s demand that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden was met by the eminently reasonable request to see evidence of bin Laden’s culpability. Rather than producing the evidence (which the U.S. government has yet to present to anyone, including the American people) Bush opted for terror bombing. Had he furnished the Taliban with evidence of bin Laden’s guilt, the al-Qaeda leader may have been brought to book and Washington could have avoided a massive campaign of terror against innocent Afghans. So what has the campaign of terror availed, besides more deaths than the original reason for the war — the 9/11 attacks — produced?

Rather than reducing the threat of terror attacks, the FBI and CIA say the threat has increased.[8] It seems al-Qaeda’s infrastructure wasn’t uprooted after all. Instead, there are a now whole lot more people who hold grudges against the United States. And with al-Qaeda operatives dispersed across dozens of countries, it was unlikely from the start that bombing Afghanistan was going to disrupt the terrorist organization.

But even apart from the terror bombing failing to achieved its stated objectives, the absurdity of saying that American terrorism is necessary and legitimate, where all other terrorism is unjustified under any circumstances, should be clear.

Palestinians face military occupation, denial of their human rights, repression and daily humiliation, yet we deny this as grounds to justify Palestinian terrorist attacks. Palestinian grievances must be addressed in non-violent ways, we insist.

And while Washington’s insistence on maintaining sanctions against Iraq has occasioned other legitimate grievances (according to the U.N., sanctions have killed well over a million Iraqis), we deny this as justifiable grounds for terror attacks.

Saying that the terrorist acts of the U.S. and its allies and proxies are justifiable while those of its enemies are not, is unrelieved hypocrisy. It amounts to saying terrorism directed at America’s enemies is just, while terrorism directed at America, and its janissaires, is unacceptable under any circumstances. Talk about a self-serving double-standard.

Terrorism is always unjustifiable, no matter who’s behind it. Even if it is the official foreign policy of one’s government.


[1] The Guardian (London), August 24, 2001

[2] William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, Common Courage Press, 2000.

[3] Gabirel Kolko, Century of War: Politics, Conflict and Society Since 1914 (New York: New Press, 1994), 470.

[4] C Douglas Lummis, The Nation, September 26, 1994

[5] Washington Post Foreign Service, May 24, 1999

[6] The Guardian (London), December 20, 2001

[7] Marc W. Herold, “A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting”, http://www.media-alliance.org/mediafile/20-5/casualties12-10.html

[8] The Guardian (London), June 17, 2002

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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