The “war on terror” on repeat

September 11, 2014

Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, provides the background for understanding the latest terror threat, in an article written for her blog.

AS WE approach September 11 and mark the anniversary of the attacks in 2001, it seems as if little has changed. We appear to be caught in a time loop where history keeps repeating itself again and again.

If it was al-Qaeda in 2001 that represented the pinnacle of all things evil and animated the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq, today, it's al-Qaeda's evil twin, Islamic State (also known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) that is prompting air strikes in Iraq and increased surveillance in Syria. Once again, the moral outrage over the killing of innocent Americans--this time two journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff--serves to enable the U.S. government to both carry out interventions in the Middle East and justify its domestic counter-terrorism policies.

Virtually absent in the media circus around ISIS is an honest discussion of how the U.S. war on terror, rather than ending the use of violence by Islamist groups, actually fosters fundamentalism.

To be clear, the U.S. did not create ISIS. That is, it did not fund and train ISIS in Syria in the way that it funded and trained the Mujahadeen (from which al-Qaeda emerged) to fight its proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Rather, it is U.S. actions in the Middle East that have created the conditions for the rise of a group like ISIS.

Fox News drums up fear of ISIS inside the U.S.
Fox News drums up fear of ISIS inside the U.S.

Al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was formed in 2004, and was the precursor organization to the current ISIS. It is the U.S.'s reliance on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates to push back against the so-called Shia Crescent (Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria and, for a time, the Sunni Hamas) that prompted rich donors in the Gulf States to channel funds to ISIS in Syria. It is the U.S.'s and various dictatorships' support of counter-revolutionary forces opposed to the Arab Spring of 2011 that allowed reactionary groups to grow while thwarting progressive ones.

In short, it is the U.S. "war on terror" and the part played by various regional actors that fostered the rise of this virulent form of fundamentalism. ISIS represents a nightmare for the U.S. because it threatens to drag the entire region into a sectarian conflict and to destabilize the orderly flow of oil.

BUT ISIS also represents a dream in terms of U.S. propaganda. It serves to bolster the aims of the global "war on terror" and to justify a vastly expanded national security state. Since the Snowden revelations, there has been growing concern among Americans of the gigantic surveillance apparatus of the NSA. There has been a greater skepticism of drone wars. The box office success of Dirty Wars and its Oscar nomination is an indication of a growing war weariness among the American public. It is this war fatigue that scuttled the intervention into Syria that was proposed last year.

What better to marshal collective anger than a horrendous group like ISIS that cold-bloodedly kills Americans, that ruthlessly destroys anyone who disagrees with it, that persecutes religious minorities, and that is the very prototype of the evil terrorist threat? This threat has justified air strikes in Iraq, increased surveillance in Syria and possibly greater escalation and U.S. involvement in both countries over the coming weeks and years. In short, the very thing that causes ire among Jihads (Osama bin Laden was particularly incensed by U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia) and that allows them recruit is what the U.S. proposes to do.

People in the establishment who realize that and who understand that the U.S. can't win a conventional war are proposing instead that the U.S. amp up JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), the shady underground outfit of trained killers that is unaccountable even to Congress. This is the very organization that is the subject of extensive critique in Scahill's book and film Dirty Wars.

Also, what better to justify the ten-fold increase in the number of people on the no-fly list in the Obama era than the threat of the "homegrown terrorist" like Douglas McCain of Minnesota, who it is believed traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS? U.S. officials have emphasized again and again that about 100 Americans are part of ISIS and therefore represent a grave threat to the homeland. This bolsters domestic counter-terrorism strategies, from arbitrary arrests, to deportation, mass surveillance and entrapment.

I did an interview with KPFA's nationally syndicated radio program Letters and Politics about ISIS, terrorism and the media. Some of the themes I discuss in the interview are dealt with in more depth in a talk that can be seen on YouTube, titled "Manufacturing the Terrorist Threat." In this talk, I lay out how the terrorist threat was constructed in the U.S. in the 1970s, and how this threat was racialized in the 1980s and 1990s in the political sphere, as well in the news and by Hollywood. Finally, I discuss the banalization of the terrorist threat in the 2000s and the Obama era.

Back in 2001, some commentators suggested that the attacks on the twin towers be treated as a criminal act. In other words, they stated that Osama bin Laden and others in al-Qaeda who were responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Americans should have been tried in the World Court and brought to justice. Yet this is not the course of action that the U.S. government pursued. Instead, it launched a global "war on terror" that would go on indefinitely. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, passed by Congress three days after 9/11, established the "war on terror" as an open-ended, perpetual, global war.

The reason for this is strategic. In a nutshell, it provided the Bush administration and the neoconservatives with the "Pearl Harbor" moment--an idea they had articulated in a report the previous year--that would enable them to realize their vision of a new Middle East. It was about advancing empire.

But what allowed the "war on terror" brand to succeed was the decades of work in the political, news media and cultural spheres that had primed the American public to accept war as the appropriate response to 9/11.

First published at

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