War & terrorism differentiated by the power the state has at its disposal

By Daniel Margrain

The twisted ideology of terrorist Mohammed Emwazi (Jihadi John) is as repugnant as it is depraved and inhumane. It’s to the credit of the family members of those individuals Emwazi killed, such as the widow of David Haines, that they stated publicly the preferable course of action would have been to have ensured the killer was brought to trial. This would of course have been the legal and moral approach to have taken. Moreover, it would have emphasized the divide between the democratic process pertaining to justice on the one hand, and the illegal act of extra judicial killing on the other. It’s this principled divide that separates liberal democracies from that of terrorist barbarism.

It was therefore revealing that David Cameron praised the “quick fix” nature of Emwazi’s political assassination, while Jeremy Corbyn agreed with the family members by expressing grave doubts about the government’s policy of extrajudicial killing. Cameron’s subsequent cynical political grandstanding in front of the world’s media was intended to give the false impression that the West are winning the battle against ISIS while simultaneously depicting Corbyn as weak and unpatriotic.

But the reality is that the “patriotism” implied by Cameron’s stance on Ermwazi’s death resulted in the latter’s martyrdom which the terrorist sought from the beginning. Thus the likelihood is that his killing will be a further recruiting agent for ISIS in Syria that the attacks in Paris are an extension of.

As the words from the terrorist statement claiming responsibility for the slaughter in the French capital make clear, the kinds of sadists who gloat about the massacring of people enjoying their warm Friday evening in the bars and cafes of the city are warped individuals who have no moral or ethical scruples about who they kill or how.

But it’s also worth highlighting that among the religious obscurantist language contained in the statement, there are also references to “Crusader’s” which although on the surface is crude, is nevertheless an expression of something that’s fundamentally political in nature. In that sense, the statement is no different from the majority of Bin Laden’s public statements in that it provides secular, not religious rationales for the attacks.

Nowhere in the statement does it justify terrorism against the West as a means of subordinating Western unbelievers to the true faith, but uses the phrase “crusader nations” when describing Germany and France “attended by the imbecile of France (Francois Hollande).” This is the political underpinning to the dirty and inhumane method of terrorism displayed by the psychopathic killers.

The question is, would the killers have used these kinds of methods if they had at their disposal the high-tech operations and “clean” logistical tactics of their French counterparts that preceded the attacks? This includes Hollande’s 2012 arming of Syrian rebels that are in breach of a UN embargo, the emergence of France as the most prominent backer of Syria’s armed opposition, and its direct funding of rebel groups around Aleppo as part of the push to oust the embattled Assad regime. In addition, there is evidence of further French complicity in aiding opposition groups as well as Hollande’s pro-regime change rhetoric here and here, and fighter jet deals here and here.

The fact that the terrorists are unable to compete with the violence that powerful state actors can dish out means that the damage the latter are able to inflict is much more extensive and devastating than anything a suicide bomber can inflict. It is a mistake to think that all the individuals who fight under the ISIS banner are driven exclusively by ideological Islamist motives or that the terrorists represent an existential threat to our way of life.

It’s important to highlight some context in relation to this latter point. Terrible as these attacks were, they killed 0.01% – that’s one in ten thousand – of the population of Paris. There are over 600 murders a year in France. Many more people die every year in traffic accidents in Paris than were killed in this atrocity.

It’s arguably the case that many who ascribe to the ISIS death cult do so because they have, in part, been radicalized as the result of a deep sense of injustice and oppression which is then expressed by a commitment to a religious outlook and way of behaving. I disagree with the view of many of those on the “left” who argue that Islamist terrorism has nothing at all to do with Islam. It’s my contention that those who commit terrorist acts often self identify as Muslims so for them Islam is the issue.

The fact that tolerant Muslims claim that their radical counterparts are not authentic Muslims seems to me to be a canard because both factions will justify their own actions by recourse to their own specific interpretations and cherry picking of their religious book in order, in the case of the latter, to justify secular political grievances. This was the case of what is known of the background of one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta:

“The grievances he loudly and frequently articulated against the United States and the Muslim autocracies that the United States supports were almost entirely secular. Most of those who knew him before 1996 stress not Atta’s religious piety…but his implacable fury at the plight of the poor and the indifference of the rich… He was bitterly angry at the visible juxtaposition, in Cairo, of extravagant and frivolous luxury with mass squalor and hopelessness. Egypt’s elite, in particular, was hypocritical, he believed. They showed a ‘democratic face’ to the West, while displaying complete indifference to the misery of ordinary people at home. They had sold their country to the West for trinkets.”

Just as Emile Henry, the French bomber of the café at the Gare St Lazare more than a century ago, saw bourgeois women and children as “guilty” by association, so there are people suffering from imperialism across the world (and not just Muslims) who see the ordinary inhabitants of the oppressor nation as equally “guilty” by association with what “their” nation is doing. This is a terrible inversion of the argument that says that because Hollande, Cameron and Obama were elected, their actions in unleashing war are legitimate. The terrorist logic is that the population cannot be “innocent” because they voted for these politician’s. This is the politics of despair.

The only “strategy” the West seems to have against the ISIS terrorists which extends beyond the “sticking plaster” approach implied by extrajudicial killing, appears to be to continue to drop more indiscriminate bombs from a great height on the people of Syria creating the kind of collateral damage that the sadists who created the carnage in Paris could only dream of. This is because the West is not fighting a traditional standing army of a recognized state that’s easily identifiable, but a set of well armed, financed and organised collection of individuals who are highly mobile.

Leading Western politicians’ seem to be totally oblivious to the fact that what is supposed to separate our democracies from the tyranny of the terrorists is the concept of the rule of law. Our leaders’ promotion of a policy of bombing Syria “even harder” towards democracy makes us no different in essence from the tactics used by the terrorists we condemn, thus making the concepts of war and terrorism distinguishable from one another only in as much as the former is indicative of state power.

2 thoughts on “War & terrorism differentiated by the power the state has at its disposal

    1. Corbyn’s policy that you outlined is clearly motivated by a genuine desire to get to the root of the matter. Conversely, the strategy of Cameron, Hollande et al, as evidenced by their public reaction to the aftermath, will perpetuate terrorism.

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