after 9/11, President Bush addressed the American people, defining
policy in the simplest terms. "Every nation in every region
now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with
the terrorists." In declaring a War on Terrorism, he defiantly
stated his intent to pursue nations providing aid or safe haven
to terrorism, suggesting every nation had a decision to make on
years later, the White House has yet to define clearly what constitutes
a terrorist organization. The failure to do so has increasingly
contributed to the administration’s limited success in making America
and the world a safer place. Filling the gap, individuals and groups
are adopting their own definitions of terrorism with worrying, potentially
of the Willing
administration’s refusal to define terrorism served the White House
well in the early days of the War on Terrorism. Employing terrorism
as a catchall term for a potpourri of movements and organizations,
Washington was in a position to label just about anyone opposed
to its policies as a terrorist organization. Its subsequent inability
to prove in a court of law, in the few cases accorded judicial procedure,
that individuals and groups so identified were actually terrorists
or terrorist organizations proved a later embarrassment.
failure to define terrorism, what could be termed the "Opaque
Corollary" to the Bush Doctrine, also served the administration
well in the run up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Desperately
searching for recruits to its Coalition of the Willing, the White
House was eager to add any number of diverse groups to the State
Department’s terrorist list if it meant the host country might then
support U.S. policy in Iraq. For example, the list of terrorist
organizations in the current issue of the "Patterns
of Global Terrorism" report includes the Anti-Imperialist
Territorial Nuclei in Italy, the Great Islamic Raiders-Front in
Turkey, Red Hand Defenders in Ireland, and the Riyadus-Salikhin
Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs, a Chechen
of these organizations was listed in the "Patterns of Global
Terrorism" report issued just before 9/11, and none of them
would appear to pose an immediate threat to the United States, certainly
not on a par with al-Qaeda. But all of them are recognized opposition
groups in countries the White House courted for support as it prepared
to invade Iraq.
many people are not familiar with the "Patterns of Global Terrorism"
report, it might be helpful here to discuss briefly its format and
content. The report is issued annually by the U.S. Department of
State, normally in the late spring of the year, and covers events
in the previous year. For example, "Patterns of Global Terrorism"
2003 was first released in April 2004.
report contains two lists of terrorist groups. The first is the
group of "Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations,"
which an earlier report described as those groups "designated
by the Secretary of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs),
pursuant to section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act,
as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act
of 1996." This designation carries legal consequences, as it
is unlawful to provide funds or other material support to an FTO,
and their representatives can be denied visas or otherwise excluded
from the United States.
second list provides information on "Other Terrorist Groups,"
which are loosely defined as terrorist groups active in the course
of the year. In theory, terrorist groups whose activities were limited
in the course of the year are not listed, but this distinction is
honored in the breach. For example, the Abu Nidal organization is
listed in the current report, but the accompanying text says it
"has not staged a major attack against Western targets since
the late 1980s." There is also no suggestion in the report
of non-Western attacks by the group in recent years. Abu Nidal died
lists provide a wide-ranging, varied record of most unlikely partners
in terror. The list of "Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations,"
for example, includes Basque Fatherland and Liberty, the Communist
Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army, and the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia. Similarly, the list of "Other Terrorist
Groups" includes the Japanese Red Army, the Lord’s Resistance
Army of Uganda, and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement of Peru.
As should be clear even to the casual observer, the bulk of the
organizations on both lists share nothing in the way of background,
ideology, objectives, or organization.
there is the problem of volume. There are 76 groups on the latest
list of official terrorist organizations, which is 32 more than
were listed in 2000, a net gain of almost 75%. In a very real sense,
the terrorist list is one of the few places the Bush administration
has demonstrated a serious commitment to a policy of inclusion.
now has some five million people on its terrorism watch list. By
listing virtually every terrorist organization in the world and
every person in those organizations thought capable of a terrorist
act, we have lost focus and created a bureaucratic nightmare. The
Bush administration needs to define what terrorism is and which
terrorist organizations pose a serious threat to the United States.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates would be a good place to start.
failure to define terrorism is producing other serious consequences.
The Bush administration emphasized from day one that the War on
Terrorism was not a war on Islam; however, administration supporters
and others have increasingly defined it in exactly those terms.
Buried in the heart of "The 9/11 Commission Report" [pdf]
is a shocking conclusion. In the chapter entitled, "What to
Do?," the Commission concludes the enemy is not just terrorism,
what it terms "some generic evil," but specifically Islamist
terrorism (report’s emphasis). With the stroke of a pen, the authors
of the 9/11 report appear to have redefined the War on Terrorism,
converting it into a War on Islamist terrorism alone.
days before the 9/11 Commission released its report, the Committee
on Present Danger (CPD), a group founded in the early days of
the Cold War, announced its reactivation. Chaired by Sen. Jon Kyl
of Arizona, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and former CIA
director R. James Woolsey, CPD is a bipartisan group of mainly foreign
policy hawks, including a number of well-known neoconservatives
like Kenneth Adelman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Norman Podhoretz.
describing "The Nature of the Global Threat," CPD explains
on its website that it has been reactivated "because of the
threat posed to America – and democracy everywhere – by
Islamist terror organizations." Their posted Mission Statement
reads in part: "Our mission is to educate the American people
about the threat posed by a global Islamist terror movement; to
counsel against appeasement and accommodation with terrorists."
In a Washington Post op-ed
published on July 20, 2004, the same day as the CPD press conference,
Senators Kyl and Lieberman argued "the world war against Islamic
terrorism is the test of our time."
Islamist extremism for terrorism as the enemy, both the 9/11 Commission
and the Committee on Present Danger appear to play into the hands
of Osama bin Laden. He warned America is not really concerned about
terrorism, but instead, is at war with Islam itself.
vs. Non-Islamist Terrorism
of this makes any sense in the context of the administration’s report
on the Patterns of Global Terrorism. The most recent report lists
76 organizations as either "Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations"
or "Other Terrorist Groups." Of the total, only 36, less
than half, are Islamic in orientation and membership. The remaining
40 groups, 53% of the total, have nothing to do with Islam. Examples
of the latter are the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, Irish Republican
Army, and Peru’s Sendero Luminoso.
important, of the 36 organizations that are Islamic in orientation
and membership, 29 of them – or 80% – are country-specific.
Examples are the Abu Sayyaf Group, Muslim separatists long active
in the Philippines, and the Armed Islamic Group, seeking to establish
a Muslim state in Algeria. At least six of the organizations in
this category are focused on the India-Pakistan struggle for Kashmir,
and another three are Chechen separatist groups. Five of the organizations
are trying to coerce the Israeli government into changing its policies
and vacating Palestinian territories.
short, while most of the 29 country-specific Islamic groups employ
religion in support of their agenda, their goal is to persuade established
governments to make significant political and territorial concessions.
Moreover, while many of these groups sympathize with al-Qaeda, area
specialists agree that almost none of them appear to have command-and-control
ties with the Osama bin Laden organization.
to Define Terrorism
administration’s failure to define terrorism is contributing directly
to the growing confusion about the nature of our enemies in the
War on Terrorism. Struggling to show progress in the war, the White
House has eagerly applied the al-Qaeda label to virtually any Islamic
group threatening terrorist attacks. With little or no proof, regional
terrorist groups invariably have been labeled al-Qaeda supporters
or affiliates. In so doing, the administration has contributed to
the false impression, despite data to the contrary in its own Patterns
of Global Terrorism report, that the sole enemy is a global conspiracy
of Islamist groups. An Islamist definition of terrorism plays well
with conservative elements in the U.S. electorate, especially after
the August 2004 attacks on Christian churches in Iraq; but it is
clearly wrong as the government’s own terrorism report amply demonstrates.
are sliding toward disaster, identifying the wrong enemy and fighting
the wrong war. The Bush administration needs to get America back
on track, defining clearly the threat we face. At the same time,
it needs to reach out to the Muslim community around the world,
emphasizing this is not a war on Islam. Failing to do so, White
House rhetoric stressing the War on Terrorism will last for years,
if not decades, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bruce St. John, an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, has published
widely on Middle Eastern issues. His latest book on the region is
and the United States: Two Centuries of Strife (Penn Press,
2002). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy