Global terror survey sees surging attacks —again

The US State Department on June 19 released its "Country Reports on Terrorism 2014," finding that the number of terrorist attacks around the world rose by a third in 2014 compared with the previous year. The number of people killed in such attacks rose by 80%, to nearly 33,000. The sharp increase was largely due to the "unprecedented" seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria by ISIS, and the growith of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Terrorist groups used more aggressive tactics in 2014 than in previous years, such as beheadings and crucifixions. ISIS attacks on religious minorities like Christians and Yazidis are cited. Islamic State was particularly lethal. The reports says the June 2014 massacre at a prison in Mosul, Iraq, in which ISIS killed 670 Shi'ite prisoners "was the deadliest attack worldwide since September 11, 2001." The report notes the "central al-Qaeda leadership" has been weakened, but the network's regional affiliates have gained ground in places like Yemen and the Horn of Africa. (BBC News, Reuters, State Department, June 19)

The report, formerly called "Patterns of Global Terrorism," has been produced by the State Department every year since 2000, although it is now augmented by several such efforts from the private sector. Findings for 2013 similarly showed a significant increase in attacks over the previous year.

What is 'terrorism'? State Department begs the question...

In its annual reports on global terrorism, the State Department defines "terrorism" as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." Not a bad definition, but as we've (often) argued before, the term is inherently politicized, and almost never applied objectively. State's definition of a "terrorist group" is a textbook case in question-begging: "any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism." This wouldn't be so bad if the definition of terrorism were applied without double standards. But it isn't. Twenty years ago, when the Serbs were doing to the Bosnian Muslims what ISIS is today doing to the Yazidis, nobody called it terrorism. It was called "ethnic cleansing." And (as Chomsky never tires of pointing out) during that same period, Turkish attacks on Kurdish populations or Colombian state attacks on peasant populations were simply considered counter-insurgency or even (perversely) counter-terrorism.

In reality, "terrorism" is treated as attacks carried out by "terrorist groups," in question-begging manner. To an extent, this actually reflects denialism about the seriousness of the problem. Al-Qaeda was a classic "terrorist" network—acting in clandestinity, organized into cells, attacking civilian targets without warning. Its offspring ISIS is something altogether more frightening—it aspires to be a "state" (maybe it really is one), it controls territory, and it is waging war. Not even guerilla war, but conventional war. We argue that the attacks on Christians and Yazidis should properly be considered not "terrorism" but sectarian war. Which is worse than terrorism: it takes the violence to a whole new level.

Which is why we are ambivalent about the insistence by many progressives that the Charleston massacre be called "terrorism." CNN's "national security analyst" Peter Bergen is calling for the label to be used. And official refusal to apply the word certainly exposes the hypocrisy of its application. FBI director James Comey stated (less than grammatically): "Terrorism is act of violence done or threatens to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry so it's more of a political act and again based on what I know so more I don't see it as a political act." (ABC)

The notion that the Charleston massacre was not a "political act" is an absurdity of denialism. We should be clear that it was (in the State Department's own words) "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets." This is made clear enough by the shooter's white supremacist regalia and verbiage. However, demanding that it be called terrorism contributes to the politicization of the word. It smacks a little of exploiting the attack to score Chomskyesque propaganda points against Big Daddy imperialism. We warn against contributing to the objectification of victims, which is the logic of criminal attacks on civilians.

The Charleston attack was (by any definition) a racist massacre. And that's quite bad enough.

State Department question-begging on terrrorism: more evidence

A case in point: The ISIS massacre of over 600 Shi'ite prisoners in Mosul after they took the city a year ago is cited as "the deadliest attack worldwide" since 9-11. But note is not made of the massacre of Sunni prisoners by the Shi'ite militias fighting ISIS in Iraq—presumably because these Shi'ites militias, allied with the Baghdad government, are not considered "terrorists." Human rights groups say over 250 Sunni prisoners have thus far been killed in such massacres...

Right-wing versus jihadist terrorism: big dif

The above-cited Peter Bergen is touting a study he helped prepare for the New America Foundation finding that since 9-11 there have been 26 deaths in the United States that are attributable to "jihadist terrorists," compared to "48 attributable to people with extreme right-wing, racist or anti-government views." NPR's headline is typical: "Right-Wing Extremists More Dangerous Than Islamic Terrorists In US." We understand the need for some corrective perspective here. We've noted that jihadist terrorism is treated as a unique evil and existential threat by US officialdom and (mainstream) media, while Christian terrorism and right-wing terrorism are downplayed if not outright legitimized as a defense of freedom against the evils of Big Government. 

On the other hand... There are strands of ideology that tie jihadism and the radical right together, as much as rednecks may hate Muslims and jihadists hate Christians. For one thing, their mutual hatred of the Jews is a heatwarming point of unity. Note the deadly 2006 attack on the Seattle Jewish Federation—apparently carried out by a Muslim militant. Compare last year's deadly attack on the Overland Park Jewish Community Center outside Kansas City—apparently carried out by a neo-Nazi. Otherwise, the attacks are nearly identical. And note that there have been actual moves towards a formal alliance between jihadis and neo-Nazis.

Yeah, there is a very big chunk of the redneck and Christian right in the US that is pro-Zionist in its assumptions. But the more radical elements are anti-Semitic, and they are growing. Nor are pro-Zionist and anti-Semitic necessarily mutually exclusive. The manifesto of Oslo bomber Anders Behring Breivik, as we pointed out, displayed both enthusiasm for Zionism (for standing up to the Muslim menace) and anti-Semitism (those Jews are polluting Europe with their multi-cultural values). To cite but one example.

Again, we warn against mirroring what we oppose in using the label "terrorism" as a political football in point-scoring manner...