It is Essential to Talk to the ‘Terrorists’

Alastair Crooke

The Guardian, December 10, 2004

The rhetoric that we in the west are engaged in “a war on terrorism” is so embedded in our thinking that most accept the phrase without question. So people in America and Britain recoil when it is suggested that they are not facing “terrorism” in the Middle East, but something quite different: a sophisticated, asymmetrical, broad-based and irregular insurgency.

Acts that we rightly label as “terrorism” do occur (and we certainly need to protect ourselves from them), but what the west is facing is a growing political insurgency. Terrorist acts are but a small tool to gain the psychological upper hand in a broader political struggle. Insistence on the terrorism label carries a high price. It has prompted the west to make the wrong assessment of what challenges we face in Muslim societies, and led us to deploy the wrong means to combat it.

One piece of evidence often cited by “terrorism experts” for the war on terror is the existence of “terrorist training camps” in Afghanistan, Yemen and the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. But these were not terrorist training facilities at all.

I knew these camps. For 20 years they produced guerrillas, in the tens of thousands, trained in irregular warfare techniques, in modules that allowed men with different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds to mesh as a single fighting unit. They were trained to fight an insurgency against western forces and against pro-western regimes in the region. We call these fighters terrorists, but this is not the way they see themselves.

By failing to call an insurgency an insurgency, we have clung to a misreading of the situation that represents all violence by Muslims as criminal and people who use violence as marginalised within their own societies. Most Muslims, it is assumed, want to emulate us and, given the opportunity, would emigrate to the west.

A small proportion of Islamists, the extreme jihadists, are marginal, and have alienated many Muslims by their capricious use of violence. But for both, this is a struggle to restore the standing of Muslim societies; to assert Muslim identity and autonomy from western imposition, and to find the transition to modernity of their economies and society on Muslim terms – not on western secular ones.

The west uses the pejorative tag “terrorist” to close off critical thought. Terrorists are like a cancer, the argument goes: you don’t over-analyse your disease, you just kill it. This “terrorist” label is key to the mindset that projects the mistaken view that “they hate our values”. The threat, we are told, is existential – “they want to destroy us”. Therefore our only response can be to destroy them. Anyone who disagrees is either naive, an enemy, or guilty of legitimising the use of violence.

This is wrong. We do diverge on a few values, but the overwhelming bulk of Islamists and Muslims support elections, good governance and freedom (more so than in some European states, the polls show).

I have witnessed many insurgencies. The Afghan mujahideen understood warfare very well. They knew their victory was not about body counts. They understood that their task was to gain that psychological advantage and to keep it. They understood the need, day by day, that more and more people should be convinced that your current would ultimately prevail – not only in military terms, but by winning the struggle for legitimacy.

Never have I seen insurgencies defeated by bombing. Traditional military thinking categorises these actions as “wearing down the enemy”. Generally, it just made ordinary people mad. I recall what is described as the “Jenin paradox”. The Israeli military justified an incursion into Jenin in the West Bank on the grounds that there had been 10 terrorists in the city and after the military action there were only four. The threat was reduced. Six had been killed. But to others, and to Jenin’s inhabitants, there was a different perception. There had been 10 resistance fighters, the Israeli military had killed six – and now there were 24. The question is: was the use of superior military force a tool for subtraction or multiplication?

This is why Conflicts Forum is calling for a new engagement with Islam. We need to recognise the “other” and acknowledge that Muslim values do not pose a threat to the strategic values of western society. Muslims do not hate our values. They hate our policies. We need dialogue at all levels. And we need to demonstrate in practical terms that there is an alternative approach beyond laying waste to large segments of the region’s landscape. We believe it is possible to find common ground on the basis of respect for difference and a toleration of others.

This article first appeared in The Guardian.

Leave a Reply